- The Washington Times - Friday, January 4, 2008

When Hyundai introduced its new Veracruz crossover utility vehicle as a 2007 model, the word was that the South Korean company intended to equal or better the Lexus RX, which is the best-selling luxury crossover.

The Veracruz has one infirmity. It’s not a Lexus.

It is a luxury CUV, without question, with all the expected equipment and appointments. In its most expensive version, it tops out at more than $40,000.

To a lesser extent, Hyundai could run into the same difficulties that Volkswagen had when it introduced the Phaeton, a high-end luxury sedan. The Phaeton was a fine vehicle, but it competed against the likes of the Audi A8, Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7-Series, which is to say in nosebleed price territory.

Customers who swim in that exclusive pool resisted the idea of having an expensive yacht with a humble Volkswagen badge. Though the Phaeton still sells in Europe, it no longer is exported to the United States.

The Hyundai Veracruz could fall into the same category. People with 40 to 50 grand to spend on a luxurious, jacked-up station wagon are likely to be more comfortable with a Lexus, Acura or Mercedes-Benz badge on their expensive wheels.

Though it still cites Lexus as a target, Hyundai touts the 2008 Veracruz as a competitor for the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander.

But even that more modest goal could pose difficulties because the Pilot and Highlander are well established in their niche, and will be dislodged only on an individual basis over time.

All of that said, there’s no question that the Veracruz is a worthy, even exceptional effort in the mid-size crossover class. It has handsome, well-proportioned styling that effectively disguises the fact that it contains a third row of seats.

It also is competitively priced. The base GLS model, with front-wheel drive, starts at $27,595—about what you’d pay for a similar Saturn Vue, which also is a three-row crossover. If you want all-wheel drive, tack on another $1,700.

The standard equipment is extensive: stability and traction control, antilock brakes, active front head restraints, side air bags and side-curtain air bags, 260-horsepower V6 engine, six-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift mode, air conditioning, audio system with CD and MP3 capabilities, XM satellite radio with a three-month subscription, 17-inch alloy wheels, remote locking, cruise control, motorized and heated outside mirrors, and power windows.

The test vehicle, a Limited with all-wheel drive, had a suggested starting price of $36,445.

Its standard equipment added rain-sensing windshield wipers, a windshield-wiper de-icer, 18-inch alloy wheels, keyless proximity ignition, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, power tailgate, upgraded audio system, automatic climate control, power adjustable pedals and steering wheel, memory settings for the power driver’s seat, heated front seats, and leather upholstery.

With a couple of options that included a navigation system and a rear-seat entertainment system, the tested Veracruz Limited checked in at $40,240. That’s a serious nut, but roughly equivalent to a similar Highlander or Buick Enclave, and way less than a Lexus RX350, which carries only five passengers.

Despite the skepticism that likely greets the Veracruz, Hyundai’s progress in a little more than two decades deserves mention. It started as a company pushing small and unreliable economy cars but became a manufacturer that competes on the world stage and is moving relentlessly upscale.

If the badges were taped over and potential customers were given extensive test drives in the Veracruz, they would likely pronounce themselves pleased with the experience.

There are plenty of conveniences in the Limited, including the adjustable pedals and steering wheel, as well as the keyless ignition and heated outside mirrors.

The 3.8-liter V6 engine has enough punch to motivate the 4,431-pound Veracruz, and the six-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly without hunting for the right gear. Handling and ride are within parameters for this class of vehicle.

The interior has a quality look, with good workmanship on the panels and upholstery. In all three rows, the seats, though flat, offer decent comfort and support. As usual, the center position in the second row is designed to punish rather than cosset.

But even the third row can accommodate a couple of adults, although they will feel as if they are sitting in a hole, with their knees raised. Getting back there takes some athletic ability, but the second-row seats slide easily forward for access.

With all the seats up, there’s less than seven cubic feet of cargo space. But folding the seats expands the area to as much as 87 cubic feet. Access to the cargo area is through a rear hatch. On the Limited, it is motorized and operates at the touch of a button.

Because it is a new vehicle, the jury is out on the long-term durability and reliability of the Veracruz. But Hyundai has been taking giant steps in quality improvement

There were just two nagging negatives on the test car: excessive wind noise at highway speeds and a vibration that translated into an audible buzz somewhere in the instrument panel.

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