Make way for the all-new Hyundai Veracruz, a premium crossover utility vehicle from South Korea’s largest automaker.

With upscale amenities and impressive power, the seven-passenger Veracruz represents the best of Hyundai, an automaker that a decade ago was the laughingstock of the industry.

The South Korean company’s reputation for poor-quality vehicles — cheap econoboxes that had little resale value – almost led the company to abandon the U.S. market or at least change its name.

But Hyundai has completed one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the history of the auto industry. The company’s vehicles now lead the non-luxury brands for quality in J.D. Power surveys, outranking even the Japanese giants Toyota and Honda.

And while the quality of its vehicles has climbed to the top, Hyundai has been able to retain its longtime policy of pricing its products below the competition, making these vehicles among the best values on the market.

Buoyed by its recent successes and high scores for quality, the company is moving upscale.

First came last year’s introduction of the premium Azera full-size sedan, a $25,000-plus car that has the feel of a $30,000-plus Lexus or Acura sedan.

Then last week the Detroit auto show, Hyundai rolled out the Veracruz, a crossover whose “aspirational target” was the Lexus RX 350, according to Miles Johnson, manager of product public relations for Hyundai Motor America, the company’s U.S. sales and marketing arm.

The 2007 Veracruz, which Hyundai has already begun shipping to dealers, is the best-equipped, most-luxurious vehicle the company has offered.

With prices beginning at about $27,500 for the base GLS model and ranging as high as $33,000 for the leather-equipped Limited model, the Veracruz is a giant step above the company’s midsize Santa Fe crossover, whose prices range from $21,045 to $28,025.

“This is definitely a notch up for us,” Johnson said. “The Santa Fe has a 3.3-liter V-6 and optional seven-passenger seating, but the Veracruz comes with a 3.8-liter V-6 and a standard third row.”

The Veracruz also comes with Hyundai’s first six-speed automatic transmission, which also has manual-shift capability.

The vehicle is quieter at highway speeds than the RX 350, Johnson said, and although it’s nine inches shorter than the full-size Mercedes-Benz GL500 sport utility, the Veracruz has more cargo space.

With 260 horsepower, the Veracruz has more power than the competing Honda Pilot (240) and Toyota Highlander (215).

“The Veracruz has a lot of outstanding features, but still has a reasonable price,” Johnson said.

“In the past, we weren’t known for this level of quality. But people no longer have to justify buying a Hyundai. I think we’re going to do quite well with it.”

Safety also is strongly emphasized in the Veracruz, which includes such standard features as electronic stability control, driver and front-passenger seat-mounted side air bags, roof-mounted side-curtain air bags for all three rows of seats, four-wheel antilock brakes, active front head restraints, and a tire-pressure monitoring system.

“We have electronic stability control on 70 percent of our line, including some of our lower-end models,” Johnson said. “This is one of the most-important new safety features in the industry, and we’re making it standard because we don’t want our customers to have to choose between buying a sunroof or a safety system.”

The Veracruz rides on a lengthened Santa Fe chassis, which itself was devrived from the current-generation Sonata midsize sedan chassis. This is the chassis also used for the Azera.

“Veracruz is an exceptional vehicle at the right time for this developing segment,” Steve Wilhite, Hyundai Motor America’s chief operating officer, said during the Detroit introduction.

“The vehicle’s designers recognized that the needs and desires of traditional SUV buyers weren’t being met, and focused on meeting those needs in an elegant and ingenious way. The result is a spacious crossover that delivers both refined style and first-rate performance.”

Hyundai says the vehicle’s sculpted front bumper was designed to create the appearance of additional height. The design also includes three-tiered headlights.

Chrome trim was “strategically applied” to highlight some of the vehicle’s design features, the company said, “while giving Veracruz an elegant, luxurious presence.” Base models come with 17-inch alloy wheels, while uplevel versions have 18-inch alloy wheels.

The interior was designed to “coddle” passengers in a “rich, sophisticated environment that was inspired by boutique hotels,” Hyundai said. The result “is an interior that could be found in the finest luxury sedans.”

As for the quietness, “every major component has been designed to reduce cabin noise below the whisper-quiet Lexus RX350,” the company said.

The seats include two front buckets, a three-person middle bench, and a two-person rear bench. But even the rear seat was designed to accommodate adults, unlike the third seat in most of the Veracruz’s competitors, which are barely comfortable for children.

The third seat has a hideaway function that opens the cargo area up when the seat isn’t needed for passengers. The middle row can be folded, as can the front passenger seat, to further increase cargo capacity.

The vehicle comes with front-wheel drive, but for about $1,000, all-wheel drive is available on any model, Johnson said.

Three trim levels are offered. Besides the base GLS and top Limited model, there is the sporty SE between the two.

All GLS models come with a rear spoiler, the 17-inch wheels, an AM/FM/XM/CD/MP3 audio system, air conditioning with cabin filter, steering wheel audio/cruise controls, heated power side mirrors with puddle lights and side turn signals, front solar glass and rear privacy glass, remote keyless entry, and power windows and door locks.

An optional premium package adds a sunroof, power driver’s seat, heated front seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and a backup warning system.

The midlevel SE adds to the GLS features such extras as the 18-inch wheels, power driver’s seat, auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass, universal garage/gate opener, front fog lights, a roof luggage rack, center storage console with Cool Box, auto-dimming outside mirrors and automatic headlights.

Adding the premium and leather package brings the sunroof, leather seats, heated front seats, a 315-watt Infinity audio system with CD changer, and a backup warning system.

Also available is an entertainment package (which also requires the premium and leather package), which features a rear-seat DVD entertainment system, 605-watt Infinity AM/FM/XM/CD-changer/MP3 audio system with Logic 7 surround sound, a 115-volt power outlet, and a conversation mirror.

The Limited comes with the features of the SE, plus the leather seats, heated front seats, power front passenger seat, automatic climate control, 315-watt Infinity audio system, sunroof, power tailgate, chrome door handles, brushed metal door sill plates, conversation mirror, windshield wiper deicer and backup warning system.

And the ultimate package adds power-adjustable pedals, integrated memory system, power tilt and telescopic steering wheel, the 605-watt Infinity audio system, the entertainment system, the 115-volt power outlet, a proximity key system, and rain-sensing wipers. The proximity-key system is like that offered on many luxury vehicles, allowing for keyless unlocking and starting of the vehicle.

EPA fuel-economy ratings are 18 miles per gallon in the city and 25 on the highway for the front drive models, and 17 city/24 highway with all-wheel drive.

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