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MSRP Range: $27,045 - $35,895
Fuel Economy: 18 MPG city / 25 MPG highway

Crossover SUV rivals Pilot.

For South Korean automaker Hyundai, the Veracruz marks yet another bold step upward in price, quality, and performance.

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.

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