Hyundai Veracruz vs Lexus RX350Can you really compare an aggressive Korean contender to the class standard? We just did.
"Bring it," said our contact at Hyundai. "We know we have a great price/value story in the Veracruz, but forget that. We want to take on the Lexus, straight up." Okay, pal. You got it.
With its most recent round of product introductions, Hyundai has gone from price-driven alternative to legit player in several vehicle categories (the same can be said for corporate cousin, Kia). The designs, most of which now originate in Southern California, are clean and handsome, quality has jumped by leaps and bounds, and performance has come up to class average in most cases. The Veracruz (June 2007) is Hyundai's newest crossover entry, slotting in above the Santa Fe with more room and features and a third-row seat.
Lexus's RX pioneered the notion of the midsize, car-based, luxury crossover in 1999 and was Motor Trend's first Sport/Utility of the year. That original RX 300 go a makeover, becoming the RX 330 in 2003, and the larger-engined RX 350 in spring 2006 as a 2007 model (our tester is a 2008). It remains the gold standard in the category and has spurred at least a half-dozen imitators.
From a brand standpoint, Lexus flies first class all the way. Hyundai established itself two decades ago with compact cars sold primarily on price and has been trying to upgrade from coach ever since. But the two end up meeting at the intersection of RX 350 and Veracruz Limited AWD.
The Limited is the top-drawer Veracruz combining every feature Hyundai has in its bin, plus all-wheel drive. The RX isn't available in 2WD, and even a base-equipped RX 350 is lavish by comparison. But as equipped here, they both have all the stuff a luxury crossover buyer will want, including leather upholstery, heated seats, power everything, impressive audio systems, a comprehensive safety package, power rear liftgate, rear-seat DVD player/screen, 18-inch rolling stock, traction and stability-control systems, and four-wheel disc brakes with ABS. The Hyundai's 3.8-liter V-6 is rated at 260 horsepower. Lexus's 3.5-liter V-6 cranks out 10 horsepower more, but requires premium fuel to do so (the Veracruz runs on regular).
As tested here, the Lexus costs just over $10 grand more than the Hyundai, but packs a few goodies that the Veracruz can't match. This RX has an optional nav system with backup camera, which would add $1500-$2000 to the price of the Hyundaiexcept for the fact that it doesn't offer one. Hyundai says it's coming before the end of this year. The RX also has adaptive HID headlights, real wood trim instead of the Hyundai's plasti-wood, and a power retractable cargo-area tonneau. So some of that price gap is made up for by meaningful equipment. But the Veracruz gets a few swings in, too, with sweeteners like a 115-volt powerpoint in the cargo area, adjustable pedals, and a "coolbox" console.
You don't have to stare too hard to figure out what Hyundai was looking at when it styled the Veracruz; think of it as an RX 350 at about 110 percent. Both are attractive, clean, and modern, devoid of unnecessary gingerbread. The Veracruz is 4.4 inches longer overall, riding on a 3.5-inch-longer wheelbase. It's also 2.8 inches taller and four inches wider. The only layout difference is that those extra inches in all dimensions allow Hyundai to add a folding third-row seat, increasingly important to crossover/SUV buyers these days. And it's a useful way-back seat, too; plenty of room in all dimensions for average adults. It's split 60/40, and each panel folds with the flip of a lever. The second-row seat slides forward for easy access and is also adjustable fore and aft. With all seats folded, both carry a ton of stuff, although the Veracruz's cargo bay looks larger than the 2.1-cubic-foot EPA volume difference between it and the Lexus indicates.
In terms of performance, the RX's 10 more horsepower has about 400 fewer pounds to pull, so it wins all the acceleration contests. It's ahead by a second on the 0-to-60 mark, and that differential holds most of the way through the quarter mile, where the edge is still eight-tenths of a second. Both engines are strong, relatively quiet (with the nod to the Veracruz), and have wide torque bands thanks to the variable valve timing. In the 60-to-0 braking contest, the Lexus stopped five feet shorter than the Hyundai, but since production tolerances between the vehicles often results in variances larger than that, call it a draw.
The Hyundai is the happier handler, though it's 2.1 seconds quicker through our figure-eight test, which combines transitional handling, grip, acceleration, and braking. And it grips through the skidpad at 0.77 g versus the Lexus's 0.68 g run. Is the Hyundai chassis that much superior? No. It's the RX's insistence in keeping you overly safe that electronically inhibited its performance. It sensed that our max-handling performance testing was impending accident doom and lit up the stability control at anything more than the slightest provocation. Beepers beeped, brakes braked, and the throttle was dialed out until the RX 350 knew we weren't going to crash. This also was the case on our mountain road loop, even during moderate cornering. The Lexus computer wizards need to dial the electronannies back a notch or two.
In real-world driving, both do the job nicely and will take you and your occupants anywhere you want to go in comfort. Ride quality is about equal, although the Lexus exhibits less wind noise at higher speeds. Both have good steering and brake pedal feel. Kudos to the Hyundai's six-speed automatic transmission. It has one more gear than does the Lexus's, shifts smoother without being mushy, and responds quickly to downshift demands. The RX's trans shifts more harshly under heavy load. The Veracruz turns in more confidently and steers in a more linear manner. When you bend the Lexus into a corner hard, it asks for a steering correction. If you overdo it, the RX calls into the stability controls.
The Veracruz's center stack is a model of logic. Each portion of it is dedicated to its respective function: HVAC, audio, etc. The knobs and buttons are easy to understand and do what you want them to in a intuitive way. The RX's are okay, too, but there are foibles, such as giving you a switch to control temperature, but insisting you go into the Climate portion of the nav screen to adjust the fan speed. Stupid. And why is the rearview-mirror adjustment switch hidden behind a door on the instrument panel? Both have high-quality, supportive seating, although we missed having separate armrests in the Hyundai.
Premium Japanese brands are known for using first-rate materials, boasting superior fit and finish. Korean brands have previously been known for none of the above. This pair demonstrates how narrow that gap has become. The Lexus is still the king here, using great surfaces everywhere and bolting them together flawlessly. The Hyundai uses components of nearly equal quality, assembled almost as well. The leather and vinyl on the seats didn't quite color-match, the silver finish on the center stack doesn't appear all that sturdy, and there were a few misaligned bits of trim. It's in areas such as these where you can spot the difference in cost, although it's not as great as the dollar spread might indicate.
If we accept that the Lexus's brand cachet, dealer-service reputation, reliability reputation, and historically high resale value are worth the 25-percent premium, price is no longer an issue. So which should you buy?
The Lexus faithful won't be moved by the Veracruz. They're a loyal bunch and likely will replace their current RX with another. By doing so, they'll get a sophisticated, high-quality piece that's even nicer than their last one. I'll serve them well and return the loyalty at trade-in or re-lease time. the RX 350 remains the category leader, and the Veracruz does little to impact that. But can you get most of the goodness at 20 percent off?
Equip the Veracruz properly, and it has the mojo to compete with the higher-priced vehicle. It doesn't yet match the Lexus's overall levels of polish, but it's darn close, which makes it very nice indeed, measured against most other offerings. It drives well, rides with aplomb, and feels all of a piece. The Veracruz gives you that important third-row seat and plenty of cargo space, which is why most people shop this type of vehicle. The fact that it costs less is no longer an excuse to buy a Hyundai. It's just a smart reason. If it' the RX you must have, and the cost delta doesn't matter, buy one and you'll be delighted. Feel like saving some money for something that's functionally as good and a well-conceived machine in its own right? Consider the Veracruz Limited, and you'll be equally delighted. Keep the change.