íSon of a Gun

MAZDA CX-5 GRAND TOURING V HYUNDAI TUCSON HIGHLANDER

WORDS NATHAN PONCHARD PHOTOS NATHAN DUFF

Hyundai has resurrected the Tucson nameplate for its new mid-size SUV, and in doing so, has lobbed a serious contender into a segment full of good sports

MAZDA CX-5 GRAND TOURING V HYUNDAI TUCSON HIGHLANDER

V FORD KUGA TITANIUM ECOBOOST V SUBARU FORESTER XT PREMIUM

HEREíS plenty of irony in Hyundai choosing to revive the Tucson nameplate for its new-generation mediumsize Ďsoft-roaderí. While the exhumed title is Apple Pie to the core, and Tucsonís interior has a Californian twang courtesy of Hyundaiís Irvine design studio, the remaining collaborators read like a semi-final for Eurovision.

One-time Audi stylist and purveyor of Kiaís recent design savvy, Peter Schreyer, has lent his German aesthetic to the exterior, while Hyundaiís Czech factory handles the nuts and bolts (unless youíre buying an Active X variant, in which case your Tucson still hails from South Korea). But Australia lent a hand as well. Recognising that fun-to-drive DNA should be part of Hyundaiís brand character, this distinctive new locally tuned SUV delivers the dynamic entertainment to bolster its sharp-looking new suit.

But lifeís tough at the pointy end of Australiaís favourite SUV class. Earlier this year, Ford gifted its great-handling, sweet-steering Kuga with the Mondeoís gutsy 178kW 2.0-litre Ecoboost turbo-petrol, addressing arguably its main weakness in the process, while Mazdaís likeable CX-5 had a magic wand waved over it, enhancing its appearance, tactility and all-round ability.

Subaru, too, has been on its game, introducing fresh multimedia and a bunch of aesthetic improvements to embellish its class-leading Forester. Clearly, the Tucson has a fight on its hands.

Given Hyundaiís Ďdriverís carí claims, we headed straight for the petrolhead variants. Tucsonís sporting polish gleams brightest in range-topping Highlander T AWD spec, packing a detuned version of the Veloster coupeís 1.6-litre direct-injection turbo four, tied to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. Hyundai asks $43,490 for the privilege, placing the top Tucson eye-to-eye with the Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring ($43,390), Ford Kuga Titanium ($44,990) and Subaru Forester XT Premium ($47,990).

Unlike its overstyled and dated ix35 predecessor, the Tucson has real presence in the flesh. Its broad, masculine grille, aggressively angled headlights and handsomely proportioned shape look very European, especially when garnished with the Highlanderís 19-inch alloys. The Tucsonís rear is less striking, but its distinctive horizontal tail-lights and bumper-mounted rego plate keep the Euro flavour alive, to the point where youíd never know it was a Hyundai if you covered the ĎHí logos.

In comparison, Mazdaís freshened CX-5 looks proudly Japanese. No matter where you look, its newfor- 2015 details Ė grille, lights and wheels, as well as a much prettier dashboard Ė have enhanced its visuals considerably, in contrast to the dead-ringer appearance of the MY15 Forester. If only Subaru invested some time adding techy sparkle to the boxy Foresterís dated headlights, and less chintz to its dorky grille, people may want to buy it simply for the way it looks.

The Kuga is also a bit of an acquired taste, and looks exactly as it did in 2013. In some ways, thatís a good thing Ė Fordís controversial Ďdustbusterí grille has yet to migrate to the Kugaís snout Ė though even the Titanium variantís LED lights and big 19-inch hoops canít quite

. UNLIKE ITS OVERSTYLED AND DATED ix35 PREDECESSOR, THE TUCSON HAS REAL PRESENCE IN THE FLESH

MAZDA CX-5 v HYUNDAI TUCSON v FORD KUGA v SUBARU FORESTER

Changing shifts

HAVING a faux-manual mode in an SUV might seem like gimmickry, but you canít discount the benefits for engine braking.

