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Hyundai iX35

Hyundai's iX35 is an SUV – ideal for people who don't really like SUVs

Things are not what they seem. That's the thrust of the new Hyundai iX35's introduction to the world. We are told that although it is essentially a compact SUV, a role within Hyundai's range that it takes over from the Tucson, it can actually be all things to nearly all buyers.

The iX35 – designed and engineered in Germany, incidentally – is slightly shorter than a new Vauxhall Astra (but then the Astra is corpulent for a "compact" hatchback). A well-equipped iX35 – they start at £17,995, rising to £20,745 – costs less than a basic Ford Focus (but the Focus has become overpriced). Running costs, servicing costs, and CO2-based taxation are all lower than various notional MPV and hatchback rivals, plus you get a very impressive five-year, unlimited-mileage warranty.

Sounds good. And you get to project to the world the notion that you have a stylish life and a propensity towards physical activity and wholesome ideals. There is some of that residual 4x4 baggage, but this is a friendly 4x4, treading lightly upon the planet.

Yes, yes. This is all very nice in theory. But even if the iX35 occupies no more road space than a typical compact hatchback, it certainly feels like it does. Its height is part of the reason, an attribute which adds to the sense of bulk and makes it feel wider than it is, not least because the verge is further away and its position harder to judge. At speed, at night, in the rain on a narrow, winding road, is when you feel this the most.

The height, albeit lower than the outgoing Tucson's, gives the iX35 a bulk and presence which together do make it more in-your-face, or in-your-mirror, than a hatchback. So owners won't be entirely absolved from anti-4x4 opprobrium, however misplaced. The misplacement is all the greater if the iX35 in question has, as most of them probably will, mere front-wheel drive rather than all-wheel drive. Indeed, the petrol-fuelled version can't be had any other way.

Inside, the iX35 is described as more "premium" than previous Hyundais, a claim based on some satin-finish mock aluminium, a soft-touch dashboard face and gentle blue instrument illumination, but actually it's no advance here on the already very habitable i30 hatchback. There is more cost-cutting than Hyundai would like you to think, such as hard plastics for the upper door trims and a lack of a one-shot-for-up feature on the driver's electric window, and it's a shame the rear-seat backrests don't fold fully flat.

But the cabin is roomy, and the cheaper Style model has sufficient equipment to make the posh Premium version an unnecessary indulgence. The latter's £1,750 extra cost buys you yet-bigger wheels, cleverer air-con, a large glass panel in the roof and rails on it, part-leather trim, cruise control, the ability to start the engine without that tiresome business of putting a key in a lock, and smoked rear windows for that celebrity look. I don't need any of it.

Do I need four-wheel drive, though? Not unless I'm tackling the sort of lumpy, slippery terrain for which the iX35 looks to have been created, but which few will encounter. None of this alters the welcome fact that the iX35 is a thoroughly pleasing car to drive, especially with the 134bhp diesel engine which is uncommonly smooth, has a proper "voice", and pulls with immediacy and authority from very low speeds.

So muscular is it that it sometimes makes the front wheels tug against the steering as it overcomes the grip, unless you're driving the 4x4 version in which this excess tractive effort is diverted to the rear wheels as needed.

The diesel is the one to have, no question. With front-wheel drive it is slightly faster and more frugal, with four-wheel drive slightly more agile; but both versions steer accurately, cope quite well with bumps, and stay level in corners. And driving them is a pleasure.

Maybe people shouldn't covet SUVs, but they do. That being so, this is a good one to covet: ownership costs will be low, ownership satisfaction will be high. Sounds ideal; just don't sign anything until you have also tried a Skoda Yeti. I know which one I'd choose.

The Rivals

Ford Kuga 2.0 TDCi Zetec WD: £21,497.

Cheeky and fun to drive. A touch too blinged-up for some tastes, but a quality product – if a rather expensive one.

Peugeot 3008 2.0 HDi Sport: £20,095.

No 4WD option, but copes on poor terrain. Upmarket cabin, smooth and crisp engine with a healthy 150bhp. Curious looks.

Skoda Yeti 2.0 TDI 110 SE: £17,320.

The most likeable of compact crossovers. Livelier than its 110bhp suggests, looks neat and friendly, great cabin quality, great to drive.