HOOKS, Texas — On a dark, moonless night amid crowded, high-speed traffic, I fell in love with a 2021 Hyundai Palisade.
Smooth and powerful, she accelerated into traffic and wrapped herself around me like a mother watching a child learning to walk. She kept an eye out for danger.
With a spacious and elevated view and surrounded by gentle ambient LED cabin lighting, I settled into the ample Nappa leather seat and got the lumbar support just right while she kept an eye on my blind spot, watched out for pedestrians, and managed the high beams on the LED headlights.
Gently but firmly, she centered herself in her lane and kept a safe distance from vehicles ahead. If danger should suddenly arise in my lane, she would give me visual and auditory warnings and to hit the brakes if I did not promptly respond.
I kept my eyes forward as a head-up display in the windshield told me my speed, my cruise-control setting, the speed limit, and the relative following distance I'd selected. The display let me know if I were about to veer out of my lane and the car would nudge me back into it if I failed to respond.
As my gaze swept across her 10.3-inch infotainment display, she told me where I was on a map, what was playing on the premium Harmon Kardon sound system, and the weather. If I tapped on any of those sections, she would fill the screen with that function with more information and choices.
Underneath the display was a row of easy-to-read function buttons. Their feel was soft but responsive. Everything I touched had a feel of quality and thoughtfulness. For example, the set speed switch for cruise control was millimeters above the button to turn it on, so telling her to stay at the current speed required but an easy swipe of the finger.
She also kept an eye on all the passengers' seatbelts. If one were unfastened, she would tell me which one. If I needed to correct that, I could do so over an in-car intercom.
Quietly and calmly, we rolled down the highway and into the inky eve. Later, when I pulled into a parking lot, a tap of a button gave me a birds-eye view so I could easily center the vehicle in a parking spot. When I put her in park, she set the parking brake, reminded me to check for rear-seat passengers and illuminated the ground when I opened the door. When I returned, it sensed I was near and again illuminated the ground around the vehicle.
Given the state of automotive technology at the end of the second decade of 21st century, all these things are what a proper and affordable passenger vehicle should be able to do.
Hyundai on the move
With sharp-witted engineering, striking styling, close attention to manufacturing detail, and the best warranties in the business Hyundai and its first cousin Kia are carving outgrowing shares of the North American market.
On one hand, American manufacturers have made this easy by abandoning new car design. It takes billions to design a new vehicle, money Ford and GM chose to spend elsewhere, and Chrysler doesn't have.
The first two are SUV and truck builders. Chrysler stays alive by putting more horsepower in cars rolling on technology developed 12 years ago. That's forever in the car business. One reason Charger and Challenger have the highest fatality rates on the planet is that they do not ride on modern, high-strength, and lightweight steel alloy chasses. These are lighter, safer, and greatly improve both ride and handling.
In the meantime, foreign competitors, who compete in markets where safety and fuel efficiency are paramount, are into second and third iterations of things like driver-assist technology. Lane-keep assist, for example which sharply reduces the potential for head-on and rollover crashes — is unobtrusive in cars designed in Germany or Asia. In most cases, it is standard on even the lowest-priced vehicles.
American manufacturers, on the other hand, force buyers to buy more expensive models before offering the technology as an option. In many cases, all that is offered is a warning system that buzzes, beeps or otherwise annoys every time one veers out of lane but takes no action. Virtually every time a so-equipped system arrives in my driveway, the previous driver had turned it off.
A lane-keep assist that annoys and takes no action — standard on a Chevy Blazer — is no system at all.
Where lane correction is available, like on GM trucks and large SUVs, it is often jerky. Left to its own devices, the vehicle lurches from side to side like a staggering drunk.
Affordable high tech
Nearly every feature described above comes standard on a base Palisade, starting at $33,700 delivered. Blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert — which tells you when your backing into the path of another in a parking lot — all standard on the SEL ($33,700).
The Limited ($46,300) and Calligraphy ($48,925) come with everything on the options list.
The sweet spot is the SEL. It comes with a power sunroof and captain's chairs in the middle, proximity key with push-button start, second-row heating and air conditioning controls, and LED cabin lighting.
A convenience package ($2,400) and a premium package ($3,100) make the SEL a luxury, three-row SUV that can tow up to 5,000 lbs. and costs less than $39,000. That's a lot of money but consider that you can spend more than $60,000 on a Ford Expedition, or Chevy Tahoe, or any of half-dozen riding on pickup frames.
The Palisade, by the way, comes with trailer sway control and can haul up to 5,000 lbs. That's 1,000 less than a new Expedition, which raises a question. Because of their investments of time and money in technology, are the Asians now building better SUVs than the Americans?
It also comes with a 5-year/60,000-mile basic warranty, a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty, and three years of free maintenance.
What's not to love?
Is the Palisade now the best midsize SUV in the market? Most critics, including this one, say that honor goes to its stablemate, the Kia Telluride. I like it better because it costs a little less, has a more customary gearshift lever, and rides on 18-inch wheels instead of 20. Bigger wheels have more curb appeal, but the smaller ones ride better.
Bottom line: I've long been an ardent fan of the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, and Mazda CX9 but Hyundai and Kia have raised the bar.