And when your SUV has a sports flavour, a bit of manual action is a nice thing to have.

Despite a lack of steering-wheel paddles, the CX-5ís set-up is the most driveroriented.

Its tip-shift gate works in our favoured style Ė forward for a downshift, back for an upshift Ė and it will hold a manually selected gear at redline. It also has an intuitive ĎSportí mode thatís so good at pre-empting your driving mood the tip-shift gate is often unnecessary.

The Forester is the only car here to score flappy paddles, though its eight-ratio stepped CVT never feels or sounds as satisfying as an auto with specific gears.

The Kugaís six-speed auto matches revs on downshifts and mates well with the engineís muscle, but its Sport mode is little different to regular Drive and its tip-shift (on the side of the gearlever) is awkward and infuriatingly rubbish to use.

The Tucson has a traditional +/Ė gate next to Drive, but it works in reverse to the Mazda. It also upshifts at redline and wonít downshift early enough when prodded. Its Sport mode is disguised in a ĎDrive Modeí button near the shift lever that also tweaks steering weight and throttle response, and perks up the dual-clutcherís shift mapping.

BACKED BY A SUPER-RESPONSIVE DRIVETRAIN, WHEN DRIVEN HARD THE CX-5 PROVES AS AGILE AS THE BEST OF THEM

manage to overcome the Kugaís blocky body.

But looks can be deceptive. Beneath the Kugaís creased bonnet resides one of Fordís best engines.

Packing a solid 178kW, backed by 345Nm from 2000- 4500rpm, the 2.0-litre turbo-petrol four is a vast improvement over the underwhelming 1.6 turbo still fitted to the base Ambiente, and its sweetly throaty induction growl is the perfect accompaniment for the Kugaís hot-hatch-like performance.

Slicing more than three seconds from the old carís 0-100km/h time and over two seconds from its standing 400m sprint, the 2.0-litre turbo Titanium is now a genuine match for Subaruís ever-thrusty Forester XT. Indeed, 15.2sec for the traditional quarter-mile is Fiesta ST territory, while around town Kugaís winning 3.4sec 0-60km/h time combines with its fizzy engine note to make it feel even livelier than it is. If only its transmission had a Sport mode that effectively supported its terrific engine.

Still, the spritely Kuga canít quite match the deceptively brisk Forester XT. While 2015ís CVTequipped generation isnít quite as rapid as lighter models of yesteryear, the turbo Forrieís seven-dead to 100km/h isnít hanging about. And it gets there with impressive smoothness, its tacho needle rigid at 5800rpm as it surges ahead with just a faint hint of horizontally opposed character from its 177kW/350Nm 2.0-litre flat-four.

Interestingly, Subaruís steering wheel-mounted ĎSI-Driveí system Ė with Intelligent, Sport and Sport# modes Ė has never worked as well as it does in the Forester XT. Finally, eco-minded Intelligent has enough turbo-boosted torque to work with, backed by Subaruís excellent ĎLineartronicí CVT transmission, to make it a viable option for general driving. Sport perks up throttle response and adds meat to the steering weight, while Sport# introduces eight artificially inserted steps into the ratio set and combines neatly with the XTís wheel-mounted paddles to provide engine braking in corners. But Forester accelerates quicker in regular CVT mode.

Responding to popular demand, Mazda added a Sport mode to its six-speed ĎSkyActiv-Driveí auto on CX-5 petrols for 2015 and itís a beauty. Eager to downshift under brakes, yet willing to hold a gear when the driverís inner Ricciardo intensifies, the CX-5ís Sport mode treads the fine line between keen and crazed with aplomb. And yet its auto does an equally fine job in regular mode, with less of a propensity to grab sixth gear than it once had, and a slightly sweeter edge to its throaty, revvy engine.

