Monday, October 22, 2007

Hyundai Goes Upscale in Midsize Crossover

Hyundai goes upscale in midsize crossover

The 2007 Hyundai Veracruz crossover. It's not a Lexus, it's a Hyundai.

You've got to give Hyundai a bit of credit for coming so far in such a short amount of time. Just a few years ago, the Korean manufacturer's stateside offerings were the butt of jokes, econoboxes with shaky reputations and second-world manufacturing standards. American drivers, first exposed to the budget-minded Excel, are particularly lucky that they were spared the automotive terror that was the Hyundai Pony, an auto which was imported to my native Canada for many years. Friends from Edmonton showed up in their second-hand Pony when I first moved to Colorado a decade ago and my American acquaintances didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

Flash forward not so many years and you have a totally new world of Hyundai. The once-nascent automaker has improved so much and inspired enough vehicular confidence in the American market where it can begin to directly poke fun at more expensive automobiles, taunting them, as it were.

Case in point is the new Hyundai Veracruz - I guess they could have called it Mazatlan or Cotopaxi, but they stuck with Veracruz - a well-designed and reasonably attractive seven-passenger mid-size crossover SUV whose sole mission, one might believe, was to thumb its nose at the more haughty Lexus RX350.

The argument goes something like this: Buy a Veracruz Limited (in my tester's case, front wheel drive only), and for just over $33,000, you'll get a laundry list of options that you'd pay thousands and thousands more for in a Lexus, or in the frankly more comparable Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, Subaru Tribeca or Nissan Murano.

And there's plenty of truth in that. Without requesting extras, your standard Veracruz comes with a 3.8 liter V-6 producing 260 horsepower, a six-speed automatic transmission with a manual Shiftronic mode, plus attractive 18-inch alloy wheels and Michelin rubber, power adjustable and heated leather seating, a fancy Infinity stereo with XM Satellite radio and even a power liftgate.

There's third-row seating, sliding second row seats, a sunroof, dual exhaust and a backup warning system. The Veracruz looks like a blend of the 2005 model Acura MDX, bits and pieces of the BMW X5 and ... well, yes, a lot like a Lexus RX350.

While the "get almost the same vehicle for much less" argument will certainly get Hyundai some traction in the crossover market, the basic problem is that attacking the Lexus crowd is a lot like saying a $35 RCA stereo, purchased at Wal-Mart, will do the same basic functions as a very, very expensive Bang & Olufsen stereo system - i.e. play CDs and allow you to listen to Biff America or "Eggs Over Irie." That is technically true but ... uh ... well, stick with me for a minute.

Sadly, those who want a Lexus will probably still buy a Lexus and will get a somewhat more expensive vehicle that is still just an SUV but, is a Lexus and is not a Hyundai.

This is not a fight I chose to start - that was Hyundai's decision - but if you're talking smack about the epitome of slightly staid but tremendously well-designed Japanese automobiles, you have to accomplish a few simple goals.

The first would be a ride that is as smooth and solid as a Lexus. My week in the Veracruz suggested that this goal is being rapidly pursued, but hadn't quite been achieved. The Veracruz, weighing in at 4,266 pounds, feels just a bit unwieldy when cruising the byways, as most mid-size SUV crossovers do. Steering is marginally vague and the suspension, while not quite as pogo stick-like as the Kia Sorrento, is just a little too happy to communicate every thump and bump in the road. Power is fine and plentiful (and earned me about 21 miles per gallon), but the basic ride and handling lack a certain sophistication.

The overall design, especially the interior details, come much closer to that goal, with a modern look epitomized by a ridged hood, bubbled headlamps, mirrors with signal repeaters and wraparound brake lamps, plus a rear spoiler and adaptable roof rails.

The Veracruz's insides are very nice indeed, with loads of leather surfaces, comfortable and infinitely adjustable seating (even the third row has moderately comfortable space, provided those in the second row slide forward a bit) and a decoration scheme that includes woodgrain-styled trim, aluminum-styled plastic and glowing blue mood lighting. The heating and cooling system is great and even the center console box is cooled; rear passengers get their own air controls and a series of ceiling-mounted vents.

It's a wonderful package and for those seeking mid-size perks with small-size pricing, the Veracruz is one to investigate. Just don't expect a Lexus; you'll get a very nice Hyundai.

BY Andy Stonehouse
special to the daily
September 14, 2007

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