Unexpected excellence. Once in a while, perhaps every blue moon or so, a car comes along that's so unexpectedly impressive it catches the entire automotive world off guard. Think the Chrysler minivans in 1984, the Lexus LS 400 in 1990, and the Honda CR-V in 1997.

But these examples were pioneers in their segments; they dared to tread where no one had before. The 2021 Hyundai Palisade – and the related Kia Telluride – is different: it only just arrived to a party where everyone else is already four drinks in. Yet, maybe showing up so fashionably late explains why this three-row crossover is so astonishingly well thought out.

Eager critics might find some joy in trying to poke holes in that statement, but they'll have a tough time of it. The Palisade leaves no stone unturned: the posh interior, refined ride, silent cabin, and ample space are like a greatest hits compilation of what buyers in this segment are shopping for.

Power to the people. The powertrain, while not quite as revelatory as the rest of the Palisade, is nonetheless competent and competitive. That's a good thing, as the 291-horsepower, 3.8-liter V6 is the only option. It uses displacement rather than turbocharging to drum up its output, meaning power builds in a more linear fashion.

That likely costs it a few tenths in the 0-60 mph run, but such a stat is largely irrelevant here. The Palisade doesn't strive for speed; its aim is democratized luxury. Viewed from that light, its 291 hp are plenty. Smooth, eager acceleration occurs whether from a stop or during freeway passing. The performance is predictable and satisfying.

Gear changes are handled by an eight-speed automatic transmission. It selects gears with confidence and isn't afraid to downshift a cog or two if the accelerator is suddenly shoved downward. Power is sent to either just the front wheels or the full four if all-wheel drive is selected. For more control, drivers can use the standard paddle shifters or select between the five different available drive modes.

Our mode of choice would be Comfort, as it's most in line with the Palisade's philosophy. Yet even in Sport, the ride is soft and cushioned and bumps are filtered out with aplomb. In any of its modes, the Palisade is cosseting without ever being floaty.

If there's any complaints to be had, it's that this powertrain feels a little too ordinary in a crossover that otherwise punches well above its weight. The engine is likely the last thing you'll be thinking about after conducting a test drive. Perhaps Hyundai and its customers prefer this. We just wish it had a bit more je ne sais quoi to match the rest of the Palisade.

Hyundai Palisade

Puttin' on the ritz. More than anything else, it's the Palisade's interior that'll wow any prospective shopper. Simply put, it can rival full-bore luxury rides for glamour, comfort, and features.

What's most impressive here isn't its lengthy list of features – though that too could rival the luxury arena's top dogs – but the apparent sense of quality. Shut the door and there's a satisfying thunk. Shift the rotary-dial gearshift and the action is precise and well weighted. Depress the window switches and pull the interior latches and any sense of what Hyundai used to stand for is banished forever.

The Palisade is the biggest Hyundai to date, measuring in at 196 inches long and nearly 4,400 pounds. Those generous dimensions translate to generous interior room: the adjustable second row offers more than 40 inches of leg room when in its rearmost position, and even the third row has almost 32 inches of leg room. We still wouldn't shove full-grown adults back there for a road trip, but it'll work for a quick jaunt across town. Head room across all rows is plentiful, even with the panoramic roof.

If you're trying to carry cargo, there's 18 cubic feet behind the third row and 45 cubes behind the second. Fold both rows down, and there's 85 cubic feet to work with. That's sightly less than the Palisade's corporate cousin, the Telluride.

Base models can be spotted by their cloth seats and blank buttons, but most Palisades will come well equipped with leather upholstery, full power everything, heated seats, and a fully digital cluster.

New for 2021 is the range-topping Calligraphy trim that adds quilted leather seating, 20-inch wheels, and an exclusive grille. If ever there was a Hyundai Denali, this is it.

But is it perfect? The Palisade has managed to make one heck of a splash since its debut last year, but that doesn't mean it's perfect. Quibbles still persist.

One of the most significant is the infotainment system. The two lower trim models come standard with an 8-inch touchscreen, and success in navigating the menus is hard-won.

It can't all be blamed on the rather confusing design layout; the screen is also difficult to read from the driver's seat, due to the smaller size of the icons as well as their font and coloring. Trying to decipher the display could pull your eyes off the road for too long a time. It's a good thing Apple CarPlay and Android Auto come standard.

Some of this is rectified in the larger 10.25-inch touchscreen, which comes standard on the higher two trims. The larger screen size helps, as does its generally superior software that also includes navigation. We'd still be leaning into the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality, however.

Fuel economy is another area buyers might be disappointed. More and more models in this segment are chasing better gas mileage by turning toward hybrids, plug-in electric variants, or simply downsized and turbocharged four-cylinder engines. Not so with the Palisade, which is only offered with a 3.8-liter V6.

Unsurprisingly, it only returns 19 miles per gallon city, 26 mpg highway, and 22 combined, according to the EPA. And that's in front-drive form; all-wheel drive models are rated for just 19/24/21 mpg.

Those numbers don't impress, especially in today's climate. The new Toyota Highlander Hybrid, for instance, will manage an incredible 35 mpg combined. The Ford Explorer Hybrid is good for 28 mpg combined. Pivoting away from hybrids, the Subaru Ascent and Mazda CX-9 can both net 23 mpg combined with AWD.

Final thoughts. Since debuting last year, Hyundai has reported the Palisade has the most conquest sales of any of its models, with more than 60% of buyers coming from outside the Hyundai family.

Why? Because the Palisade packs value, sophistication, and quality to an almost incredulous degree. Say what you will of the styling, which is certainly the most polarizing aspect of the crossover, but there's no doubt that the excellence of the Palisade is finally putting to bed any lingering notions that Hyundai equates to cheap.

The 2021 Hyundai Palisade isn't significant because it's redefining the crossover game. It is significant because it's shaking up established hierarchies and challenging long-standing segment leaders. For those who can stomach the looks, the Palisade is one of the best options out there for an affordable three-row crossover.

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