Just over 20 years ago, Hyundai began importing cars to America. These cars were very inexpensive, somewhat problematic and therefore did not receive rave reviews. Since then the Korea-based company has increased vehicle quality, moving well beyond those initial vehicles to its current lineup. However, Hyundai still fights the perception that it only produces inexpensive, basic economy cars.
It takes time to change the public's perception of a car company, but it can be done. As Hyundai Chief Operating Officer Steve Wilhite explained, Toyota and Honda started out very much the same way in the United States, offering inexpensive vehicles that had difficulty competing with the domestic offerings-at least at first. Now both companies have excellent reputations for quality and value. But Toyota has had almost 50 years to get to this point, and Honda had more than 30. Hyundai would like to move more quickly.
The tide may be starting to turn. Within the last two years, Hyundai has introduced the very competitive Sonata midsize sedan as well as its first premium sedan, the Azera. Earlier in April at the 2007 New York International Auto Show, the company took the wraps off the Genesis concept, which will go into production as a rear-wheel-drive luxury car to compete with the likes of BMW and Mercedes.
Now Hyundai enters the premium crossover SUV market with the all-new Veracruz. A premium 7-person midsize crossover, Veracruz is the largest vehicle to date from Hyundai. To be unwaveringly clear about moving the brand upscale, Hyundai provided an opportunity for auto journalists to drive its newest model head to head with the benchmark luxury crossover, the Lexus RX 350. A Hyundai vs. a Lexus-several years ago that showdown would have been laughable. Now it doesn't seem so far-fetched.
The new Veracruz fits well with the design language defined by Hyundai's smaller crossovers, the Tucson and Santa Fe. Not just a larger version of these smaller vehicles, the Veracruz looks well proportioned, with a roofline that slopes rearward and a beltline that flows from the headlights upward toward the rear.
"We are very proud of Veracruz and feel this design will not only reinforce our design direction as a company, but also greatly enhance our escalating brand image on a global basis," said Joel Piaskowski, chief designer at the Hyundai Design Center in Irvine, Calif. "Fluid lines combined with the integrated headlights and taillights envelop Veracruz to create a unified aesthetic."
Although Veracruz does not appear to be very large, it is quite roomy inside. Usable, accessible third-row seating for seven comes standard. Pulling a single lever folds and slides the second row-seat out of the way for easy access to the third row. The second row can move forward to provide more room for third-row passengers.
The interior materials adorning the new crossover are impressive. Even the entry-level GLS trim features brushed metal and wood accents that provide an upscale feel. Gauges employ blue backlighting, and in a nice added touch the cupholders also are ringed with blue light.
Veracruz's comfortable, stylish interior is equal to, if not better than, that found in the Lexus SUV. The optional Saddle leather/black trim interior of our first Veracruz tester easily matches the quality expected in a luxury sedan.
Not Just a Pretty Face
Under the hood of every Veracruz sits a 3.8-liter 260-horsepower V6 engine teamed with a 6-speed automatic transmission. One stated goal of Hyundai engineers was to make the Veracruz "whisper quiet." To reduce vibration, the engine rides on semi-active engine mounts, which utilize three passive mounts integrated with an rpm sensor and solenoid valve. The mounts use engine vacuum to create a dynamic response that offsets engine vibrations.
Hyundai also applied acoustic dampening sheets to the doors and body, a steel plate beneath the engine, and four layers of carpet padding-all in the interest of shutting out external noises. Driving the Veracruz immediately after a stint in the Lexus RX 350 made believers out of us. The new crossover was noticeably quieter than the Lexus, both while driving as well as at idle. According to Hyundai press materials, at 62 mph the Veracruz is 2 dBA quieter than the RX 350.
A bit larger than the Lexus, Veracruz didn't handle quite as nimbly as the RX 350 did during spirited driving. However, the ride is comfortable without being overly soft.
Veracruz does not accelerate from a standstill as quickly as we would have expected, given the engine's horsepower rating. One reason could be that the peak torque of 257 lb-ft is not available until 4500 rpm. But at higher revs the Veracruz accelerates strongly, say, when passing another vehicle.
Available with front-wheel drive or a new "Intelligent Torque Controlled Coupling All-Wheel Drive" system, Veracruz's drive system is similar to others on the market. Torque gets routed to the front or rear wheels automatically, based on wheel-speed sensors. For more severe conditions, the AWD system can be locked to provide a 50:50 front/rear ratio.
And while Veracruz can carry up to seven passengers, it also steps up as a true utility vehicle. Usable cargo space behind the third-row seat is not expansive, but there is plenty of room for groceries and such. If more space is required, the split-folding third-row seat tumbles completely flat with ease. The second row also folds flat, providing more than 86 cubic feet of space behind the front seats.
And if that's still not enough room, the Veracruz can tow up to 3,500 lbs.
The three trim levels of the Veracruz are all well equipped . And like all other Hyundai models, the crossover is covered by a 10-year/100,000 mile warranty.
All trims have standard active head restraints for front seats, dual front- and side-impact airbags, as well as side-curtain airbags that protect all three rows of passengers. Veracruz also features anti-lock brakes (ABS), electronic brake distribution (EBD), and electronic stability control with traction control.
In addition to the safety equipment, the base level GLS comes standard with such amenities as an AM/FM/XM/CD/MP3 audio system, front and rear air conditioning controls, roof-mounted vents for the second and third rows of seats, a trip computer, a rear spoiler and 17-inch alloy wheels.
For a sportier look, the Veracruz SE adds 18-inch alloy wheels, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, a roof rack and fog lights. The SE also gets a power driver's seat, automatic headlights and a center console that can be cooled to keep drinks chilled in the summer.
The top-level Limited trim comes fully loaded with leather trim, heated front seats, a power sunroof, a power rear liftgate, a backup warning system, dual-zone climate control and a 315-watt Infinity audio system with subwoofer.
Both the SE and Limited also are available with a rear-seat DVD entertainment system.
This is where Hyundai plays its trump card: At the time of this article's publication (May 2007), the GLS FWD has a base price of $26,995, SE is at $28,695 and the Limited starts at $32,995. All-wheel drive can be had on any trim for an additional $1,700. A fully loaded Veracruz Limited AWD will top out around $40,000, making it not only the largest vehicle in the Hyundai lineup, but also the most expensive.
Although new-car shoppers may initially have difficulty accepting the Korea-based automaker as a premium brand, there is no question that the new Veracruz is truly a premium vehicle at a Hyundai price. With the Veracruz and the promising luxury sedan inspired by the Genesis concept, perhaps it won't take 50 years to change the public's perception of Hyundai.