Wednesday, June 13, 2007

2008 Hyundai Veracruz Limited AWD Road Test

2008 Hyundai Veracruz Limited AWD Road Test

At first glance, it might seem a bit strange that Hyundai is introducing yet another seven-occupant midsize crossover SUV, being that it recently upsized its Santa Fe to compete directly with the Toyota Highlanders and Honda Pilots of the world. Well, let me assure that your inquiring mind will quickly be put at ease when you see the new Veracruz in its entirety. From the outside in, Hyundai's largest crossover is like nothing the brand has ever produced before. Its full assortment of standard and optional luxury features, fine attention to detail, high quality materials and rich, upscale styling will finally turn nonbelievers into advocates. Yes, what was previously an upstart from South Korea is now not only capable of going up against the best Japan's entry-level brands have to offer, but might even be knocking on the doors of the Pacific island's premium models.

When I initially saw it at the Detroit auto show I couldn't help but think that Hyundai was vying for Lexus' RX limelight, as its basic shape seems like it came together after stirring a large dollop of the first RX 300 in with a spoonful of the current 350. Don't get me wrong, as Hyundai's latest has a number of unique exterior styling cues too, such as its chrome trimmed smiling grille, and at the other end its rather attractive rear combination taillight clusters; I'd like to see the latter's LED option, available in other markets, offered here in the U.S. Most I've spoken with find it a pleasing design, especially women, and everyone is impressed with how well its panels are put together, with gaps tight and evenly spaced. But really, like I inferred at the onset of this review, everyone I showed it to came to fully appreciate the Veracruz once inside.

To clarify this point, after taking part in the press event and then more recently living with the Veracruz for a week, two days of which included a weekend getaway, I took a cue from the previously mentioned Detroit introduction, at which time Hyundai showed a reality TV-style video that started off with a few families taking part in what appeared to be a market research study held in a conference room, answering questions about what they would like in a new SUV, and finally ended up with each family living with the new Veracruz (badges removed) for a day. After all of the accolades, each was asked which brand they thought created this nameless crossover, at which point all named luxury nameplates and most, not surprisingly, picked Lexus. My imagination getting the better of me, I thought of a good friend who is extremely well off (just recently sold his 12,000 square foot home with a separate theatre room and an indoor swimming pool, located in one of this city's best neighborhoods), and could buy any vehicle he could ever dream of owning if cars mattered that much to him. They don't, and neither does showing off his wealth (something I just can't help but admire) and therefore he drives a previous generation Lexus RX 300 (and only moved up from a Grand Cherokee because he didn't like the white faced gauges in the newer model). Lately, however, he's been questioning me on other vehicles in this class, as it's time for something new. An opportunity to hold my own case study just couldn't be riper.

I pulled my friend aside at church and asked him to come outside to look at a new crossover. His wife caught on to what we were up to and eagerly joined us, so the three of us headed out to the parking lot to check out the Veracruz. My friend, not realizing what it was or which company produced it immediately liked the overall shape and commented on how much it reminded him of his RX 300. He got in behind the wheel and was even more impressed with how nicely everything was laid out, the quality of all the materials, especially the optional saddle leather and the soft-touch dash plastics that even extend down below the steering column, the upscale buttons, knobs and switches and attractive Lexus-like vents, and as he proceeded to slot the key into the ignition, was even more awestruck by the optional proximity sensing key fob (a regular remote comes standard), and the fact that he didn't need a key to start it up. He backed out of the parking spot and the rear parking assist started to beep as we approached a barrier, causing positive comments from his wife. A tight turning radius, at only 36.7 feet, made negotiating surrounding cars easy.

Sitting up front in the passenger's seat I felt like the car salesman I once was (I was once willing to do anything to get into the car business), riding along and pointing out features, making sure to comment on how smooth the transmission shifts were and how powerful the engine was. Coaxing him to apply a little throttle, a wide grin stole across his face as the continuously variable valve timing equipped 260-horsepower 3.8-liter, 24-valve, DOHC V6 with 257 lb-ft of torque catapulted the Veracruz up the hill with a great deal more energy than he was used to. Just the same, it was wonderfully quiet and impressively smooth thanks to the comfort-oriented suspension boasting gas shocks all-round and a multi-link setup in the rear. The ultra-slick-shifting six-speed automatic added to the refinement, and he was even more impressed to see a manual shift mode feature. The Veracruz's accurate rack and pinion steering and surprisingly agile independent suspension setup, not to mention standard 18-inch alloy wheels and tires, held to the road well during his test drive, giving him, and his wife who admitted to being extremely comfortable in back, a positive experience overall.

