Hyundai has a solid plan for its SUVs – and it’s one that flies in the opposite direction to what you might think. They’re going bigger.

At a time when the subcompact SUV category the Tucson used to flirt with is burgeoning with new models, the Tucson has moved even further away from it.

For now, the Tucson remains the smallest of Hyundai’s trucks, exactly 215 mm shorter than the Santa Fe, which is also 215 mm shorter than its next-largest cousin, the Santa Fe XL. This symmetrical sizing means the Tucson and Santa Fe neatly bookend the compact SUV segment – the Tucson on the smaller side of a pack that includes the RAV4, CR-V, Rogue and CX-5, the Santa Fe the larger.

This symmetrical sizing means the Tucson and Santa Fe neatly bookend the compact SUV segment.

That, Hyundai hints, could make way for a fourth SUV to occupy that subcompact space – perhaps one based on the IX25 available overseas. Th IX25 is 205 mm shorter than the 4,475 mm long Tucson, and on par with the 4,274 mm Mazda CX-3 or the 4,295 mm Mitsubishi RVR – but I digress.

Not only has Hyundai moved the Tucson to a slightly larger size bracket but they have moved to position the Tucson as a premium option in the segment. More features, a redesigned interior with better materials and exterior features like standard fog lights and LED running lights are intended to elevate the Tucson’s place in the market.

The base model manual front-driver is gone from the lineup, transmission options now solely automatic, a six-speed auto or the seven-speed DCT.

The six-speed conventional auto is mated to the 2.0L carryover engine that is available in FWD and AWD trims, while a new 1.6L turbo four will be paired with Hyundai’s great little seven-speed DCT. The 1.6T has seen duty in the Veloster, but while the Veloster uses a twin-scroll turbo tuned for power, this is a single scroll tuned for the added torque an SUV needs.

The base 2.0L is good for 164 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque, the 1.6T a more potent 175 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque – 100 percent of which is available between 1,500 and 4,500 rpm.

Neither engine wants for power and we were comfortable overtaking even in the 2.0L. With the Drive Mode set to Sport, the 2.0L hustles the 1,634 kg (1,560 in FWD trim) up to highway speeds and beyond with adequate urgency. The 1,683 kg 1.6T feels substantially stronger in the low and mid-range, though it’s worth noting that keeping the 2.0L feels almost as convincing high up in the rev range.

The nuclear hydrogen option: Test Drive: 2016 Hyundai Tucson FCEV

The DCT is a slick-shifting unit with a little harshness under duress but otherwise perfectly acceptable smoothness. It feels well-matched to the engine and the lack of paddle shifters was never an issue in the twisties – the DCT keeps the right gear the vast majority of the time. The only time I felt a desire to shift manually was on a long, off-throttle downhill stretch, where the DCT held a high gear in preparedness for me to accelerate again. The system keeps a rolling 5-km record of your driving habits, so once I’d manually upshifted once on a downhill section, the Tucson kept the lower, more calm gear on the next one.

The 1.6T is lively and, matched to the DCT, encourages spirited driving – this is more than just a grocery getter, it’s a properly fun car to drive.

We were introduced to the Tucson on the winding roads of Vancouver Island, and I was skeptical at first. The Tuscon was a good, honest little runabout when I tested it in 2014, but it would have been wasted on these roads.

The new edition is different. The steering felt well-weighted with Sport mode and the Tucson feels sharp in corners. Having said that, steering feel is still mute. You’ll hear the tires giving up grip before you feel it and you’ll feel the chassis respond to commands with your backside more than your hands. And yet the Tucson is fun to drive, proving satisfying even in the twistiest of roads in a way the previous generation never did.

The now-standard “torque vectoring” system on AWD models allows torque to be redistributed along the rear axle to the wheel that has best traction, and will brake the inside rear wheel to mitigate understeer. The system feels obvious without feeling obtrusive when it kicks in, and was downright enjoyable when we got comfortable with the system enough to play around.