Thanks to the strength of the competition, the turbo Tucson has its work cut out, even running an up-to-date drivetrain. Tipping the scales at a solid 1690kg (64kg more than the CX-5) and with only 130kW against the 2.5-litre Mazdaís 138kW, the Hyundai relies on its seven tight ratios, rapid dual-clutch upshifts and the breadth of its torque Ė 265Nm from 1500-4500rpm Ė to marginally outpace the eager Mazda. But in its upper reaches, the Tucsonís engine starts to sound a bit strained, which is at odds with its slick around-town demeanour.

Indeed, much of the time the Tucsonís union of engine and transmission is superb, giving off a genuine impression of German-style refinement, bar the odd hiccup at low speeds. But then, to varying degrees, the Foresterís silken muscle, the Kugaís addictive energy and the Mazdaís effervescent urge are all equally as sweet. In this company, the Hyundai needs to be better than merely good.

Same goes for its dynamics. Hyundai Oz worked hard at achieving both ride and handling excellence

FORD KUGA TITANIUM ECOBOOST v

FORD KUGA TITANIUM ECOBOOST

SOME testers disliked the Kugaís bulky dashboard so much, it would be a deal-breaker, though an update incorporating Fordís new-gen SYNC2 multimedia screen is on the way. Thick pillars with curved bases restrict vision a little, but steering wheel, seats and driving position are beyond reproach. Manual front passenger seat gets crank-handle height adjustment and side bolsters that dial in and out.

60 /40 SPL IT-FOLD SEAT LUGGAGE CAPACI TY L C 406L

KUGA suffers a rather anorexic rearseat cushion and its boot could be bigger, though foot-waving electric tailgate opener is a unique touch

HYUNDAI TUCSON HIGHLANDER v

HYUNDAI TUCSON HIGHLANDER

TUCSONíS cabin is clear but characterless. Needs the two-tone trim option (pictured) to overcome its drab plastics, many of which appear scratch-prone. But its upholstery is good quality and its seat comfort is excellent, front and rear. This groupís largest sunroof combines with an airy cabin to make Tucson feel luxuriously roomy. But its centre touchscreen can be confusing and audio quality is average.

60 /40 SPL IT-FOLD SEAT LUGGAGE CAPACI TY L C 488L

TUCSONíS generous boot somehow fits a 245/45R19 full-size Continental under its floor. Itís remarkably well-packaged for an AWD wagon

MAZDA CX-5 GRAND TOURING v

MAZDA CX-5 GRAND TOURING

FACELIFTED CX-5 cabin has been transformed from slightly disappointing to class best. Mazda kept the good bits Ė classy dials, superb steering wheel, quality switchgear Ė and revamped the centre console, adding its own MZD Connect sat-nav system. No rival can match CX-5ís finish and trim quality, though its seats donít quite achieve true comfort, and its rear section is a little austere, lacking air vents.

LUGGAGE CAPACI TY 40 / 20 / 4 0 SPLIT-FOLD SEA L C 403L

NEATLY trimmed Mazda boot appears larger than its claimed capacity. Seat-fold mechanism is brilliant but its tailgate is manual

SUBARU FORESTER XT PREMIUM

SUBARU FORESTER XT PREMIUM

ITíS unfortunate Subaru doesnít devote as much attention to finessing the finer details like Mazda does Ė cue plasticky power window switches and the budget plastic panel theyíre mounted on Ė but that takes nothing away from Foresterís all-round ability. It might not be the prettiest bauble on the tree, but itís certainly near the top, with brilliant vision, a superb multimedia interface and outstanding audio quality.

60 /40 SPL IT-FOLD SEAT LUGGAGE CAPACI TY L C 422L

FORESTER scores a (slow-acting) electric tailgate and packs a fullsize spare under its stepped floor.

Protector mat, scuff guard optional

with the Tucson and for the most part theyíve succeeded.

With the console-mounted Drive Mode button switched to Sport, which improves the consistency of its steering weighting considerably while perking up the transmissionís shift mapping, the Tucson is unexpected fun to drive. Its chassis has an innate sense of poise, with the ability to interact via its rear-end to adjust its angle of cornering attack. Yet, thanks to the trustworthiness of its connection with the road, and the marvellous grip from its Continental rubber, you can really throw the Tucson around, without ESC trying to hobble your fun.

