Once down and almost out, South Korean automaker continues to make gains in quality

If anyone can appreciate how Toyota feels, it’s Hyundai, whose little $4,000 Excel set a first-year sales record in the mid-’80s before quality issues swept Hyundai from penthouse to outhouse.

Ironically, most analysts see been-there-done-that Hyundai gaining sales at the expense of Toyota, which has been recalling cars that tend to get up and go without wanting to stop.Could be, considering Hyundai recovered from the Excel fiasco by focusing on quality and offering well-equipped vehicles at prices below the competition, primarily Toyota and Honda.

Even before Toyota’s troubles surfaced, Hyundai planned to make some inroads for 2010 by adding even more goodies as standard on the base Veracruz GLS, such as power driver’s seat, roof-rack side rails, backup alert, fog lights and a “cool box” under the center armrest.

We tested the midsize GLS, one of several competitors in the midsize crossover segment that’s taking sales away from SUVs and minivans.

Veracruz has three rows of seats for seven. The third row hides under the cargo floor until needed, creating a very generous space: Think room for more than a week’s supply of groceries or more than two weeks of vacation luggage. Second-row seatbacks also fold, though not flat, to make way for bikes or golf clubs.

With third-row seats up, you’ll have to settle for stashing soft-sided luggage or duffel bags in back and a few small items under the floor.

Also generous are head, leg and knee room in the 60/40-split second row, where a center armrest flips down to expose a pair of cupholders and a small stowage compartment. Climate controls and power plug reside there too.

To slip into the third row, second-row seats slide forward to open a tight aisle. Melons are optional in back unless you fill the cupholders with ice cubes to relieve pounding against the low roof and/or tailgate.

The wide front seats are well cushioned, and the smooth suspension limits unnecessary movement. Neat touches are the heated cloth front seats, plus USB, iPod and auxiliary power outlets in the center console, along with a power plug and cupholders. An air vent in the cool box under the center armrest chills pop cans using the air conditioning or warms coffee cups using the heater.

Veracruz is powered by a 3.8-liter, 260-horsepower V-6 that moves nicely from the light or into the passing lane. But the crossover weighs in at more than 4,400 pounds. Add the on-demand all-wheel drive, which sends power to the wheels needing traction when slippage is detected, and the mileage rating is only 16 mpg city/22 highway. With a 20-gallon tank, however, you can still expect to go about 400 miles before a refill.

Stability and traction control ensure good road manners in fair or foul weather, while an AWD lock setting helps in deep snow.

The well-equipped Veracruz GLS starts at $30,045. Add the premium option package at $4,950 to get navigation system, power sunroof/tailgate, dual-zone air and power tilt/telescoping steering wheel. A rear-seat DVD entertainment system is available ($1,500) only if you move up to the Limited version.