And the handling improvements have not come at the expense of ride comfort. Even deep potholes were soaked up with a minimum of fuss or suspension noise. The car is balanced and smooth even on rough pavement. We took the Tucson off-script, darting down a gravel side road to test the hill-descent control, four-wheel-drive lock and slip-and-grip AWD system. Stopping dead on a steep gravel hill, the Tucson got going with only the flashing traction control light giving any indication of drama underneath. Putting the four-wheel-drive lock on (it is available up to 30 km/h) and trying the same trick gave an even smoother launch, this time with no TC light flickering.

Hill-descent mode is locked to 6 km/h, which felt a little fast for the first part of the hill and too slow for the bottom part, but still arrested the car’s speed as we trickled down the slope. While we don’t expect the Tucson to be any sort of off-road weapon – in fact Hyundai didn’t even mention the off-road features in their presentation - it does seem capable enough to tackle the odd soft-road excursion.

I was most impressed with the Tucson’s composure over the rutted gravel track; the lack of suspension noise, bump steer or body-jarring even over deeper potholes was notable. Part of this change is not only an improvement in structural materials, but a beefier suspension setup that now includes double-member mounts instead of smaller single-unit mounts.

Hyundai’s multi-decade transition from sub-par economy brand to a quality manufacturer has reached another level in the past 12 months and they are making much of their fourth-placed position in the JD Power 2015 US Initial Quality Study. Ahead of them are Jaguar, sister-brand Kia in second and Porsche in first.

It’s a feather in the cap for the brand that bought us the Pony and the Tucson has an injection of high-strength adhesives and high-strength steel to improve noise, vibration and harshness as well as chassis rigidity and fit and finish. The doors feel solid, the car feels substantial underneath you on any road surface – even offroad.

The joins at the base of the A-pillars have been reworked for strength and rigidity, and more insulation and dampening has been placed around the car to improve the cabin environment. Unsurprisingly, all these changes mean the Tucson is heavier than its predecessor, despite the use of better-quality material in its construction.

The coefficient of drag is down 0.2 points to 0.33 thanks to some aerodynamic tweaks that add visual impact while also reducing wind noise – this Tucson is a lot more quiet than its predecessor and Hyundai claims that its cabin is quieter than the CR-V, RAV4 and Escape. To achieve this Hyundai has added several new covers and insulation panels in and around the engine and transmission as well as altered the wheel well inners.

Those aerodynamic improvements result in a 0.3 L/100 km improvement in fuel economy with the 2.0L engine, now down to 9.0 combined. Complete ratings are 10.1/7.6/9.0 city/highway/combined for the 2.0L FWD, 11.0/9.0/10.1 for the 2.0L AWD and 9.9/8.4/9.2 L/100 km for the 1.6T.

Inside, the interior feels more premium both in terms of material and design. The newest design language for the centre-stack and infotainment system is more similar to Kia’s than it used to be, and that’s a good thing.

But while the instrument cluster, infotainment system and switchgear are all improved, the rear seats are church-pew firm and hard plastics litter the cabin area.

The rear passengers do get their own air vents and reading lights, with every one of the eight interior lights operated by its very own switch – even the lights behind the sun visors. I could sit comfortably behind myself in the rear seat with no issues of headroom or legroom, and the rear seats recline at a steep angle if you do need to open up some space.

The driver will appreciate easy-to-read gauges and on upper trims, the trick 4.2-inch TFT information screen embedded in the instrument cluster. It can show trip, audio, navigation and set up options all controlled with steering-wheel buttons.

Over in the centre stack, Hyundai’s touchscreen and redundant-button combination is a good one. All of the major functions are accessed via their own hard button, and the touchscreen functions are large and well-spaced to make them easier to use. The large, prominent “mute” button for the navigation guidance is a particularly welcome touch.

