It's easy to forget what a stunning country South Africa really is and how many scenic getaway destinations are practically on our doorsteps, even for those of us living in the less picturesque concrete jungles of Gauteng. One that I'd all but forgotten about was the Golden Gate region of the Eastern Free State but one that was rekindled when Hyundai invited us on a road trip to sample its range-topping Tucson 1.6T auto model.

Previously we'd only tried the front-wheel drive manual version of the latest-generation 1.6-litre turbocharged Tucson, but the most luxurious option in the range, the 1.6T Elite Auto, adds extra features as well as a seven-speed dual-clutch automated gearbox and an all-wheel drive system with Lock Mode.

That said, our trip to Golden Gate would not see the Tucson leaving the tar. While these modern all-wheel drive systems will allow for some mild off-roading when called upon, they're really more about offering extra safety and stability than anything else - powering the front wheels under normal circumstances but sending up to 50 percent to the back when extra traction is needed.

The mostly straight route to Clarens hardly put any of that theory to test, but some bumpy sections along the R26 did show how impressively insulated the Tucson - it's really impressively quiet at higher speeds and the ride is very comfortable although there is a slight firmness over rougher surfaces that makes me wonder if a softer suspension set-up wouldn’t have been a better idea. The Tucson is built on an all-new chassis featuring a fully independent multi-link rear suspension and it was also tuned specifically for European roads, which could explain the slightly firmer set-up. But that does have its upsides on twisty roads, of which there is no shortage in the vicinity of Clarens.

Winding roads

While the arty crafty town centre is certainly worth exploring, and let's not forget that there's a great selections of restaurants and even a renowned craft brewery to keep you lubricated once the day's driving is over, a trip to the Free State Village would not be complete without properly exploring the winding roads in its vicinity.

From this base there are two directions worth going in, and we started with the R711 towards Ficksburg, featuring what has to be some of the most beautiful scenery in the country, with its blend of sandstone peaks and jagged mesas. The other obligatory detour (in the opposite direction) is into the Golden Gate National Park along the R712, and a certain treat that's liberally jam-packed with winding tarmac and postcard-perfect scenes. Here the Tucson felt more in its element than would normally be expected of an SUV and not only did it feel agile for its size and sure-footed, but the steering felt communicative and nicely weighted.

The direct injection turbopetrol engine also provided decent performance and effortless overtaking ability, while the dual-clutch gearbox swopped cogs smoothly and generally on cue. It's not quite in the hot hatch league though, given that the vehicle weighs just short of 1700kg, but the 130kW and 265Nm that the engine produces is sufficient to ensure comfortable performance.

A good size

The Tucson is also comfortably sized and appointed, with ample rear legroom and a spacious 513 litre boot and the Elite model is loaded with features, including a large panoramic sunroof, front seats with electric adjustment, Blind Spot Detector and Rear-Cross Traffic Alert. Leather seats and a six-speaker DAB+ digital radio are standard across the range and a navigation system adds R15 000 to the bill.

If there is one criticism of the interior it's that the design and colour scheme lacks design flair. It's built rock-solid and the surfaces appear of a decent quality, but the overall effect is rather conservative and monotone - assuming that bothers you in any way.

The range-topping 1.6T Elite AWD is also on the pricey side at R519 900, although you are getting a lot of features for your money and its rivals' flagship products are also in that ballpark. However, if you're happy to live without the autobox, AWD and panoramic roof, the Tucson 1.6T Executive is a good alternative at R439 900.

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