It has great turn-in, too, and a pleasingly thin-rimmed steering wheel clad in quality leather.

Throw a four-up load and a challenging road at the Tucson, however, and its ability unravels a little. While its impressive ride maintains its suppleness, it lacks the firm rebound control of the Kuga and can feel a touch underdamped at times. It was the only car to kiss its right-front bump stop when pushed hard over one particular mid-corner bump and, while it never forgets how to party, your family may not be so enthused.

Then thereís Tucsonís engine, which tries hard but lacks inspiration, and its transmission, which wonít downshift early enough when calling for engine braking into a corner. And its brakes, which performed a pair of brilliant 34.9m stops from 100km/h at the strip but became quite whiffy during our back-to-back runs.

For medium-SUV handling par excellence, look no further than Fordís delightful Kuga. Blessed with a level of finesse and dynamic nuance that is unmatched by any rival here, the Kuga remains the benchmark. Its involving rear-end feels exquisitely balanced when you trail-brake into a corner, settling onto its outside rear tyre like the Tucson (and the CX-5 and Forester, for that matter) but with better damping control and greater overall polish. Then thereís the Kugaís steering, which only needs one setting to deliver outstanding feedback, making it incredibly easy to place in a corner. In comparison, Tucsonís Comfort mode is all a bit light and fluffy, if still with a most un-Korean level of precision.

Compared to its former bosom buddy, Mazdaís CX-5 takes a bit of warming up before it really starts to boogie. Thereís an aloofness to the CX-5, as if it goes where itís pointed but isnít particularly encouraging until you really begin to hustle it. When you do, though, the Mazda demonstrates the depth of its talents.

Backed by a super-responsive drivetrain, if you set up the CX-5 by rolling some weight onto its back end, sheís as agile as the best of them, with a surprising amount of oversteer allowed by the ESC before it nibbles at the edges. The CX-5ís retuned electric steering is a lot more consistent in its weighting than it used to be, and while its 225/55R19 Toyos grip pretty well, though they produce a lot more tyre squeal than the excellent Continentals worn by the Hyundai and Ford.

With the Forester, tyres and steering are its kryptonite. To please the snow and dirt set, Subaru fits the XT with all-terrain 225/55R18 Bridgestone Duelers and they ultimately arenít up to its performance. As a result, its stability control can be quite intrusive when youíre driving enthusiastically, but the XT is only the press of an ESC button away from being really quick.

ITS SWEETLY THROATY INDUCTION GROWL IS THE PERFECT ACCOMPANIMENT FOR THE KUGAíS HOT-HATCH-LIKE PERFORMANCE

HYUNDAI TUCSON v SUBARU FORESTER v MAZDA CX-5 v FORD KUGA

Equipment levels

PAYING $43.5K for the Tucson Highlander buys lots of stuff.

It gets a full suite of safety electronics (AEB, lane-keeping and lane-change assist, blindspot monitoring, rear crosstraffic alert, trailer stability assist and active cruise), as well as leather trim, heated/cooled well front seats (10-way electric for driver, 8-way for passenger), keyless entry/start, a huge glass sunroof, and LED lights at both ends (directional at the front).

About the only areas the $4500-dearer Forester XT Premium upstages the Tucson are its wheel paddles and its far superior eight-speaker Harman Kardon stereo. Otherwise, it wears smaller wheels and has a rear camera but no sensors.

The $45K Kuga Titanium gets active park assist and a handsfree power tailgate, but no electric front passenger seat or autonomous electronic safety tech (itís a $1600 extra, including tyre pressure monitors).

The CX-5 GT saves $100 over the Tucson, but asks more for auto-brake tech and blind-spot monitoring, and doesnít offer forward collision warning, lanedeparture assistance or LED headlights. Small sunroof, too.

That and a better set of tyres.

The more deftly you drive the Forester, and the greater your commitment, the stronger its ability. It has tremendous drive out of corners and, while it rolls a fair bit, itís a hoot to play around with. Pity you drive on what its chassis says, though, and not its steering.

