Daily Archives: April 10, 2007

Hyundai Moves Up

G. Chambers Williams III: Hyundai moves up

An upscale SUV from Hyundai?

Yes, indeed.

Arriving now at your local dealers is the all-new Veracruz, a seven-passenger, midsize crossover that begins just under $27,000.

Hyundai says the vehicle was benchmarked against the luxury Lexus RX 350.

Now, I’m not ready to tell you that the Veracruz is quite as good as the Lexus, even though the folks at Hyundai are convinced of that. They gave me a chance to drive the RX and the Veracruz back to back for comparison, and the RX won rather easily.

But with prices starting $11,000 less than the RX 350, and with a similarly equipped Veracruz running $7,700 less than the base RX, the Hyundai does come across as quite a value.

That doesn’t mean that many of the 9,000 customers who buy the RX 350 every month would check out the Hyundai first, and perhaps choose it instead. Those who would buy the Lexus and those who would choose the Hyundai are entirely different customers and won’t be cross-shopping these two vehicles.

But when compared with two popular crossovers that Veracruz shoppers might consider – the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander – the Hyundai model still rings up as a bargain.

The base Veracruz GLS model with front-wheel drive lists for $3,265 less than a similarly equipped Highlander, and $3,712 less than the Pilot.

Here again, though, Hyundai has a hard sell ahead of it when trying to take customers away from the top Japanese brands. Honda and Toyota customers are loyal and probably wouldn’t consider a Hyundai any more than a Lexus customer would.

Where Hyundai is going to be successful with the Veracruz – and make no mistake, the Veracruz is going to be a great success – is with customers who cross-shop it with many of the other crossovers on the market, particularly the domestic models such as the Ford Edge, Saturn Outlook, GMC Acadia, Chrysler Pacifica and Buick Rendezvous.

Unfortunately, Hyundai is still fighting an unfair perception on the part of many consumers that its vehicles are somehow lacking in quality, especially when compared with the main Japanese brands, Honda, Toyota, Nissan and Mazda.

J.D. Power quality rankings in the past few years solidly refute that notion, but Hyundai knows it has an image problem and will have to continue to prove itself to consumers who have that negative view of the company’s products.

Those who have bought Hyundai products within the past few years, particularly since 2000, know better, and are among the smartest and most-astute car buyers on the planet. That’s because Hyundai offers top-quality vehicles at what amounts to bargain prices and also throws in the nation’s best warranty, which covers the drivetrain for up to 10 years or 100,000 miles.

The Veracruz is the third SUV in the Hyundai lineup, joining the entry compact Tucson and midsize Santa Fe. The Veracruz is built on a stretched and widened Santa Fe chassis to allow for a roomy third row of seating, letting it to hold up to seven people comfortably.

It has more total cargo volume – 86.8 cubic feet with the second and third rows of seats folded – than all of its direct competitors except for the Pilot (87.6 cubic feet), which has the edge because it’s built from the architecture of the Honda Odyssey minivan. The Veracruz even has more cargo space than the full-size Mercedes-Benz GL500.

It’s also among the most powerful midsize crossover utility vehicles.

Under the hood is a 3.8-liter V-6 engine rated at 260 horsepower and 257 foot-pounds of torque. This is a version of the engine found in the Azera, Hyundai’s full-size premium sedan, which competes with the Toyota Avalon.

That’s more than the 244 horsepower of the Pilot, the 240 horsepower of the Nissan Murano and the 215 horsepower of the current Highlander. (The redesigned, 2008 Highlander, which will arrive later this year, will have 270 horsepower, however.)

The Veracruz’s engine is connected to a new six-speed automatic transmission, another feature distinguishing it from its competitors, most of which have five-speed automatics, including the Pilot and the Highlander (both the current model and the 2008).

The six-speed in the Veracruz comes with a manual-shift feature, too, which isn’t available with the Pilot, Highlander or Murano (which has a continuously variable transmission with no discernable shift points).

Fuel-economy ratings of the Veracruz are nearly the same as those of its competitors. Using the 2007 EPA formula, the Veracruz is rated at 18 miles per gallon city/25 highway vs. 18/24 for the Pilot, 19/25 for the ’07 Highlander and 19/24 for the Murano. No ratings have been released for the 2008 Highlander.

Hyundai claims to have a quieter cabin in the Veracruz than the Pilot, with levels of noise and vibration that match or exceed those of the Lexus RX.

Safety is one of the strongest points of the Veracruz, which already has achieved the top five-star crash-test ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in frontal- and side-impact testing for all front and rear passengers. The Veracruz scored four stars in the rollover ratings, which is the highest any of the crossovers have received.

Standard safety features include electronic stability control with traction control, four-wheel disc antilock brakes, and side-curtain air bags for all three rows of seats. Hyundai is the leader in providing stability control as standard equipment on its vehicles, with 73 percent of its 2007 models so equipped vs. 42 percent of Honda’s vehicles, the closest competitor.

HTSA estimates that 80 percent of fatal SUV rollover accidents could be prevented by having stability control in all of the vehicles, and that with ESC in the entire fleet of cars on the road, 10,000 lives could be saved annually.

The Veracruz’s exterior styling is similar to that of several of the newer crossovers, including the RX 350, the Edge and Acura MDX. The car was styled by Hyundai’s California design studio for American tastes, but is being built in Hyundai’s home country, South Korea, and is sold in Europe and Asia as well as North America.

n other markets, the main engine is a diesel; but because of stricter U.S. smog regulations, that engine is not offered here.

Inside, the Veracruz has premium features and materials that give it a luxury look and feel. It is here that the vehicle has the closest comparisons to a more expensive vehicle such as the RX 350. Leather seats are optional, and there is wood-grain trim.

Among luxury options are a power rear liftgate, automatic climate control, a backup warning system and a keyless entry/start system like the one found in many luxury vehicles. The key can be left in the pocket; the doors unlock as the person with the key fob approaches.

The base audio system comes with a single-disc CD player that is MP3-capable, and it also has an auxiliary jack for connection of an iPod or other portable audio player. There are a couple of audio upgrades available. XM satellite radio is standard.

Also optional is a good rear DVD entertainment system, though. It has an 8-inch screen that drops down from the ceiling, and a pair of wireless headphones is included.

One flaw, though, is that no factory-installed navigation system is yet offered with the Veracruz. Hyundai says it’s working on adding an in-dash nave system as an optional feature.

All-wheel drive is a $1,700 option and is available on all models. This system can direct up to half of the torque to the rear wheels, and there is a lock switch on the dash that can force it into the 50/50 mode.

The car has 8.1 inches of ground clearance, which makes it suitable for some light off-road use; but as with most crossovers, this vehicle is a soft-roader, not an off-roader. It’s not suitable for the Rubicon Trail.

The Veracruz comes in three trim levels: base ($26,995, including freight), SE ($28,695) and top-of-the-line Limited ($32,995). With all-wheel drive, prices begin at $28,695. With all options, the Limited model with all-wheel drive tops out at about $38,000.

San Antonio Express-News
G. Chambers Williams III