COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho—One question seems to lead any American family’s SUV purchase more than any other: Honey, is there room for the kids? The ubiquity of that inquiry means there’s always room for another three-row SUV in the marketplace, and the 2020 Hyundai Palisade is the latest.
Hyundai chose beautiful Coeur d’Alene in northwest Idaho to show off the largest of its seven SUVs, providing us far more time with the vehicle than during our previous exposure in Korea. The city’s eponymous 25-mile-long lake and pine-scented scenery seemed to call for a woodstrip canoe atop every Palisade, and a Boy Scout in each of this seven- or eight-person vehicle’s passenger seats. Instead, dissolute journalists piled inside, including into a third row that will accommodate normal-size adults but still trails the Chevrolet Traverse, 2020 Ford Explorer, or, especially, the mammoth Volkswagen Atlas for headroom and legroom.
Still, the Palisade never feels crowded, even if its sales segment is. A quick survey of rivals reveals all-new 2020 entries in the Explorer and Toyota Highlander, along with the Atlas, Traverse, Mazda CX-9, Subaru Ascent, GMC Acadia and Nissan Pathfinder. And don’t forget the Kia Telluride, even if Hyundai execs might prefer to, beset as they were by journalists’ leading questions over Kia’s high-style splashdown in the market. Suffice to say that Hyundai didn’t bring its Korean partner’s SUV to Idaho, where the Telluride might have recalled the fortunate sibling that got all the looks.
There’s nothing wrong with the Hyundai’s dignified styling, but not much that stands out, either. In Idaho and elsewhere, the Palisade may seem as unremarkable as a foil-wrapped potato. (In Hyundai fashion, it’s the stuffings inside that really count). Hyundai’s cascading corporate grille, size XXL, is bordered by a coffin-shaped brightwork frame. Handsome daytime running lamps “pierce” the upper fenders and thread through the bumper. Another chrome strip garnishes the side windows and descends along a body-color C-pillar. The rear view is easily the most copacetic, including low-set fender shoulders that accentuate a traditional, vertical SUV profile. As Hyundai designer Chris Chapman intended, it’s a major departure from softer, wedge-shaped Hyundais like the Tucson and Santa Fe.
Appropriately for the brand’s new flagship, the Palisade feels solid, quiet, and upscale throughout. Several hooplike structures buttress the cowl, liftgate, and doors, for a major jump in torsional stiffness versus the Santa Fe. That safety cage is designed for side and roof protection, as well as optimized for critical small-overlap front crash testing, and Hyundai expects top scores from both NHTSA and the IIHS. Hyundai says the Palisade is not only formed from 59 percent high-strength steel—versus just 25 percent for the new Explorer—but uses 19 hot-stamped components that reduce weight by requiring less metal overall. Structure optimized, Hyundai then looked to suppress sound like an obsessive librarian. Installed- and-injected foam fills the roof pillars and floor structure. A special floor stamping integrates an anti-vibration pad.
The work pays off with a serene cabin. That feeling is heightened with interior design that recalls the tasteful minimalism of VW’s Atlas, only with noticeably better materials. Design pays Hyundai’s usual homage to haughtier brands, including Mercedes-style metal dashboard switches and options such as Bentley-esque diamond-pattern leather on the door panels and a plush microfiber headliner. Simple console buttons manage Hyundai’s eight-speed, in-house automatic transmission, and they’re less vexing than Honda’s similar arrangement. That by-wire shifter eliminates a traditional lever, which saves cabin real estate and allows a floating bridge console with generous storage below. Another covered center bin gets clever cupholders whose outer rings pivot to open up more storage space.
Three available information-cluster displays top out with a sparkling, 12.3-inch digital TFT screen, appended to a 10.3-inch high-resolution infotainment display. Choose that system, and passengers can connect two Bluetooth devices for, say, simultaneous use of one phone and one streaming device. Those fancy driver’s gauges flash cool animations as you move through various driving modes. Most dramatically, crisp camera views of blind spots fill the left- and right-hand gauges when you engage the turn signals. Its execution improves upon Honda’s similar Lane Watch system: Hyundai’s monitors both sides, rather than the right side only, as with Honda’s. The displays are directly in the driver’s view, not on the center screen, and the system is directly tied to the Hyundai’s blind-spot monitor. All told, the top-shelf interface would look fully legit on an $80,000 SUV. A Harman/Kardon executive showed off the impressive, optional premium audio system designed for the Palisade, with 630 watts, 12 speakers, metal speaker grilles, and a subwoofer that eliminates the usual weighty, space-hogging enclosure. Instead, the system draws air from outside the car to drive the bass-pumping speaker. An available head-up display and Qi wireless charging further lift the luxury vibe.
