Hyundai continues to amaze. With the addition of the all-new, 2007 Hyundai Veracruz crossover to its line, it now offers no fewer than nine models in the U.S., ranging from the subcompact Accent to the upscale Azera sedan to the mainstream Entourage minivan to the Santa Fe and Tucson SUVs to the sporty Tiburon. And with the Veracruz, Hyundai isn't just filling a heretofore unnoticed empty spot on its dealers' showroom floors. It's also taking another step up market in price, quality and performance.
The all-new Hyundai Veracruz is no tentative, exploratory step. Its powertrain goes head to head with the competition, primarily the Honda Pilot, the Toyota Highlander, and the Subaru Tribeca. There's no weak-kneed four-cylinder engine or aging four-speed automatic transmission, either. Instead, the Veracruz gets a modern V6 more powerful than competing engines and just as frugal at the gas pump. The transmission is a thoroughly modern, six-speed automatic, putting it one gear up Honda, Toyota and Subaru. There's also a choice of front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, again giving away nothing to the competition.
The Veracruz also enjoys a styling advantage. This is Hyundai's first venture into the crossover market, so it has no mistakes to be corrected, no design vocabulary that has to be slavishly followed, no legacies to be exorcised. It's all a clean-screen project, but with the additional benefit of being able to learn from what others have tried. And learn Hyundai has. The Veracruz presents a clean, uncluttered face, a balanced, sleekly executed profile and maybe a bit of a copycat rear aspect, but if it is, it's at least a copy of a winner.
Inside, there's everything anybody needs except a navigation system.
Besides well-designed and smartly packaged seating for seven, including easy access to the third-row seats, a host of upscale features are standard on the Hyundai Veracruz GLS, the base model. Anything missing there is available on the SE or Limited or in an option package, including a rear-seat entertainment system with wireless headphones and remote.
Veracruz is put together with care, too. Gaps between body panels, while not Lexus or BMW grade, are close and consistent. Interior trim materials feel as good as they look, and they look very good. Gauges and controls look and feel good, with interesting blue-tone night-time instrument lighting and just the right amount of clickiness and rotational resistance.
Suspension is independent all the way around (preferred for ride and handling), with comfortable, front-to-rear shock absorber and spring balance over a longish wheelbase that smoothes out most freeway pavement heaves. A wide stance and responsive steering combine with four-wheel disc brakes, which aren't numbingly over-managed by computerized mappings and algorithms, to earn a refreshingly high, fun-to-drive rating.
Finally, Hyundai left nothing on the shelf when it came to outfitting the Veracruz with safety gear. There are six airbags, including side-curtain coverage for all three rows of seats. Antilock brakes with brake assist and electronic brake-force distribution are standard. So is a full-featured, electronic stability system. And the front seats have active head restraints that move up and forward to cushion the head in rear-impact crashes.
Deeper bottom cushions on the front seats would be nice. So would a height adjustment on the front passenger seat. We also prefer the slot for the Shiftronic, manual-like shift function to be on the driver's side of the main shift gate, instead of on the outside, away from the driver. There was some wind noise on one consumer-ready test vehicle that wasn't on the other. But other than these nit picks, we're hard put to find anything about which to complain.
Hyundai has taken a cautious approach in styling its first mid-size crossover. There are no fancy swoops or swirls on the Hyundai Veracruz, no scoops or bulges, just smooth, graceful forms. Maybe the way to stand out in this increasingly competitive niche is to go for understatement, to aim for not standing out. Whatever, the Veracruz has done it.
Front view shows a rounded face as smooth as an egg shell, and somewhat reminiscent of same, with the mildest of upper lip on the bumper. Two air intakes, the top one ringed in chrome and sporting the Hyundai flying H logo, share the mostly seamless fascia. A brace of almost imperceptible ridges pick up the sweep of the top intake and carry it back across the hood to the feet of the A-pillars framing the windshield. Organic-shaped headlamp assemblies wrap around the fenders. A contrasting underpanel circling the Veracruz beneath perfectly aligned seams lessens the visual mass while adding perceived height. When fitted, asymmetrically shaped fog lights tuck into the upper edge of the underpanel directly beneath the headlamps.
From the side, an organic overall shape is marked by a finely drawn crease that starts at the headlight, then drops ever so slightly behind the front wheel well before rising in a straight line to the taillight. Side windows trace the aero-shape of the roofline, which ends in a spoiler integrated into the top of the liftgate. Thin half-circles matching the contrasting underpanel arc over the wheel wells, which even the standard 17-inch wheels decently fill. Deep rear doors promise easy access to the third-row seats without over-playing the comparatively long wheelbase (the distance between the front and rear tires).
Some design aspects of mid-size crossovers are unavoidably repeated from brand to brand. There's only so much creativity possible given the need to package three seats and some basic cargo space. Fortunately, it's only from the rear that the Veracruz comes close to falling victim to this reality. Were it not for the Hyundai logo, a casual passerby could easily mistake its rear fascia for that of a Lexus RX350. There's a rounded rear window, or backlight, topped by a slicked-back spoiler. The taillights angle upward, bridging the seam between the liftgate and the rear fenders. A lower lip-like, step-topped bumper cups the liftgate. The license plate sits in a recess centered in the lower half of the liftgate and topped by a logoed crossplate doing double duty as a cover for the license plate light and a grip for raising the liftgate. Dual exhaust tips fit in semi-circular cutouts in the bottom edge of the underpanel. But most important, regardless of how similar it looks, it still looks good, and clearly of a piece with the rest of the Veracruz, and for that, Hyundai's to be commended.
