IF I'm reading the U.S. census data correctly, California ranks second behind Utah in the average number of family members per household. Utah I get. I mean, I've seen "Big Love." But California, land of selfish singletons, DINKs (double income, no kids) and others with, shall we say, unfruited loins? Maybe we're not the godless child-haters we're alleged to be.
And yet, something about the current burst of third-row crossovers and SUVs - prominent examples include the Mazda CX-9, the BMW X5, the Acura MDX, the Buick Enclave - doesn't quite add up, sociologically. If the average family size in the U.S. is 3.84 - so sayeth the U.S. Census Bureau - and the average number of children under 18 in those families is holding steady at 1.86, well, why the sudden pressing need for more seats? If, as social scientist Robert D. Putnam suggests, Americans are more isolated than ever before - "Bowling Alone" is the wistful title of his recent book - well, who's to fill this suddenly indispensable third row?
The rise of third-row seating, it seems to me, is a classic case of a manufactured need. Most people who spend the extra money don't actually need a sixth and seventh seat; it's merely that they have been possessed with the anxiety of not having them. My God, one day we might have friends, and then what will we do!
And I don't know about you, but it makes me sad to think of all those SUVs and crossovers roaming around the suburbs with empty, child-size seats, like so many unfulfilled prophesies. It's like the automotive version of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
Wow. Sorry to lay this all on you, my imaginary friend in the back seat.
In any event, California is prime territory for the new 2007 Hyundai Veracruz, another Lexus-alike from the Korean company that has learned to squeeze the grooves off a dime. Like the Sonata and especially the Azera sedan, the Veracruz exudes the kind of feels-like-stealing quality that instantly predisposes one to overlook whatever flaws there might be. Under the river rock-smooth nose is the same 3.8-liter, 260-hp V6 as in the Azera, mounted to the chassis with electronically controlled, vibration-damping engine mounts. Instead of a five-speed automatic, the Veracruz is equipped with a six-speed automatic, though the gear ratios are exchanged with such slippery smoothness it all feels like one big gear.
The base-level vehicle, the GLS, starts at $26,995. Our test vehicle, a Limited with all-wheel-drive and all the trimmings, including a $3,200 rear-seat DVD system (You imaginary kids quiet down back there and watch your "Shrek"!) retailed for $38,020. The Veracruz has five trim levels, each available with all-wheel drive.
Among mid-size, seven-passenger Japanese kinda-crossovers, vehicles such as the Subaru Tribeca, the Suzuki XL7 and the Mitsubishi Endeavor, it's a bitter dogfight. But the vehicle the Veracruz noses up against most is the soon-to-be-released Buick Enclave. I haven't driven the Enclave - I've only seen it on the auto show floor - but both have the glossy, overachieving veneers, leather and faux alloy-and-wood interior trim to reward the bargain-shopping sybarite. The vehicles' overall shapes are very similar, a kind of aero languidness draped uphill from nose to tail and black-clad underbody. These cars are obviously inspired by the Lexus RX350, or it might just be a good idea in packaging and sightlines that Lexus got to first.
Inside, the Hyundai's debt to the Lexus edges toward larceny, with the faux-alloy finish on the geometrically organized triple-stack controls, central rotary dial for the AC, and vertical air outlets all cribbed from the RX350. Of course, cosmetics are easy to copy. What's harder to imitate is Lexus' hermetically sealed quiet, the still and untroubled volumes of the cabin. The Veracruz is deeply quiet, well damped in every direction. The chassis is, apparently, resoundingly stiff. I've got a steep driveway, and when I parked the vehicle sideways on it - at an angle sufficient to make a hard-boned Maserati creak - the Veracruz didn't utter a sound.
This is a fairly big, fairly tall vehicle, with a bit of loll and roll in its handling, but it's sufficiently composed that you can drive it hard into an offramp without feeling out of control. The suspension is more velvety than rubbery. That said, you should not expect much in the way of driver rewards in the Veracruz. If steering feel, braking and cornering are high on your list of priorities, you'd be better off with a used RX350.
With 257 pound-feet of torque, the V6 pulls its own weight and then some, though our test vehicle, with the heavier all-wheel-drive propulsion, felt logy at the throttle. The AWD includes a standard multi-disc center differential; what's not standard, and is welcome, is the center-lock differential, which splits the engine power evenly between front and rear axles.
The Veracruz's raison d'être is, naturally, the third-row seat, accessed by way of a simple lever on the second-row seats.
The second row slides forward five inches, thus making the third-row seats survivable. This is another strange thing about the third-row phenomenon. It is, as yet, unproven that you can make three rows of seats comfortable and accessible, if the vehicle in question is not a Chevy Tahoe.
Fold down the second and third rows and the cargo hold expands to a hangar-like 87 cubic feet.
On the whole, complaints were few. The Veracruz's build quality is first rate, and the warranty could cover the vehicle until the kids are in high school. Safety engineering is abundant, with multiple air bags, stability control, tire-pressure sensors and other insulators against happenstance. The price is most definitely right, considering the slew of standard features, including XM satellite radio and Bluetooth connectivity.
And so what if you don't have the kids? You can always adopt.
2007 Hyundai Veracruz Limited
Base price (AWD): $34,005
Price, as tested: $38,020
Powertrain: 3.8-liter, dual overhead-cam V6 with variable valve timing; six-speed automatic transmission; all-wheel drive
Horsepower: 260 at 6,000 rpm
Torque: 257 pound-feet at 4,500 rpm
Curb weight: 4,470 pounds
0-60 mph: 8 seconds
Wheelbase: 110.4 inches
Overall length: 190.6 inches
EPA fuel economy: 17 miles per gallon city, 24 mpg highway
Final thoughts: Mormons, ho!