Here, like in so many other cars, the nanny-state restrictions intrude obnoxiously. You can’t pair your phone (or your passenger’s phone) unless the car is in park – not stopped, not in neutral: in park. And the passenger can’t even enter navigation commands; they have to be done with the voice guidance unless the car is stopped. When the car is stopped, the navigation is great to use with house number, city and street all on one screen. You can enter them in any order and the keyboard is easy to use with large buttons.

The tuning knob to rapidly flick through stations is a bit of a reach for shorties like me but there are steering wheel controls for those of you who tune by preset more than channel.

Hyundai claims an 877L cargo capacity with a maximum possible of 3,771 L if you fold the seats down. That math seems off to me given that the entire passenger compartment is only 2,894 L. Eyebrow-raising cargo claims aside the cargo area is substantial, and an adjustable false-floor opens up an additional 5.1 cm of depth if you need it. Under that false floor resides a full-size spare tire.

The base 2.0L Tucson is now $400 more at $24,399 but adds rear-view camera, drive mode select, fog lamps, rear-seat air vents and LED running lamps.

The second tier 2.0L Premium FWD starts at $26,999 and adds 17-inch alloys, roof-rack rails, front and rear heated seats, blind-spot detection, lane-change assist, rear cross-traffic alert as well as a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. AWD is $2,000 more.

Luxury 2.0L trim starts at $33,099 and is AWD only. It also adds power driver’s seat with lumbar support, leather seats, proximity key with push-button start, panoramic sunroof, proximity liftgate, dual-automatic climate control, heated steering wheel, navigation and a premium 10-speaker audio system.

The 1.6T engine can be had on the $31,549 1.6T Premium AWD model, which also adds the seven-speed DCT, 19-inch wheels, skid plates, chrome-tipped dual exhaust, SACHS high-performance damper, dual-automatic climate control and a heated steering wheel.

Another $5,100 gets you the $36,649 1.6T Limited with the same features as the 1.6T premium as well as leather seats, proximity liftgate, power passenger seat, premium eight-speaker audio, parking assist, proximity key with push-button start, 4.2-inch TFT screen in the instrument cluster, panoramic sunroof, LED map light, LED taillights and headlights, illuminated door handle welcome lights, navigation and a sharkfin antenna.

And the fully loaded, $39,599 1.6T Ultimate also adds autonomous emergency braking, lane-departure warning, ventilated front seats, premium instrument panel and driver’s knee bolster and chrome grille and exterior door handles.

There are six new colours, including a striking blue and red, and three interior colours: grey, beige or black.

Hyundai expects that 85 percent will be sold as AWD models, and 40/60 between the 2.0L and 1.6T engines.

Hyundai is staking a claim for a larger piece of the compact SUV segment, in which they currently occupy the third position behind Jeep and Ford. Tucson represents 11 percent of Hyundai’s total sales, and Santa Fe 20 percent. For comparison, Elantra and Elantra GT make up 33 percent, and Accent 15. With the larger Tucson, Hyundai hopes to attract more buyers from CR-V and RAV4, while also reinforcing the brand’s evolving reputation as a quality player.

It’s a gamble, but the Tucson has delivered on the quality front with a well-executed, enjoyable and convincingly good car. Time will tell if this slightly larger Tucson hits the sweet spot for size, or if it’s just making way for a new edition to the Hyundai CUV family.

Pricing: 2016 Hyundai Tucson
Tucson Base FWD 2.0L:  $24,399
Tucson Premium FWD 2.0L: $26,699
Tucson Premium AWD 2.0L: $28,999
Tucson Luxury AWD 2.0L: $33,099
Tucson Premium AWD 1.6L: $31,549
Tucson Limited AWD 1.6L: $36,649
Tucson Ultimate AWD 1.6L: $39,599

Honda CR-V
Hyundai Santa Fe Sport
Jeep Cherokee
Mazda CX-5
Mitsubishi RVR
Nissan Juke
Nissan Rogue
Subaru Crosstrek
Toyota RAV4