Tuesday, May 08, 2007

2007 Hyundai Veracruz Moving Up in the World

2007 Hyundai Veracruz Moving up in the world.

Let me start out with a moment of complete candor. There was a time, not all that long ago, when I'd avoid any assignment involving products bearing the Hyundai badge. And among automotive journalists, I wasn't alone. The best you could say, if you were searching for compliments, was that the brand's products were "cheap and cheerful." When friends asked, I'd often recommend they look at a certified used car, instead.

That began to change when the first-generation Hyundai Santa Fe showed up in my driveway. Reluctantly, I took it for a drive, and after a couple hours behind the wheel, I walked away with a big smile on my face. Later in the day, when a colleague asked what I thought, I replied, "Pretty good product." What I notably didn't need was the modifier, "for a Hyundai."

Recently, a second generation of that game-changing crossover came to market, and it shows the continuing, rapid evolution of the Hyundai brand - a transformation underscored by the steady move to larger, more lavish and expensive products, including the Korean carmaker's newest crossover, the Veracruz. This time, offered a chance to take a spin, I hesitated not a moment.

Picking up on the Southwest naming strategy Hyundai has adopted for its truck-like offerings, the Veracruz is the latest entry in a rapidly growing market niche: affordable, three-row crossovers. Of course, the concept of what's affordable is a matter of individual perception, and those who still remember the original Hyundai Pony, or even current, entry-level offerings, like the Accent or Elantra, might be in for a bit of sticker shock.

The most stripped-down version of the Veracruz comes in near $27,000 - around $1,000 more than a base, two-row Ford Edge - while a fully-loaded Limited model will nudge $38,000. That's lofty territory, even for a more established brand with a reputation less dependent on price.

So that raises two critical questions: is the Veracruz worth the money, and can Hyundai win over the sort of buyers who'd cough up that cash, folks who traditionally opt for from more established alternatives, such as the Mazda CX-9, Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot?

Shapely and sporty

After spending time with the new crossover, we're convinced that while the Veracruz stretches the perceptive definition of the Hyundai brand, it seems worth the money. Not only will it challenge Mazda's and Saturn's new offerings, but it may draw some interest from folks looking even higher up the automotive price spectrum, at products like the Nissan Murano and Lexus RX350.

Indeed, at first glance, you might mistake the Hyundai for Lexus' curvaceous offering, especially from the side. The styling is subtle yet elegant and also brings to mind the new and toned-down remake of Subaru's Tribeca. The wraparound head and taillights are a particularly nice upscale touch and we appreciate the fact that Hyundai stylists didn't feel the need to turn those lamps into overly complicated, sci-fi-like exercises in design excess.

Hyundai tosses in side mirrors with puddle lighting and built-in turn signals. Roof rails are standard, by the way. So are dual exhaust outlets and a rear spoiler.

All in all, the goal was to give the Veracruz a sporty look, and designers succeeded reasonably well. But let's face it-like its competitors, what Hyundai is really selling is a thinly-disguised minivan.

Okay, there are no sliding doors, but with the Veracruz, three-row seating is standard. The good news is that unlike so many other entries into this segment, the back row is more than just a line on a spec sheet. Would I want to ride back there on a cross-country journey? Probably not, but I'd have no problem hopping in for a trip to the store or a morning commute with the car pool. This is no penalty box. Access is easy with the fold-away second-row seats and there's actually a reasonable amount of knee room for third-row passengers.

Front, middle or back, seating is comfortable and supportive. For the driver, you get a commanding view of the road with great visibility all around. Most of the seats tilt, slide or fold away, as well, and with everything but the driver's seat laid flat, there's a positively cavernous, 86.8 cubic-foot cargo compartment.

First-rate interior

If you want to get a sense of how far Hyundai has come, just take a look inside the new Veracruz. Fit-and-finish is first rate, with a surprisingly refined use of materials and colors. Plastics are largely soft-touch and Hyundai has dealt directly with one of our pet peeves, the acres of dull black plastic many manufacturers layer onto the instrument panel. The center stack is trimmed in silver and gray, with large, easy to read, easy to operate displays and controls. Nissan should pay particular attention for its next-generation Murano.

When Hyundai first burst onto the American scene, nearly 20 years ago, the automaker emphasized pricing. But rock-bottom prices don't make a good deal if quality lags at the back of the pack.. The Korean carmaker's turnaround was triggered by a best-in-the-industry, 10-year warranty, and a surge in the quality charts.