The interior of the Hyundai Veracruz is as cleanly styled and executed as the package in which it's wrapped. Materials speak of quality in looks and touch. Gaps are tight and consistent.
Visibility is good all 'round, better in front and behind than to the sides. The hood conveniently slopes down and away, maximizing close-in sightlines. Thick roof supports, most notably the D-pillar all the way in the back, require some acclimation for the driver to be comfortable with quick, over-the-shoulder traffic checks. Head restraints in the second row are the shingle style, contoured to fit down over the seatbacks when lowered, and third-row head restraints retract into the tops of the seatbacks, which minimize their obstruction of the driver's rear vision. The entertainment system's display, however, when in use fills a good portion of the rearview mirror.
The dash is cleanly styled, more functional than busy but with tasteful lines. Gauges look out of large circles with chrome accent rings and blue nighttime backlighting. The metallic-finished center stack places clearly marked and solid-feeling buttons and knobs at a natural reach from the steering wheel, which positions its controls at thumb-height with hands in the 9-and-3 positions. The top half of the dash and door trim gets the darker tones, separated from the lower panels by a band of wood-grained plastic; the premium black and saddle interior is exceptionally rich looking, with black upper and lower dash and door panels and soft-brown saddle leather. Clearly, in taste and finish, Hyundai's come a very long way.
Seats are comfortable and meet our basic standard of adequate, if not superior thigh support. The multi-adjustable driver's seat and tilt-and-telescope steering wheel delivered comfortable driving positions for a 6-foot tall driver and a 5-foot 4-inch tall driver. Side and bottom bolsters suffice for spirited driving. The driver's seat offers height and lumbar adjustments.
The front passenger seat left its occupants feeling as if they were sitting in a hole, however, because there is no seat-height adjustment. The front passenger seat gets only fore-and-aft and seatback-recline adjustments, whether manual or powered.
Second-row seat contours fit two passengers better than three but without putting the third on an under-padded, raised perch.
Third-row seats, while no threat to entice passengers to abandon the second row, are as comfortable as any in the class and tops in class in the critical measurement of legroom; same goes for the Veracruz's front and second-row seats' legroom, which bests the Honda Pilot, the Subaru Tribeca and the Toyota Highlander, in a couple instances by more than an inch. In other dimensions, the Veracruz trails only the Pilot in headroom in all three rows while offering more hip room in all three rows than all but, again, the Pilot, which prevails by more than four inches. Access to the third-row seats is easiest from the right-hand side. That section of the second-row seat folds flat and flips up, while front center console limits the other side to only folding.
Cargo space doesn't match that of the Pilot, Highlander, and Tribeca when all the seats are in place. Fold the seats down, however, and the Veracruz moves ahead in ultimate cargo capacity.
There's space for odds and ends, too. Front and rear side doors have fixed map bins. The backs of the front seatbacks have expandable magazine pouches. There are six cup holders. The lockable, lighted glove box accommodates an owner's manual and small items. The bi-level, front center console's optional cooler function can keep beverages chilled to below 63 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Hyundai Veracruz is not the equal of the Lexus RX350, but it's close. It's so close, in fact, that once you set aside the cachet of the Lexus logo, and settle for just a smidgen less agility, the Veracruz becomes a very attractive, and much more affordable, alternative.
For openers, the Veracruz leads the primary competition in power without paying any price in the fuel economy race. It has the second widest track (distance between the tires side to side). And the longest wheelbase. It weighs less than the Pilot, more than Highlander and about the same as the Tribeca. In the numbers game, then, it takes a back seat to none of these.
And when we drove it we came away thinking it's the most fun to drive, responding willingly and smoothly to proddings at the throttle, taking steering directions with certainty and tracking confidently with minimal body roll through tight corners as well as long, fast, sweeping curves.
The automatic shifts smoothly and precisely, whether in full automatic or in the Shiftronic's manual mode. A brief encounter with the electronic stability program showed a gentle hand, not a fist, one that calmly reined in our over-extension without chopping the throttle or slamming on the brakes. Miles on the interstate cause no discomfort, a credit to the long wheelbase, which damps weathered-pavement heaves.
Noise levels were reasonable, though not Lexus quiet. We experienced some wind noise in one of two vehicles we tested. One vehicle was remarkably quiet even at freeway speeds, while another produced an irritating whistle from the vicinity of the right-hand outside mirror on lower-speed two-lane roads. A third-row passenger had to speak louder than normal to be understood by the driver. Tire and road noise wasn't bothersome, and there were zero buzzes, squeaks and rattles regardless of pavement quality. Hard acceleration produces no unsettling or troublesome sounds from beneath the hood, and the exhaust note is pleasant, if a bit weak.
Brake feel is firm, and reassuringly consistent between test vehicles. Steering assist varies between parking lot and highway speeds and feels about right at both extremes.
The Hyundai Veracruz is the latest and most impressive in a lineup of larger, fancier, more powerful, quieter and pricier vehicles. While some might question whether buyers will pay this kind of money for a Hyundai, we suggest waiting until you've driven the Veracruz before venturing an answer. Hyundai is expanding its lineup and moving upscale, ever so slowly and cautiously, but with determination. Quality and owner satisfaction surveys indicate Hyundai is doing things right. The all-new Hyundai Veracruz is a practical and enjoyable crossover SUV that's an affordable alternative to the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from La Jolla, California.
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