The Palisade offers up to seven USB ports, including a pair smartly mounted on the inboard edges of front seats. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are aboard. A “Drive Talk” mode broadcasts the pilot’s voice to rear speakers to soothe or threaten wayward children, and a quiet mode shuts off the rear speakers to help them fall asleep, finally. Draft-free roof vents indirectly cool or heat the rear passenger quarters without blasting air on occupants’ heads. Most Hyundai “Smartsense” safety features are standard, including lane-following steering assist and adaptive cruising from 0 to 95 mph, with the ability to automatically match speed to prevailing limits. Taking inspiration from Audi, an optional radar-based system prevents passengers from flinging side doors open when there’s potential danger from an approaching vehicle.
As with the Kia, a one-touch button slides and pivots the second-row chairs to allow access to the way back, with captain’s chairs available on the SE and SEL and standard in the top-shelf Limited. Passenger space is generous in the first two rows, and there’s a useful 18 cubic feet of cargo room behind the second row, as much as in a Cadillac XTS’s trunk. Underfloor storage adds nearly two cubic feet of additional space. An available power-folding third row, which Hyundai says its research showed was a major selling point on the previous-gen Explorer, makes the Palisade only the second vehicle in the segment with that handy feature. Another clever feature lets owners choose two speed settings to close the tailgate, at either 6.0 or 4.5 seconds.
With the family strapped in, the Hyundai gets just enough motivation from a 3.8-liter, direct-injection V-6 with 291 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque. Figure roughly 8.0 seconds to 60 mph. That Alabama-built Lambda V-6 is upgraded to switch unnoticeably between Otto and fuel-saving Atkinson cycles. The EPA pegs mileage at 19/26 mpg in city and highway with front-wheel drive, and 19/24 with all-wheel drive.
AWD is a $1,700 option on all three trims, and its six driver-selectable modes include a Sport setting that sends more torque rearward. Standard Sachs dampers at all four corners help tame body roll and deliver a smooth suburban ride.
The eight-speed transmission performs yeoman duty as well, despite a tendency to settle into higher gears sooner than we care for. A set of metal paddle shifters, pleasingly tactile for a vehicle at this price, affords more direct control.
And the driving experience? If you’re grading on the easy curve of the three-row class, complaints can seem churlish. The Palisade tracks faithfully, and body roll is reasonably tamed. Like its Telluride cousin, there’s not a shred of road feel, but the Hyundai’s steering at least has some sinew, compared with the Kia’s annoying surfeit of power assist. Yet on fast climbs and descents through green Idaho hills that could have stood in for Tuscany’s, the Hyundai felt like the front-drive-based vehicle it is: Pushy, nose-heavy, and unengaging. Brake-based rear torque vectoring aims to correct oversteer or understeer, but we’ll be damned if we could feel anything at work. The Palisade is fully class-competitive, but it can’t touch the sporty personality of the Mazda, or even the Chevy that’s the class sleeper for agile handling.
Naturally, the Palisade brings a competitive price structure with three easy-to-shop trim levels. The Palisade starts at $32,595 for the SE, rises to $34,545 for the SEL, and moves to $45,745 for the swanky SEL. Options include an auto-leveling rear suspension and Class II tow hitch for the Hyundai’s maximum 5,000-pound tow rating.
As noted, the family-bus depot is crowded. Even fans of the Korean approach must decide between the Palisade and Telluride. The Hyundai seems a bit swankier inside, but honestly? Park ’em side-by-side, and we’re probably going with the looker of the family.
2020 Hyundai Palisade Specifications
|PRICE||SE, $32,595; SEL, $34,545; Limited, $45,745|
|ENGINE||3.8L DOHC 24-valve V-6; 291 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 262 lb-ft @ 5,200 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 7- or 8-passenger, front-engine, FWD or AWD SUV|
|EPA MILEAGE||19/24–26 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||196.1 x 77.8 x 68.9 in|
|0-60 MPH||7.6 sec (est)|