While Hyundai's compact SUV, the Santa Fe, rivals mid-size SUVs from established manufacturers, the Hyundai Veracruz meets them head-on. Its powertrain goes toe-to-toe with the competition, primarily the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, and Subaru Tribeca. Veracruz offers no weak-kneed four-cylinder engine or aging four-speed automatic transmission. Instead, Veracruz boasts a modern V6, standard, and still delivers frugal numbers at the fuel pump. Its transmission is a thoroughly modern six-speed automatic, putting Hyundai one gear up on Honda, Toyota and Subaru. There's a choice of front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, again giving away nothing to the competition.
The Hyundai Veracruz even 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 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; but at least a copy of a winner.
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, too, with interesting blue-tone night-time instrument lighting and just the right amount of clickiness and rotational resistance.
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 even the base Veracruz GLS. 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, plus a new-for-2008 navigation system.
Also new for 2008 are an available power tailgate and 115-volt power outlet for the mid-range Veracruz SE; while most of last year's Ultimate Package is now standard on the top-of-the-line Veracruz Limited.
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 (the longest, in fact, in the class) 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 would 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. We heard some wind noise in one test vehicle that wasn't in the other. But these are nitpicks, and we're hard put to find anything to complain about here.
Hyundai Veracruz GLS FWD ($26,900); GLS AWD ($28,600); SE FWD ($28,600); SE AWD ($30,300); Limited FWD ($34,050); GSL AWD ($35,750)
The 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. (And would that be a bad thing?) 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.
Visibility is good all around, though 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 eight-inch display, however, when in use fills a good portion of the rearview mirror.
The dash is cleanly styled, more functional than busy and 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 standard multi-adjustable driver's seat (with height and lumbar adjustments) and tilt-and-telescope steering wheel provided comfortable driving positions for drivers 6-feet tall and just 5-foot 4. Side and bottom bolsters suffice for spirited driving.
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 not threatening to entice passengers to abandon the second row, are as comfortable as any in the class, and in fact top the class in the critical measurement of legroom; same goes for front- and second-row seat legroom, which bests the Honda Pilot and Subaru Tribeca, in a couple of instances by more than an inch. The new-for-2008 Toyota Highlander beats Veracruz in front-row legroom but only equals it in the second row and doesn't even come close to the Hyundai in the way-back.
In headroom, the Veracruz tops or equals Tribeca but trails the Pilot and Highlander in all three rows; while offering more hip room than Tribeca or Highlander, about the same as Pilot up front and in the middle, and 3.4 inches less than the Honda in the third row. Access to the Hyundai's 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, or Tribeca when all the seats are in place. Fold the seats down, and the Veracruz moves slightly ahead of Pilot and way ahead of Tribeca in ultimate cargo capacity, but still falls almost nine cubic feet short of the new Highlander.
At least there's space for odds and ends. 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 k
For openers, the Veracruz leads Pilot and Tribeca in power without paying a price in fuel economy. Its track (the distance between the tires side to side) is wider than Tribeca's or the new Highlander's, and its wheelbase is still the longest of the group. Veracruz weighs about the same as Pilot, more than Tribeca or Highlander. The new Highlander delivers a little more horsepower on a little less fuel, but beyond this, Veracruz numbers take a back seat to none of its primary competitors.
And when we drove Veracruz 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 Lexus RX is a bit soft and squishy for our taste and not always the best for those prone to motion sickness.
The Veracruz transmission shifts smoothly and precisely, whether in full automatic or in the Shiftronic 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 are 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 or rattles regardless of pavement quality. Hard acceleration produces no unsettling or troublesome sounds from beneath the hood, and the exhaust note was 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.
We did not try the available all-wheel-drive system, which Hyundai calls Intelligent Torque Controlled Coupling. Wheel-speed sensors monitor for any loss of traction, and the system's electronics automatically re-rout power to the rear wheels as necessary through a multi-plate clutch, without requiring any input from the driver. For extreme conditions at low speed, a 50:50 torque ratio can be locked in at the touch of a button.
New for 2008, the navigation system, made by electronics giant LG, is available on Limited models includes touch-screen functions, point-of-interest features, and audio/visual prompts to assist in getting drivers to where they want to go.
The Veracruz is the latest and most impressive in a lineup of larger, fancier, more powerful, quieter and pricier vehicles from Hyundai. 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 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 test drove the Veracruz around La Jolla, California.