LA JOLLA, CA – Here’s a new interpretation to the media ride-and-drive. Journalists come to evaluate an auto maker’s all-new vehicle but actually spend as much (or maybe even more) in a competitor’s vehicle in a more expensive segment.

Hyundai Motor America does just that, offering six of its new front-wheel-drive ’07 Veracruz cross/utility vehicles and six Lexus RX 350s to drive in Southern California.

Never mind that many well-heeled Lexus customers would not cross shop a Hyundai, known not for its luxurious appointments but for its value and outsized warranty.

But the South Korean auto maker throws convention to the wind. Its vehicles improve every year and have climbed the J.D. Power quality ladder.

Hyundai management smartly contends the best way to polish its brand image is to let drivers do a little head-to-head comparisons, even against a luxury brand.

How does one say chutzpah in Korean?

In short, the unibody Veracruz, based on the smaller Santa Fe CUV, stacks up very favorably to the RX 350. True, the Veracruz suffers from more wind noise, and the RX offers more features expected on a luxury vehicle, such as a navigation system.

But the Veracruz is a pleasurable, spacious and likable vehicle that handles more like a car than an SUV and offers a cozy, warm interior.

Problem is, the same can be said for a lot of CUVs in the red-hot segment.

In which segment will the Veracruz play? Hyundai calls it a midsize CUV going head to head with the more expensive (RX 350-derived) Toyota Highlander.

But Ward’s segmentation will place the Veracruz amid large CUVs, such as the Chrysler Pacifica, Honda Pilot, Saturn Outlook, Mazda CX-9 and Ford Taurus X (formerly known as Freestyle).

If the Veracruz can undercut the Highlander price (it can, by more than $3,000), then imagine the fits it will cause competitors in the higher priced category.

Potentially hindering the Veracruz is its sheet metal. It does not make enough of a unique styling statement to win over undecided buyers.

It looks too much like the RX 350, right down to the grille configuration, the steeply raked backlight and the gently sloping roofline that extends beyond the liftgate.

Wayne Killen, director-product planning, is good to his word when he says Hyundai designers hold the RX in high esteem and “wanted to follow it closely” as they developed the Veracruz. Mission accomplished.

The CUV does a number of things well.

Its 3.8L DOHC V-6 produces 260 hp, more than the Pilot, Pacifica and CX-9, but lagging the GMC Acadia, Outlook and RX 350. The Veracruz bests the ’07 Highlander by 45 hp but will trail the all-new ’08 Highlander, which brings 270 hp when it goes on sale this summer.

A 3.0L turbodiesel is available in the Veracruz in Asia. Hyundai officials want to bring that engine to the U.S. but say it currently does not meet emission requirements in all 50 states.

The 3.8L is adequate for propelling this 7-passenger CUV, although the throttle could be more responsive, especially when coming out of corners. There are seconds of unrequited pedal travel that leave the driver less than confident when contemplating passing.

But the Veracruz is not meant for aggressive driving. Its road manners are excellent when not pushed hard (and rarely will it be), and body roll is minimal.

’07 Hyundai Veracruz GLS
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel drive, 7-passenger CUV
Engine 3.8L (3,778 cc) DOHC V-6, aluminum block/aluminum heads
Power (SAE net) 260 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 257 lb.-ft. (348 Nm) @ 4,500 rpm
Compression ratio 10.4:1
Bore x stroke (mm) 96 x 87
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 110.4 ins. (280 cm)
Overall length 190.6 ins. (484 cm)
Overall width 76.6 (194 cm)
Overall height 68.9 ins. (175 cm)
Curb weight 4,266 lbs. (1,935 kg)
EPA fuel economy, city/highway (mpg) 18/25 (13/9.4 L/100 km)
Market competition Chrysler Pacifica; Honda Pilot; Saturn Outlook; Mazda CX-9; Ford Taurus X (Freestyle)

Steering (power-assisted rack and pinion) is assured and comfortable and delivers the proper amount of feedback to the driver, although the CUV tends to understeer a bit through corners.

Hyundai says the Veracruz is rated to tow up to 3,500 lbs. (1,587 kg).

The suspension (fully independent MacPherson front, multi-link rear) strikes the proper balance between cushy compliance and harsh rigidity, even when encountering uneven pavement and potholes.

But don’t go planning to ride the Rubicon Trail. Hyundai officials say the Veracruz is “a soft-roader” meant primarily for pavement.

Still, all-wheel drive is available, and Hyundai predicts a 40% take rate. Japan’s JTEKT Corp. supplies the electromagnetic clutch AWD system, which can apportion torque to the wheels that need it most.

The Veracruz gets Hyundai’s first 6-speed automatic transmission, supplied as standard equipment by Japan’s Aisin AW Co. Ltd. Performance is generally smooth, and Shiftronic manual control is a nice feature, but moderately aggressive throttle inputs caused excessive hunting for gears.

Fuel economy also could be a source of disappointment. During our test drive, the AWD Limited version achieved a mere 16.9 mpg (13.9 L/100 km) on rural and city roads, according to the trip computer.

A more sparsely appointed FWD model did better, achieving 19.2 mpg (12.2 L/100 km). Still, owners hauling kids and groceries might be hard-pressed to achieve 25 mpg (9.4 L/100 km) on the highway, as the Environmental Protection Agency suggests. City fuel economy is estimated at 18 mpg (13 L/100 km).

To be fair, the Veracruz EPA ratings are competitive with the Pilot, ’07 Highlander and RX 350.

Inside, the Veracruz is well executed, exuding warmth and functionality. Soft-touch surfaces abound, blending well with faux brushed aluminum on the center stack, center console, dash and door trim. Seats are comfortable, although they could use more lateral bolstering.

The ability to seat seven is admirable (RX only seats five), but be forewarned that anyone taller than 5 ft. 10 ins. (1.7 m) will find the top of his head dangerously close to the roofline and back glass.

The seat is best suited for children, partly because adults will struggle to get into the third row. Doing so in the Pilot, which seats eight, is easier.

With the third row folded flat, the Veracruz offers a cavernous rear cargo hold.

Kudos to Hyundai for equipping all three trim levels (Limited, SE and GLS) with the same upscale interior trim. Optional upgrades include premium leather, rear-seat DVD player, power telescoping steering wheel, heated seats and Infinity audio system.

Standard features for all models include stability control, traction control, six airbags (including roof-mounted curtains) and active head restraints.

A navigation system is not available as the Veracruz arrives now in U.S. showrooms, but Hyundai officials say they are considering offering one in 2008.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. awards the Veracruz its highest 5-star rating for front and side impacts, but the vehicle wins only four stars for rollover protection.

Hyundai isn’t saying how many Veracuz CUVs it plans to sell. The vehicle is assembled in Ulsan, South Korea.

Pricing begins at $26,995 (excluding $690 destination charges) and tops out at $38,020 fully loaded. A well-equipped FWD model at $32,995 is nearly $8,000 less than an RX 350.

If buyers want an RX but don’t want to pay Lexus money, then a Veracruz is not a bad option. But it’s not a Lexus.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com