Monday, October 01, 2007

Test Drive: Veracruz Seems More Luxury Than Mainstream

Test Drive: Veracruz seems more luxury than mainstream

Hyundai's 2008 Veracruz is mechanically identical to the '07. The only changes are a few more available options and the way some features and options are packaged.

Being either bold or absurd, South Korean car company Hyundai compares its newest SUV, Veracruz, to the Lexus RX 350.

The vehicle's $27,000 starting price, for instance, is "$11,000 below Lexus RX 350," Hyundai bragged when it launched the vehicle earlier this year.

The popular Lexus crossover SUV was the benchmark that Hyundai used developing the Veracruz, says John Krafcik, vice president in charge of product design for Hyundai Motor America. The automaker needed a so-called stretch goal because it knew that the Veracruz would hit the market amid redesigned Toyota Highlander and, next year, Honda Pilot, as well as the new Mazda CX-9 and General Motors' Saturn Outlook/GMC Acadia twins.

Hyundai hoped a premium treatment of a mainstream model could give it an advantage. Trend-meisters call that the "democratization of luxury" -- deluxe features and luxury execution in mid-price products.Drive time in a 2008 Veracruz shows that Hyundai came close enough.

Hyundai launched Veracruz in the spring as a 2007 model but has replaced it after a few months with the mechanically identical 2008. Only changes are a few more available options and the way some features and options are packaged.

Test model was an '08, close to loaded and priced about $39,000, which is enough to make you think at least twice before choosing it instead of a more proven model.

"When you buy a Toyota, you don't have to explain. When you buy a Hyundai, especially a $35,000 Hyundai, you have to explain," acknowledges Krafcik. "We hope you can just sit your neighbor in the vehicle and that will explain."

Salients during the drive, which was a mix of suburban runaround and highway jaunts.

•Driving feel: Good; well-balanced, almost sporty, at least by nose-heavy SUV standards.

Steering did as told and didn't require multiple mini-corrections as some models (even premium brands) still do. Brakes felt firm enough to be reassuring. Suspension kept body movements in check sufficiently to encourage snappy cornering, yet provided a very smooth ride.

•Engine, transmission performance: Engine sound and feel were better than average in this category of vehicle, inviting a heavy foot. The six-speed automatic transmission shifted crisply up or down and was free of untoward, unpleasant, unwanted delays, stutters and stumbles that mar many reputable rivals' gearboxes.

The snaky path for the gear lever was slightly balky and unnatural, though.

•Comfort: Seats in all rows were comfortable. First and second rows were actually roomy. The third row could accommodate adults briefly. The way-back has more legroom than Highlander, but at the expense of cargo room behind the third row, which is a minuscule 6.5 cubic feet.

The third row is split so you can fold half to stretch cargo space while using the other half for a seat. Toyota doesn't give you that benefit on the redesigned Highlander, arguing that while it's a nice feature to demonstrate in showrooms, nobody really uses the third row half-and-half, so why spend to make it so, and why complicate the raising and lowering mechanism?

Handiness is part of overall comfort, and it was more-or-less good in the tester.

Controls were big and obvious. Gauges likewise, but in the tester, the dashboard illumination couldn't be dimmed sufficiently to avoid intruding on night vision. At night, you want as little light inside as possible. The darker the interior, the wider your eyes can open to see the dark road.

Ceiling notches where you grab the sun visors are on the outboard ends. Your hand naturally reaches for the inboard edge. New notches next year, Hyundai says.

Hookup for an iPod or other MP3 player was a throwback. It's an FM modulator instead of a direct-to-the-stereo link. You plug in your MP3 as usual, but then have to tune the car's radio to 88.3 on the FM band to receive the player's signal and route it through the vehicle's stereo. The '09 Veracruz will have the conventional hard-wired link plus a USB port, Hyundai says.

