Friday, September 14, 2007

G. Chambers Williams III: Putting the 'V' in Value

G. Chambers Williams III: Putting the 'V' in value

In the late 1980s, when I helped my then-teenage daughter purchase a used Hyundai Excel as a first vehicle, those cars were selling new for about $4,000.

The used one I found for her, which was already 2 or 3 years old, was a quite affordable $1,800.

This past week, I tested the new, 2007 Hyundai Veracruz crossover utility vehicle with a price tag of $38,020 -- nearly 10 times as much as a new Excel 20 years ago -- and marveled at how far this once-struggling South Korean brand has risen.After some early quality problems that have long since been corrected, Hyundai steadily has been building its reputation and product lineup to the point where the company is almost on the same scale as the top Japanese brands.

In the late '80s, I couldn't even envision a Hyundai vehicle in such a premium price range as the Veracruz. In fact, Toyota was just entering that lofty position with its new Lexus line of upscale vehicles, but there were no Toyota-branded vehicles at the starting price of the Veracruz, which is just $26,995 (including freight).

The 2007 Veracruz is an all-new midsize crossover SUV from Hyundai. It comes with a 3.8-liter V-6 engine and six-speed automatic transmission. Designers benchmarked the Veracruz against the Lexus RX 350 luxury crossover.

2007 Hyundai Veracruz

The package: Midsize, five-door, five- or seven-passenger, V-6 powered, front- or all-wheel-drive crossover utility vehicle.

Highlights: This is Hyundai's new midsize crossover utility vehicle, which comes in three trim levels -- including the upscale Limited model that offers more standard amenities than the Lexus RX 350. It is built on the platform of the Sonata sedan and has carlike ride and handling.

Negatives: Can get pricey with all the options.

Length: 190.6 inches.

Curb weight: 4,266-4,431 pounds.

Engines: 3.8-liter V-6.

Horsepower/torque: 260 HP/257 foot-pounds.

Transmissions: Six-speed automatic with manual-shift feature.

Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock.

Electronic stability control: Standard.

Side air bags: Front seat-mounted; side curtain for all rows, standard.

Cargo volume: 6.5 cubic feet (behind third seat); 40.0 cubic feet (third seat folded or not present).

Towing capacity: 3,500 pounds.

Major competitors: Ford Edge, Toyota Highlander, Subaru Tribeca, Suzuki XL7, Honda Pilot, Acura MDX, Nissan Murano.

Fuel capacity/type: 20.6 gallons/unleaded regular.

EPA fuel economy (2007 formula): 18 miles per gallon city/25 highway (2WD); 17/24 (AWD).

Base price range: $26,305-$34,005 plus $690 freight.

Price as tested: $38,020, including freight and options (Limited, V-6, AWD).

On the Road rating: 8.7 (of a possible 10).

Prices shown are manufacturer's suggested retail; actual selling price may vary.
Inflation is, of course, the reason for much of the increase in car prices during the past 20 years. But that's not all. You'll definitely get a lot more vehicle for the extra money in today's market.

Our test vehicle was the top-of-the-line Veracruz Limited all-wheel-drive model (base price $34,695 with freight) with an options package that ran the total up, making it just about the highest-priced version you could find.

Whether U.S. consumers are ready to pay more than $38,000 for a Hyundai sport utility vehicle remains to be seen, considering that there are a lot of crossover competitors at this price (including a Lexus).

But at the starting price, with very few (if any) options tacked on to the sticker, the Veracruz comes across as a bargain.

Hyundai says that while the Veracruz was being developed, it was benchmarked against the Lexus RX 350, whose 2007 model begins at $38,115 (with freight) for the front-drive model, and $39,515 for the all-wheel drive.

Adding the options that were either standard or included on our Veracruz, though -- including leather interior and a rear-seat entertainment system, sunroof, backup warning system and 18-inch alloy wheels, among other things -- would push the all-wheel-drive RX 350 into the upper $40,000s.

The problem, of course, is that the Veracruz is not a Lexus, and the Hyundai name is not the attention-getter that Lexus is. But with prices starting $11,000 less than those of the RX 350, and with a similarly equipped Veracruz running $7,700 less than the base RX, Hyundai surely wins the value race.

Granted, those who would buy a Lexus and those who would buy a Hyundai are entirely different customers. But the point is that anyone who does choose the Veracruz can feel good about the purchase. This is a lot of vehicle for the money, no question.

