The 2010 Hyundai Tucson isn’t just new, it’s really new...looking, at least.

The exterior design, described by Hyundai’s thesaurus-smart copywriters as “fluidic sculpture”, is easily the most striking in a segment that includes such avant garde classics as the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape. Sharp creases head off in any number of directions while a puckered face gives it the overall appearance of a blowfish, but in the best way.

It’s such a departure from the retiring model that it is as if Hyundai skipped two or three generations to arrive at the new car. After the outstanding year it had in 2009, the Korean automaker doesn’t really need any more people in its showrooms, but the new Tuc Tuc is sure to get them there.

Inside the changes are nearly as dramatic. A collection of sharply-cut, silver-tinged pods replacing what was a patently plain interior. It’s still nearly all hard plastic, but with charming visual elements like an instrument cluster that looks as if it came straight from the Genesis Coupe and large triangular pods on the doors for the speakers, you won’t even notice.

Under it all, the Tucson rides on a marginally larger, but significantly upgraded platform. Most of the changes were focused on lowering weight, increasing rigidity, and lessening road noise. All three goals were achieved, but on the sound-deadening front that only means it’s now on par with its competitors, and not especially quiet at highway speeds.

Getting the Tucson there is a new 176 hp 2.4-liter four-cylinder (170 if your state uses California’s emissions rulebook) which replaces both the old base engine and the V6 option, which is no longer available since the new unit makes essentially the same power while helping to bump fuel economy from 24 mpg highway to 31 mpg in front-wheel drive models. Also contributing to that figure is a six-speed automatic transmission that Hyundai is particularly proud of because they claim to be one of only three automakers to build such a thing themselves. A manual with the same number of gears is standard.

With an aggressive throttle, the Tucson feels lively around town, but merging onto highways calls for foot to the floor acceleration, the engine racing for redline seemingly faster than the rest of the car can keep up. It is a smooth runner, however, and as quick as anything in this relatively pokey class.

Taking advantage of the stiffer chassis, Hyundai firmed up the suspension to improve handling. On a run up and down some decidedly twisty mountain roads it fared well, but the tradeoff is a slightly stiff and springy ride that doesn’t exhibit a lot of finesse. Same goes for the electrically-assisted power steering which is responsive, but a little too assertive at tugging the wheel back to center.

On dry pavement there’s not much to differentiate front and all-wheel-drive versions, mostly because the AWD system routes power to the front wheels until they start to slip. A button on the dashboard does allow you to lock it so the power is distributed 50/50, but only at low speeds. The one next to it is more interesting.

A unique standard item on the Tucson – even the $18,995 base model – is a hill-hold feature that also provides downhill brake control. Take your foot off of the gas on a steep enough decline and the anti-lock brakes will keep the car rolling along at about 8 mph. This is good for the type of off-roading you probably won’t try in a Tucson, but also helpful in parking garages when you have an itchy foot (legal disclaimer: removing shoe to scratch foot while the vehicle is in motion is not recommended.)

Hyundai also sets you up with a free iPod and USB inputs, as well as an XM-ready satellite radio with six-speakers. Bluetooth, backup camera, navigation, upgraded audio and a panoramic sunroof are available, but with just two trim levels and a limited number of option packages you often have to order one to get another, and they’re not all cheap. The $2,000 bundle of navigation and a 360-watt Infinity audio system, for instance, requires you to also choose a $1,700 popular equipment package. Still, overall prices undercut most of the Tucson’s rivals, and since we’re all getting very used to having better electronics in our cars than our cubicles, the bottom line won’t scare buyers who are so inclined.

All told, you’ll drop about $29G on a maxed-out Tucson Limited, and that includes five years of roadside assistance, not to mention the company’s famous 10-year/100,000 warranty. It will probably take that long before the car is out of fashion. Then again, I probably thought that when the first one launched six years ago.

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2010 Hyundai Tucson

Base Price: $18,995

Type: Front-engine, front- or all-wheel-drive 5-door, 5-passenger crossover

Engine: 2.4L inline-4

Power: 176 hp, 168 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual or automatic

MPG (max): FWD 23 city,31 hwy / AWD 21 city, 28 hwy