Back at the parking lot, my friend poked and prodded the Veracruz, enjoying the optional power rear liftgate, the quality of the carpeting and trim in the rear cargo area, and how easy lifting and lowering the third row of seats was. Asking if it was difficult to climb into that third row, I asked him to try it out himself at which point he did just that. We were all impressed that he fit in comfortably (well, I already knew he would as we're about the same height and I fit in the third row with room to spare). He commented that some of the SUVs he already tried out didn't offer room for his feet in the rearmost seats, something I've experienced all too often, but not so for the Veracruz.At the end of his half-hour session with Hyundai's latest, my friend walked away thoroughly impressed, and seriously considering foregoing the Mercedes-Benz GL he was previously interested in, for a Veracruz. It didn't hurt that Hyundai only wants $37K for the fully loaded example I showed him, while the GL starts at $53,175 and will top the hundred thousand mark if fitted with the same features (and, in all fairness, others the Veracruz doesn't offer). While I don't think Hyundai will be able to pull away every premium buyer, despite offering a vehicle with premium quality features and extremely good build quality, I was impressed with my friend's reaction and wouldn't be surprised if he showed up driving his very own Veracruz next Sunday.

And not being the savvy salesman I once was, I didn't do the best job going over the details. I forgot to mention its standard traction and electronic stability control, ABS-enhanced four-wheel discs with EBD, anti-whiplash head restraints and six standard airbags that include curtain-type airbags protecting all outside occupants and result in five-star frontal and five-star side-impact crash test ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), or the fact that you can lock out the optional all-wheel drive system in extremely slippery conditions for extra grip, or its automatic headlights, standard power tilt and slide glass sunroof, rain-sensing wipers, intermittent rear wiper, dual zone automatic climate control ... although I did show him the rear controls on the back of the center console, which just happen to incorporate rear radio controls and a slot for the optional entertainment system's DVD player. I didn't mention the standard XM-equipped audio system either, that also boasts a CD/MP3 player. He'd want the top-line system anyway, which gets four additional speakers made by Infinity no less, for a total of ten, plus a six-disc, in-dash changer and external amp pumping out 605 watts of power. It's impressive to say the least, and comes standard with the Limited.

I also pointed out the optional 115-volt plug in the cargo area, ideal for camping trips, and he noticed the audio controls on the steering wheel spokes and the leather-wrapped steering wheel on his own, not to mention the quality of the optional premium saddle leather; a high-quality cloth is standard. Personally I found the eight-way power adjustable driver's seat on my tester exceptionally comfortable, thanks to a really supportive shape and the addition of an adjustable lumbar support. My friend, used to his Lexus chairs didn't complain, so this is a good sign too. With the Limited package, the passenger's seat is also power adjustable.

The Limited also gets electro-chromic side mirrors, although the convenient puddle lamps and integrated LED blinkers are standard fare. The chrome door handles are top-tier options, mind you, and segue well before opening the Limited's doors and seeing the attractive metal scuff plates with optional lighted Veracruz embossed script. When sitting inside, the Limited also pampers with a memory system for the power tilt and telescoping steering column, power mirrors and driver's seat ... something else I forgot to mention ... but it's not connected to the power operated pedals for some reason. Yeah, I'm a bit rusty from my days on the showroom floor, but my enthusiasm for the car already had him wondering whether I would get a commission on the deal if he was buying.

Also unmentioned, the top-line Veracruz gets a Homelink garage door opener, plus I also didn't take the time to fold down the 60/40 split second row, which shows off an amazingly spacious loading area with a flat load floor. Incidentally, the Veracruz is taller and wider than the majority of vehicles it's up against, and has the most interior room of any vehicle in its class, at 150.6 cubic feet. Still, I can't help but mention that Hyundai's own Santa Fe delivers about 60-percent more cargo room behind the third row. C'est la vie, as the Veracruz' third row is more spacious, and the larger CUV serves up significantly more cargo room behind the second and first rows.