The Hyundai also stacks up well against other popular crossovers that Veracruz shoppers might consider -- the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, Nissan Murano and Ford Edge. The base Veracruz GLS model with front-wheel drive lists for $3,265 less than a similarly equipped 2007 Highlander, and $3,712 less than the '07 Pilot.

And while Hyundai might have a hard time taking customers away from Honda, Toyota and Nissan, it can offer a great crossover with lots of standard equipment to those who can't quite afford one of those Japanese brands. The Veracruz really is on the same level, but with a lower price.

This is the third SUV in the Hyundai lineup. It joined the entry compact Tucson and midsize Santa Fe. The Veracruz is built on a stretched and widened Santa Fe chassis to allow for a roomy third row of seating, giving it a maximum capacity of seven.

There is more cargo volume -- 86.8 cubic feet with the second and third seats folded -- than in all of the Veracruz's direct competitors except for the Pilot (87.6 cubic feet).

Under the hood is a 3.8-liter V-6 engine rated at 260 horsepower and 257 foot-pounds of torque. That's more than the 244 horsepower of the Pilot and 240 horsepower of the Nissan Murano, and close to the power of the redesigned 2008 Highlander. (The 2007 Highlander has just 215 horsepower, however.)

The V-6 engine is connected to a new six-speed automatic transmission, another feature distinguishing the Veracruz from its competitors. Most of them have five-speed automatics, including the Pilot and the Highlander (including the 2008).

The Veracruz automatic comes with a clutchless manual-shift feature, however, which isn't available with the Pilot, Highlander or Murano.

Fuel-economy ratings are quite decent for a roomy seven-passenger SUV. Using the 2007 EPA formula, the Veracruz is rated at 18 miles per gallon in the city and 25 on the highway vs. 18/24 for the Pilot, 19/25 for the '07 Highlander and 19/24 for the Murano.

Inside, the Veracruz is quieter than the Pilot, with levels of noise and vibration that nearly match those of the Lexus RX, Hyundai says.

The Veracruz already has achieved the top five-star crash-test ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in frontal- and side-impact testing for all front and rear passengers. It scored four stars in the rollover rating, which is the highest any of the crossovers have received.

Among standard safety features are electronic stability control with traction control, four-wheel disc antilock brakes, and side-curtain air bags for all three rows of seats. Hyundai is the leader in providing stability control as standard equipment on its vehicles, with 73 percent of its 2007 models so equipped vs. 42 percent of Honda's vehicles, the closest competitor.

In designing the Veracruz, Hyundai went with an exterior quite similar to that of several of the newer crossovers, including the RX 350, Edge and Acura MDX, which is an upscale version of the Pilot. The styling was a product of Hyundai's California studio and was tailored for American tastes.

Luxury abounds inside the Veracruz. There is nothing cheap or cheesy looking. The leather seats are optional on the base model, but standard on the Limited. Our vehicle also had woodgrain interior trim that gave it a premium look.

Standard on our Limited model were several items that usually are found only on premium brands, and then sometimes only as options. Among them were a power rear liftgate, automatic climate control and a backup warning system.

Base models come with a single-disc CD player that is MP3-capable, and it also has an auxiliary jack for connection of an iPod or other audio player. XM satellite radio is standard.

Our Limited model came with the uplevel Infinity audio system with a six-disc CD changer.

The rear DVD entertainment system on our test vehicle was part of the Ultimate Package ($3,200), which also added a premium black and saddle interior, adjustable pedals, power tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel, rain-sensing wipers, 115-volt power outlet and a keyless entry/start system. The key can be left in the pocket, and the doors unlock as the person with the key fob approaches the vehicle.

No navigation system is offered yet with the Veracruz.

All-wheel drive adds $1,700 to any trim level, which means that the Limited with just front drive would start at $32,995 (with freight).

I would expect that most Sun Belt buyers would choose the two-wheel drive model. But the all-wheel drive system is of value even outside the snowy climates.

It can direct up to half of the torque to the rear wheels, and there is a lock switch on the dash that can force it into the 50/50 mode. The Veracruz has 8.1 inches of ground clearance, which makes it suitable for some light off-road use; but as with most crossovers, this vehicle is not designed for rugged off-road use.

Besides the base and Limited models, there is the midlevel SE, which begins at $28,695 (with freight).

San Antonio Express-News

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