I think that in a very real way, the torrid sales of roomy crossover SUVs like the new Hyundai Veracruz are about America coming home.
More precisely, it is about Americans escaping back into the spacious family station wagons of their childhoods, the car they never really wanted to escape from.
The exodus from this suburban icon began in earnest in the '80s with the advent of the minivan. Sales of the traditional wagon fell from a million a year early in the decade to less than 400,000 by 1990.
The minivan, in turn, fell victim to the more adventurous image of the SUV. For quite a while, the wildly popular SUVs were virtually all truck-based, which meant that they often had trucky ride and handling qualities, forgettable gas mileage, and off-road capabilities that people didn't need to get up a snowy driveway in St. Davids.
It remained for Subaru to do its Darwinian duty and come up with the next evolutionary step.
The little automaker didn't have the bucks to develop a traditional SUV, so it jacked up its midsize Legacy wagon, tacked on some macho styling cues, and the Outback was born. The Outback became the first significant car-based, or "crossover," SUV. Basically, it gave the customer the adventurous image, pleasure-car ride and handling, decent fuel economy, an all-wheel-drive system that afforded good traction on slippery roads - and the roominess of his parent's wagon.
That folks have bought into this concept is evident in the population density Hyundai encountered in the seven-seat crossover arena. Besides its chief antagonists, the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander, the Veracruz faces the likes of the award-winning Mazda CX-9, the GMC Acadia, the Saturn Outlook, and the Buick Enclave.
The nicely realized Hyundai went on sale in the spring as a 2007 model. That 2007 (which I tested) is identical to the 2008. An optional navigation system and higher price tag are the only changes in the game for 2008.
The base price of the GLS model went from $26,305 to $26,900; the SE that I drove from $28,005 to $28,600; and the top-of-the line Limited from $32,305 to $34,050. These prices are for front-drive models. All-wheel drive is an additional $1,700.
The Limited easily qualifies as the most expensive car the Korean automaker has fielded. It's mixing apples and oranges, of course, but it has occurred to me that its base price is about $2,000 more than that of the superbly redesigned Mercedes-Benz C-Class car.
What you get for this money is a good-looking, nicely made seven-seater with a gutsy engine, a smooth, six-speed automatic, and a generous serving of standard equipment.
Indeed, the heavily equipped, front-drive SE model I tested had no options save a $125 set of floor mats. Its included gear featured electronic stability control and 18-inch alloy wheels. As the stability control might suggest, the Veracruz doesn't skimp on safety features. It has six air bags, a tire-monitor system, ABS with electronic brake force distribution and assist, and top government crash ratings.
While not brimming with originality, the Veracruz's exterior and interior styling are attractive and well-assembled. The tester's body fits were nice, and the interior managed to look upmarket despite the use of faux veneer trim.
Although the Veracruz weighs more than 2 tons, it can really hustle off the line, thanks to its 260-horse, 3.8-liter V-6. The handling afforded by the car's independent suspension is composed, the ride is comfortable, and the steering boasts good road feel and a small turning radius.
The Veracruz is as roomy as it is quiet. Even the two passengers seated in the third row are reasonably comfortable. With the second and third rows folded down, the Veracruz has almost 87 cubic feet of storage space.
EPA mileage numbers are a commentary on this year's tougher rating system. The 2007 SE front-drive model had EPAs of 18 city and 25 highway. The identical 2008 model is 16 and 23.
Base price: $28,005.
As tested: $28,820.
Standard gear: 3.8-liter engine; six-speed automatic transaxle; vented disc brakes with ABS; stability control; 18-inch alloy wheels; and an extensive equipment list that includes cruise control and satellite radio.
Options: Floor mats.
Fuel economy (city/highway):
Engine performance: Healthy.
Handling: Composed, competent.
Comfort: Good ride.
Styling: Derivative, but nice.
Warranty: Five years/60,000 miles bumper to bumper, 10 years/100,000 miles/power train.
The Ben Key
Four Bens, Excellent, Three Bens, Good,
Two Bens, Fair,
One Ben, Poor.EndText