Even in weightier Sport or Sport# mode, the Foresterís tiller lacks the crispness of its rivals, Tucson included.

But when the going gets tough, boy does it ride.

Over our punishing four-up section, the Forester made a mockery of all surfaces, blotting bumps while remaining level and smooth, backed by decent refinement, as well as nuanced and keen handling. Add outstanding vision and a great drivetrain and the whole exercise seemed like a walk in the park.

For body control and all-round confidence, the Kuga shines, though it doesnít gift its passengers with the same level of suppleness the Forester does. Itís the Hyundai that comes closest to matching the Subaruís comfort, and in low-speed situations on better roads, itís actually the better of the two. But it transmits more road noise than the Ford on the same tyres.

The firmer Mazda also has better body control than the Hyundai, but unlike the Euro Ford, it canít match the supple nuance of the Koreanís Aussie-tuned chassis.

The CX-5 can feel a bit stiff-legged over sharp bumps and, in contrast to the Tucson and Kuga, fails to give the impression of a completely happy union between its pretty 19s and its suspension tune. Seated up front, its Toyos are quieter than the Tucsonís Contis, but nothing can out-hush the Forester.

Thereís one final ace up the Hyundaiís sleeve that no one expected. While itís the shortest car here, it has the most rear seat room and easily the most comfortable rear bench, trimmed in lovely soft leather (with perforated centres) in Highlander spec. Hell, the plush front pair get heaters and coolers, not to mention full power adjustment, outshining the undoubted excellence of the Kugaís front chairs. About the only thing we donít like in the Tucsonís airy cabin is the layer upon layer of drab plastics, and the conservatism of its design. Itís a bit, shall we say, American.

For cabin quality, nothing can touch the updated CX-5. Best plastics, best switchgear, best trim and best overall cabin appearance go a long way to compensating for its less-than-perfect rear seat environment Ė average vision, no rear air vents Ė and seats that you sit on, rather than in. Yet its quality extends all the way to its tailgate, with an inbuilt luggage cover and one-touch rear-seat folding.

The Subey doesnít have the greatest seats in the world, either, particularly for lateral support, but on a long trip its comfort, and the incredibly airy feel of its low window line and deep windscreen, are a blessing.

We also love the Foresterís new multimedia set-up, and its Harman Kardon stereo is a bass-cranking beauty.

Yet thereís something deeply compelling about the XT Premiumís pragmatism. And beneath its practical sense is a fast, refined, roomy, entertaining SUV with enough runs on the board to guarantee near-faultless operation and strong resale, despite its $48K ask. Weíd fit better tyres, but the Forester is an SUV that will keep on giving if you donít mind the look.

The Tucson may not have the Subaruís badge cred, or its ultimate composure, but for 98 percent of the time this handsome slice of German-inspired SUV is about as far from its American naming roots as possible. Itís nicely built, cleverly packaged, comfortable, practical, and fun to drive, with the polish its ix35 predecessor lacked. But is it better than the CX-5 and Kuga?

As an all-rounder, yes. The Kuga is a great driverís SUV, albeit a relatively thirsty one, and pampers its front-seat occupants. But it lacks the thoroughness of the Tucsonís packaging, even though the Ford makes up for a lot with its superb steering and throaty engine.

Its Hiroshima rival is more stylish, more tactile and much more efficient, yet the CX-5 doesnít quite reach the level of comfort, practicality and driving enjoyment of the Subaru and Hyundai either. Yes, it can be an engaging drive, and itís definitely a better car than it was last year, but in a fight as tight as this, its few flaws push it down the podium.

So, Hyundai goes from nowhere to a near-match with the Forester. The Koreans might have taken a while to see what it takes to make a really good car, but in AWD 1.6T Highlander guise, the Tucson certainly has it.

THE MORE DEFTLY YOU DRIVE THE FORESTER, AND THE GREATER YOUR COMMITMENT, THE STRONGER ITS ABILITY