Back in the 1980s and 1990s, most U.S. owners purchased a Hyundai because it was the only new vehicle they could afford.

It was either a Hyundai or a used car.Hyundai Motor America Inc.'s own internal research dubbed these buyers “captive resentfuls.”

Today, Hyundai is the darling of the U.S. auto industry. Following a 1990s' bumpy patch, when quality issues plagued the brand, U.S. sales have skyrocketed 344% since 1998.

Last year, Hyundai blew past Volkswagen of America Inc. to become the nation's fourth-biggest importer, selling 400,221 vehicles to VW's 302,686. This year, it is poised to surpass the 2003 figure, and by 2006 it may sell half a million vehicles here.

With an expanding lineup and its 5-year/60,000-mile (96,558 km) warranty still going strong after six years, Hyundai is the one auto maker the Big Six are keeping an eye on.

The Tucson compact cross/utility vehicle unveiled to the media in Portland, OR, is encouraging further scrutiny.

The new Tucson is aimed directly at Ford Motor Co.'s Escape, the top-selling CUV in the U.S., as well as the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. Some 64% of early sales came from buyers trading in other brands, with Ford or Toyota models each accounting for 20% of trade-ins, while some 13% swapped a Honda for a Tucson, says Hyundai.

Not surprising: Hyundai's second CUV is a lot of vehicle for — relatively speaking — not a lot of money. Beginning at $17,499 sans destination and handling, it is nearly $2,500 less than the '05 Escape ($19,995) and $3,000 less than CR-V ($20,510).

The Tucson, with its optional 2.7L SOHC V-6 mated to a 4-speed Shiftronic automatic gearbox, is an appealing and well-appointed package. The standard content and features found on this sub-$20,000 model is an industry first in the U.S., says Hyundai.

Standard features include six airbags (including side curtain and seat-mounted side bags), 4-channel antilock disc brakes with electronic brake-force distribution, traction control, power windows, power door locks and mirrors, remote keyless entry with alarm, heated side mirrors, heated windshield wiper rests and 6-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo system.

The real kicker: All Tucsons come standard with anti-skid electronic stability control (from South Korean safety supplier Mando Corp.). The Honda CR-V also has a standard stability-control system, as does the RAV4, which begins at $18,550, and the feature is sure to expand to other CUV models in coming years.

ESC thankfully was not tested on the rain-soaked Oregon highways.

However, the standard front-wheel-drive GLS model was more than adequate when climbing the wet, twisty mountain roads and even performed nicely on a challenging off-road course.

Optional for the entry-level GL and mid-level GLS models, and standard on the LX, is BorgWarner Inc.'s Electronic InterActive Torque Manage-ment all-wheel-drive system, which can send 99% of torque to the front wheels. But if road conditions change, some 50% of available power can be automatically apportioned to the rear.

By monitoring throttle position, front-wheel angle and slippage, the Borg-Warner AWD system channels power to the axle with the best traction. A dash-mounted button gives the driver the ability to lock a 50/50 torque split.

The V-6, which makes 173 hp and 178 lb.-ft. (241 Nm) of torque, supplies ample power, and it accelerates nicely around slow rigs on 2-lane highways near the Oregon coastline. Tucson's 4-wheel independent suspension provides for a surprisingly smooth ride.

The V-6's fuel economy of 19/24 mpg city/highway (12.4L and 9.8L/100 km) bests that of the V-6 Escape.

The standard 2L DOHC 4-cyl. for the Tucson GL, meanwhile, makes 140 hp and 136 lb.-ft. (184 Nm) of torque. It must be weak — Hyundai didn't bother to bring any for the test drive.

Exterior styling is sportier and arguably more attractive than the quirky Santa Fe, Hyundai's first CUV. But Tucson still is unmistakably a Hyundai, with its bulbous corners and dark lower-body cladding.

Inside, adjustable armrests pop up to support drivers with short limbs — a welcome addition in a vehicle in any price range.

One of the few flaws found in an otherwise great package was the fact that beige-colored trim parts on the door panels and instrument panel appeared to be different shades.

Another minor complaint is the loud fabric Hyundai selected for the seats. The small-checks-connected-by-thin-lines pattern is reminiscent of waiting-room chairs in a 1980s dentist's office. It's bad enough on the seats, but downright annoying on the door panels.

Tucson boasts more front legroom than the Escape and CR-V (42.1 ins. [106.9 cm]), and more rear legroom than the Escape and RAV4 (37.2 ins. [94.5 cm]). The second-row seat folds flat with the push of a single button, neatly stowing backrests and headrests. The cargo area has a washable floor with storage underneath, plus six tie-downs and three grocery-bag hooks.

The '05 Tucson comes in three trim levels, the base GL, mid-level GLS and top-of-the-line LX. The GL is the only model to come standard with the 4-cyl. Hooking up the 2L with the automatic gearbox brings a GL to $18,299. Adding 4WD to the 5-speed manual-equipped GL makes it $18,999.

The V-6 GLS, with 4-speed automatic and FWD, is $19,999. With the addition of 4WD, the same vehicle is $21,499. The LX (with its standard V-6) is $21,249; the addition of 4WD brings it to $22,749. Destination and handling for all Tucsons is $595.

'05 Hyundai Tucson LX (AWD)

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, 5-passenger 5-door cross/utility vehicle

Engine: 2.7L (2,656 cc) DOHC V-6, aluminum block/aluminum heads

Power (SAE net): 173 hp @ 6,000 rpm

Torque: 178 lb.-ft. (241 Nm) @ 4,000 rpm

Compression ratio: 10:1

Bore × stroke (mm): 86.7 × 75

Transmission: 4-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 103.5 ins. (263 cm)

Overall length: 170.3 ins. (433 cm)

Overall width: 72.1 ins. (183 cm)

Overall height: 66.1 ins. (168 cm)

Curb weight: 3,548 lbs. (1,610 kg)

EPA fuel economy, city/highway (mpg): 19/24

Market competition: Ford Escape; Honda CR-V; Jeep Liberty; Toyota RAV4