On the negative, this is a weighty vehicle at 4,431 pounds, although it hardly feels cumbersome. The extra weight also helps when towing the CUV's 3,500 pound maximum. Also, for such a large vehicle I enjoyed slightly better fuel economy than the EPA's estimated 17 mpg city and 24 mpg highway rating, only needing to fill up the 17.2 gallon tank once during my entire week of driving, other than during a two-day road trip over to Bellevue, Washington. And another bonus going to the Veracruz over its premium-class rivals, it only needs regular grade gas.

During my test week there were a small number of things that disappointed, although none would be deal breakers. First off, the top-line Limited model optioned with the unique saddle brown leather can only be coated in metallic black, silver, beige or bronze paint (and it kind of conflicts with the silver), and the beige standard leather is the only interior hue available for all colors in the Limited model. The light blue or khaki, also available on the GLS would better suit the saddle leather; the base Veracruz gets the option of gray or beige leather.

Also, there's no auxiliary jack for an external audio device, like an iPod. This is inexcusable in any new car; especially considering that this model is targeting families that will no doubt include teenagers ... hmmm ... maybe this is a bonus after all. And while the kids are grieving you can console them, literally, by dipping into the cooled center console under the armrest to retrieve cold beverages for everyone (and you can turn the air conditioning vent inside the storage bin off if you're not using it for this purpose). Just above that you'll find a shallow covered tray for stowing smaller items, that's trimmed with a very Lexus-like velveteen cloth. Oh, and that velvet lining covers pretty well every lidded storage area in the cabin ... very upscale stuff that Mercedes-Benz didn't even offer in their ML until recently, and Lincoln still doesn't now with their new MKX crossover (and other than adaptive headlamps and a massive sunroof, the Lincoln interior feels positively dowdy compared to the Veracruz).

Some buyers looking to move down market from premium brands will be disappointed that the wood grain trim isn't genuine, although others will be happy that Hyundai chose not to deplete any hardwood rainforests in order to satisfy luxury gluttons, and the faux stuff is pretty realistic looking just the same. The Veracruz also doesn't feature any wood on the steering wheel, popular with the well-to-do, or a full-length panoramic sunroof, critical for spoiling the kids. On that note the rear seats aren't powered either, and there's no air conditioned ventilation blasting through perforations in the leather ... an atrocity! And no massage function? OK, in all seriousness I can live without all of these things, and if I didn't test cars for a living I probably wouldn't have even thought they could be had. But it does seem odd that there aren't any optional 19- or 20-inch rims?

Also unlike top-tier premium SUVs, the Veracruz doesn't include front parking assist sensors, an electronic parking brake or a powered third row, plus on the safety front other items aren't offered, like knee airbags, adaptive front headlights that rotate in order to light up corners, a lane departure warning system, a blind spot warning system, an automated distance regulating cruise control system, or a pre-collision safety system like some high-end crossover SUVs will charge you through the nose for. While most of us can do without such exclusive and expensive hardware, some will complain that Hyundai also doesn't offer a navigation system. Yeah, hard to believe they're giving up such a prime opportunity to profit, but as I mentioned to my friend, you can purchase an aftermarket nav system for somewhere in the vicinity of $350 that's better than most of the in-car ones, and fits into your pocket when traveling. Just the same, Hyundai promises a navigation system in the near future(probably by the mid-cycle upgrade, or about two to three years from now). I should add that without a nav system there's also no rearview camera, another premium grade nicety.

In the end, nothing I mentioned would stop me from buying a Veracruz if I was in the market for a seven-occupant crossover SUV. Add to its many features an extremely strong "above average" nameplate rating by J. D. Power and Associates in its 2007 Initial Quality Study, plus a superb first-place ranking in Strategic Vision's 2007 Total Quality Index, with the most vehicle segment leaders, and Hyundai is a good bet. Still, if these third party research firms aren't enough to convince you, try a five-year, 60,000 mile bumper to bumper warranty on for size.

Truly, Hyundai is doing everything right. The Koreans appear as fastidious about quality as the Japanese, and possibly driven by an even more competitive spirit. The Veracruz is the perfect example of this spirit in the metal, the result being a crossover that bests pretty well everything in the entry-level class, and quite a few premium offerings that cost thousands more. I can't help but feel sorry for the competition.

June 9, 2007
by Trevor Hofmann / American Auto Press

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