Hyundai, the first South Korean automaker to enter the U.S. market, has come a long way since it rolled out its initial product here in 1985, the subcompact Excel hatchback.

Although it built its reputation on mostly small, affordable and fuel-efficient vehicles, Hyundai has become much more than that now, with a full line of cars, SUVs and a minivan.

For 2009, the company introduced its first true luxury sedan, the Genesis, and a coupe version of it is on the way to market.

The Genesis was so good that it won the North American Car of the Year award at this past January's Detroit auto show.

Hyundai also now has a premium SUV as well. For 2007, the company brought the midsize Veracruz crossover to the United States, and for 2009, it comes with a base price range of $27,145 (plus $750 freight) for the entry-level GLS front-drive model to $35,995 for the top-of-the-line Limited model with all-wheel drive.

We tested the Limited front-drive model (base price $34,295 plus freight).

With options and freight, our tester's price rang up at $38,295, but that included the Navigation Package ($1,750), which also brought the uplevel Logic 7 surround-sound 605-watt audio system; and the Rear Seat Entertainment Package ($1,500), which comes with a roof-mounted eight-inch LCD screen and two wireless headphones.

It's not necessary to pay this much to get a nicely equipped Veracruz, however. The GLS model with its under-$28,000 price is a good buy if you can live without all the fancy extras and gadgets.

The marvelous thing about the Veracruz is that it seems a lot more expensive than it is, with the look and feel of a luxury model such as the Lexus RX 350, against which the Veracruz was benchmarked. The RX 350 begins at just under $38,000.

All models come with the same 3.8-liter V-6 engine with dual exhaust, rated at 260 horsepower and 257 foot-pounds of torque.

The engine is connected to a six-speed automatic transmission, another feature distinguishing the Veracruz from its competitors. Most of them have five-speed automatics, including the competing Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander.

Standard on even the base Veracruz are such amenities as electronic stability control, traction control, antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution, front seat-mounted side air bags, roof-mounted side-curtain air bags for all rows, 17-inch alloy wheels, six-speaker compact-disc audio system with iPod connection, power/heated outside mirrors with approach lights and turn-signal lights, cruise control with steering-wheel controls, power windows/mirrors/door locks with remote, and much more.

That means that even at the starting price, with very few (if any) options tacked on to the sticker, the Veracruz comes across as a bargain.

Adding such options that were either standard or included on our Veracruz Limited model, including leather interior and the rear-seat entertainment system, sunroof, backup warning system, and 18-inch alloy wheels - among other things - would push the RX 350's price into the upper $40,000s.

Keep in mind, though, that the Veracruz is not a Lexus, and the Hyundai name is not the attention-getter that Lexus is. But with prices starting $11,000 less than those of the RX 350, and with a similarly equipped Veracruz running about $8,000 less than the base RX, Hyundai surely wins the value race.

Granted, those who would buy a Lexus and those who would buy a Hyundai are entirely different customers. But the point is that anyone who chooses the Veracruz can feel good about the purchase. This is a lot of vehicle for the money, and even without a name like Lexus, it's quite elegant.

The Hyundai also stacks up well against popular crossovers that Veracruz shoppers might also consider - the Pilot and Highlander, as well as the Nissan Murano and Ford Edge.

And while Hyundai might have a hard time taking customers away from Honda, Toyota and Nissan, it can offer a great crossover with lots of standard equipment to those who can't quite afford one of those Japanese brands. The Veracruz really is on the same level, but with a lower price.

This is the third SUV in the Hyundai lineup. It joined the entry compact Tucson and midsize Santa Fe. The Veracruz is built on a stretched and widened Santa Fe chassis to allow for a roomy third row of seating, giving it a maximum capacity of seven. (The RX 350 has room for only five.)

There is more cargo volume - 86.8 cubic feet with the second and third seats folded - than in all of the Veracruz's direct competitors except for the Pilot (87.6 cubic feet).