Now Hyundai is pushing design and value, maintaining segment-best pricing and tossing in a surprising array of features. With the Veracruz, there are plenty, even on the base-level version.

Start with safety, where the crossover has earned NHTSA five-star ratings in both front and side crash tests. It also garnered four stars for rollover, equal to the best in the SUV category. There are six airbags, including side-curtain protection for all three rows. Anti-lock brakes, traction control and stability control are standard, as well, along with Brake Assist and Electronic Brake Force Distribution systems and active front headrests, which help reduce the risk of whiplash.

The Veracruz comes with an AM/FM/CD sound system, and tosses in XM satellite radio, with a trial subscription to the pay service. Oddly, while there's an available plug for your MP3 player, it's a pay-for option. There's a second-row climate control, and you can heat or cool the center console. Second-row reading lamps are standard, along with a "conversation mirror" best used to keep an eye on the kids.

When you move up to the SE and topline Limited models, you get additional features, especially if you opt for the Ultimate Package, with power tilt/telescoping steering wheel, rain-sensing windshield wipers, keyless entry and remote engine start.

What that means is that you can load up a Veracruz for a lot less than a stripped-down competitor. By Hyundai's count, there's a $3,300 advantage over a comparably-equipped Highlander, for example.

Soaking up the Veracruz

Of course, all this looks good on paper. The question is how does the new crossover drive? To get a feel for the Veracruz, we took a well-equipped GLS out for a run through the rain-soaked Detroit exurbs.

Fire up the standard, 260-horsepower, 3.8-liter V-6 and you're greeted with a well-balanced exhaust note. The engine is mated to a six-speed automatic that also offers manual-shift mode. The powertrain combination is reasonably quick, though not the segment's 0-60 benchmark. The transmission is worthy of praise. It's smooth-shifting without any sense of hunt-and-seek. Hyundai claims a towing capacity of 3,500 pounds.

Hyundai is offering the Veracruz in both front- and all-wheel-drive configurations, and expects the former to account for about 60 percent of its volume. There's a moderate amount of ground clearance, but this crossover is built for nothing more than gravel or snow-covered highways, rather than anything close to real off-roading. FWD gets you 18 mpg city/25 highway, while the numbers slip to 17/24 mpg in AWD. Either way, that's pretty much in the middle of the pack.

Hyundai engineers spent a lot of time tuning the Veracruz for comfortable driving. With its triple door seals and four layers of under-carpet padding, this is one uncannily quiet SUV - arguably to Lexus levels.

Meanwhile, the four-wheel independent suspension with its front and rear stabilizer bars, has been set up for cruising. On highway and smooth, flat roads, it's absolutely stable. Throw the Veracruz into a hard turn and there's a fair amount of body roll, however, reflecting the crossover's heft. (All that high-strength steel, used to enhance crash protection, adds up, after all.)

As that suggests, the Veracruz is not intended to be what you might call a "driver's vehicle." The steering is a tad numb and there could be a bit more on-center feel. The brakes will stop you fast, but they're just a little squishy.

The Veracruz is a solid and credible offering at a surprisingly affordable price. Is it cheap? No, but it's got a real leg up on the competition when it comes to sticker price. And there's a lot more to like about this new Hyundai.

Like the Santa Fe before it, the new Veracruz is likely to take by surprise those who haven't taken a serious look at Hyundai in awhile - if at all. The reality is that barely one in four American motorists even consider the Korean brand. A decade ago, there was good reason. These days, that's a mistake.

2007 Hyundai Veracruz
Base price: $26,995 (base, front-drive GLS) to $38,000 (fully-loaded, all-wheel-drive Limited)
Engine: 3.8-liter V-6, 260 hp/257 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic, front- or all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 190.6 x 76.6 x 68.9 in
Wheelbase: 110.4 in
Curb weight: 4,266 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 18/25 mpg (FWD); 17/24 mpg (AWD)
Major standard features: Air conditioning; power windows/locks/mirrors; AM/FM/CD/XM; manual tilt/telescope (power on up-line models); puddle lamps; second-row reading lights; climate control
Safety features: Six airbags; anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control; active front headrests; tire pressure monitors
Warranty: Five years /60,000 miles

by Paul A. Eisenstein (2007-05-03)

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