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2005 Hyundai Tucson

When you share a border with a saber-rattling big mouth who hates your guts, you tend to adopt a no-sudden-moves policy. So it is with hypercautious Hyundai. Into its showroom full of creditable but thoroughly unimaginative vehicles comes the new Tucson, the South Korean automaker's belated rival to the Toyota RAV4, the Honda CR-V, and the Ford Escape. The Tucson breaks no new ground in terms of styling, engineering, or packaging but, like all Hyundais, finds favor with its generous warranty, high content, and decent quality.

Based on the compact Elantra, the Tucson is nonetheless only slightly smaller than Hyundai's Santa Fe, which was derived from the mid-size Sonata. The company tells us that the next Santa Fe, which is more than a year away, will be bigger and beefier, la the Kia Sorento.

The availability of a V-6 in the cute-ute segment sounds noteworthy, but, despite its 173 horsepower and 178 pound-feet of torque, the Tucson's noisy 2.7-liter DOHC V-6 is anything but. The base engine is the Elantra's 140-horsepower, 2.0-liter DOHC four, matched to a five-speed manual or the unlovable four-speed autobox that's teamed with the V-6. Front-wheel drive is standard, but a worthwhile option is the Torque-On-Demand four-wheel-drive system, which can vary the power split from 99/1 percent front/rear to 50/50 when slippage is detected and which even features a 4wd lock mode for sand, snow, and off-pavement adventures.

Ride quality and body control are noteworthy only in relation to other Hyundais. The Tucson is certainly more willing to change direction than the Jell-O-legged Santa Fe, but it still feels a bit ponderous for such tidy dimensions, lacking the playful demeanor of its Japanese rivals.

Inside, the picture is brighter. The passenger compartment features quality plastics, generally fine ergonomics, and loads of available goodies, including heated leather seats, a power sunroof, and a fine audio system. Front, side, and side curtain air bags are standard, and stability control will be offered later in the year.

Cargo capacity is less than the Santa Fe's, but the Tucson's rear seats fold completely flat, as does the front-passenger seatback. The load floor is easy-to-clean plastic, and the hinged rear window makes loading smaller items easier.

But the Tucson's most inspiring quality is stuck on the window: a sub-$17,000 price for the front-wheel-drive four-cylinder model, with a four-wheel-drive V-6 version cresting the $22,000 mark. For some buyers, that will be innovation enough.