The optional navigation system -- first time Hyundai has offered a built-in navi -- had the desirable bird's-eye view that seems easier to read than the flat map view of most navigators. It lacked sufficient street names, however. And its color and size coding strangely showed some pretty puny paths as major byways, further confusing you in unfamiliar areas.

•Ambiance: The well-equipped tester seemed like a luxury vehicle rather than a loaded mainstreamer. Smooth, quiet, rich-looking and -feeling inside. More than equal to the challenge of Highlander and could be for CX-9 if you don't need the best cargo space and can settle for slightly watered-down sportiness instead of the Mazda's real thing.

No noises, mismatched parts or askew trim were noted; nothing to signal that Veracruz had cut corners in materials or manufacturing.

Hyundai, as a brand, gives mixed messages on quality and reliability. The brand scored exactly average in problems the first 90 days of ownership in this year's widely watched Initial Quality Study by J.D. Power and Associates. That's behind last year's third-place finish, just behind Lexus.

Hyundai's Accent was among the top three subcompact cars; Elantra was among the top three compacts; Tucson was among the top trio of compact SUVs.

Veracruz is essentially an enlarged Santa Fe, but it's hard to predict whether the enlarging will help, hurt or not affect Veracruz when it's included in next year's IQS.

Hyundai, as a brand, has scored below average in Power's dependability studies, which measure reliability of three-year-old vehicles. Accent was a top finisher among subcompacts, however. And each new Hyundai seems to improve.

The long Hyundai warranty, better than some luxury brands offer, provides some peace of mind.

The real question isn't how well the Veracruz compares to the Lexus RX, but whether its $2,000 price advantage, roughly, is enough to draw buyers away from the likes of Highlander and CX-9.

2008 Hyundai Veracruz

•What is it? Midsize, seven-passenger crossover SUV new to Hyundai's line; loosely speaking, a big Santa Fe. Available with front- or all-wheel drive. Manufactured in South Korea.

•How soon? 2007 model went on sale in March. Mechanically identical '08 went on sale in August.

•How much? GLS front-wheel drive (FWD) starts at $27,595 including $695 destination charge. GLS all-wheel drive (AWD) is $29,295. SE FWD is $29,295. SE AWD is $30,995. Limited FWD is $34,745. Limited AWD is $36,445.

•How many? 20,000 to 25,000 a year.

•What's the drivetrain? 3.8-liter V-6 rated 260 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 257 pounds-feet of torque at 4,500 rpm; six-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift mode; traction control.

Optional AWD normally operates as front-drive, shifts power to rears under hard acceleration and when fronts slip. Unusual among crossover SUVs, driver can lock AWD into 50/50 split for unusually challenging conditions.

•What's the safety gear? Frontal, side-impact air bags in front, head-curtain air bags for all rows; anti-lock brakes; stability control.

•What's the rest? Standard on all models: climate control with rear controls; AM/FM/XM/CD/MP3 stereo with FM modulator hookup for MP3 devices; power steering, brakes, locks, mirrors, windows; cruise control; remote-control locks.

•How big? Longer, heavier than Toyota Highlander; shorter, lighter than Mazda CX-9; wider than either. Veracruz is 190.6 inches long, 76.6 inches wide, 71.1 inches tall with roof rack (68.9 inches without), on a 110.4-inch wheelbase.

Weight is listed as 4,266 pounds for FWD, 4,431 pounds for AWD. Cargo space in cubic feet is listed as 6.5 behind third row, 40 when third row's folded, 86.8 when second, third row are folded.

Rated to tow 3,500 pounds. Rated to carry 1,477 (AWD) or 1,466 (FWD) pounds of people, cargo.

•How thirsty? FWD is rated 16 miles per gallon in town, 23 on the highway, 18 in combined driving. AWD is 15/22/18.

Test vehicle's trip computer showed 14.3 mpg in 215 miles of mixed suburban and highway driving.

Regular (87-octane) gasoline is specified. Tank holds 20.6 gallons.

• Overall: Worthy of a shopper's -- even a luxury shopper's -- short list.

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