Fuel-economy ratings are quite decent for a roomy seven-passenger SUV. The Veracruz is rated at 16 miles per gallon in the city and 23 on the highway vs. 17/23 for the Pilot, 18/24 for the V-6 Highlander, and 18/23 for the Murano (all with two-wheel drive).

Inside, the Veracruz is quieter than the Pilot, with levels of noise and vibration that nearly match those of the Lexus RX.

The Veracruz has achieved the top five-star crash-test ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in frontal- and side-impact testing for all front and rear passengers. It scored four stars in the rollover rating, which is the highest any of the crossovers have received.

In designing the Veracruz, Hyundai went with an exterior similar to that of several of the newer crossovers, including the RX 350, Edge and Acura MDX, which is an upscale version of the Pilot. The styling was a product of Hyundai's California studio and was tailored for American tastes.

Luxury abounds inside the Veracruz. There is nothing cheap or cheesy looking. The leather seats are optional on the base model, but standard on the Limited. Our vehicle also had wood-grain interior trim that gave it a premium look.

Standard on our Limited model were several items that usually are found only on premium models, and then sometimes only as options. Among them were a power rear liftgate, automatic climate control and a backup warning system.

Base models come with a single-disc CD player that is MP3-capable, and XM satellite radio is standard.

Our Limited model came with the uplevel Infinity audio system with a six-disc CD changer. Other standard features included power adjustable pedals, power tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel, rain-sensing wipers, 115-volt power outlet, and a keyless entry/start system. The key can be left in the pocket, and the doors unlock as the person with the key fob approaches the vehicle.

All-wheel drive is a $1,700 option on either trim level. Most Sun Belt buyers choose the two-wheel drive models, but all-wheel drive system is of value even outside snowy climates and is a bargain at this price.

It can direct up to half of the torque to the rear wheels, and there is a lock switch on the dash that can force it into the 50/50 mode. The Veracruz has 8.1 inches of ground clearance, which makes it suitable for some light off-road use, but as with most crossovers, this vehicle is not designed for rugged off-road use.

Ride quality is quite Lexus-like in the Veracruz, which also helps give it a luxury feel.

The engine offers decent acceleration, even on uphill freeway ramps, although as with most vehicles in this class, it can feel a little sluggish when fully loaded with people and their stuff.

The Veracruz, which is based on the architecture of the Sonata midsize sedan, handled quite well on some fun twisty country roads. It's not a sports car, of course, but for an SUV, it holds the road quite well and the steering is predictable.

The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at 210-250-3236; chambers@star-telegram .com.

At a Glance:

2009 Hyundai Veracruz

The package: Midsize, five-door, seven-passenger, V-6 powered, front- or all-wheel-drive crossover utility vehicle.

Highlights: This is Hyundai's newest midsize crossover utility vehicle, which comes in two trim levels - including the upscale Limited model that offers more standard amenities than the Lexus RX 350. It is built on the platform of the Sonata sedan, and has carlike ride and handling.

Negatives: Can get pricey with all the options.

Length: 190.6 inches.

Curb weight: 4,266-4,431 pounds.

Engines: 3.8-liter V-6.

Horsepower/torque: 260 HP/257 foot-pounds.

Transmissions: Six-speed automatic with manual-shift feature.

Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock.

Electronic stability control: Standard.

Side air bags: Front seat-mounted; side curtain for all rows, standard.

Cargo volume: 6.5 cubic feet (behind third seat; 40.0 cubic feet (third seat folded or not present).

Towing capacity: 3,500 pounds.

Major competitors: Ford Edge, Toyota Highlander, Subaru Tribeca, Suzuki XL7, Honda Pilot, Acura MDX, Nissan Murano.

Fuel capacity/type: 20.6 gallons/unleaded regular.

EPA fuel economy: 16 miles per gallon city/23 highway (2WD); 15/22 (AWD).

Base price range: $27,145-$35,995 plus $750 freight.

Price as tested: $38,295, including freight and options (Limited 2WD).

On the Road rating: 8.7 (of a possible 10).

Prices shown are manufacturer's suggested retail; actual selling price may vary.

Luxury abounds inside the Veracruz.

There is nothing cheap or cheesy looking.