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2020 Hyundai Palisade First Drive Review: Putting Japan On Notice

First Drive / 8 Comments

The 2020 Palisade is proof Hyundai has reached new heights.

Abraham Maslow couldn't have predicted that his hierarchy of human needs would one day be the model that best explains the American obsession with the SUV, but that's what has become the case. The body style's post-recession recovery has once again proved that if gas is cheap enough, Americans will flock to bigger cars to satisfy their needs for shelter, comfort, and having family close by. And because Hyundai doesn't plan on competing in the food and beverage segment any time soon, it's decided to target those very necessities by offering an SUV that's big enough to shelter the whole family while catering to our inbuilt yearning for adventure.

So hot on the heels of the Kia Telluride's efforts to give Americans another option in the three-row SUV segment is its corporate twin, the Hyundai Palisade. Unlike other first-generation models, which are typically only required to set a precedent for subsequent generations, the Palisade is also tasked with being Hyundai North America's new flagship vehicle.

Exterior Design: Butter Face

Having shipped us out to lakeside Couer d'Alene, Idaho, Hyundai herded us onto a ferry for a presentation where HMA's lead designer, Chris Chapman, sketched out the Palisade's aesthetic highlights while boat's back-and-forth rock did its best to shake his steady hand. But it couldn't, and so a network of interlocking lines materialized before our eyes. Ever tried to clasp your hands together so that they form a yin-yang cradle of sorts, with the four non-opposable fingers resting in a pocket created by the other four? Yeah, that's what Hyundai had in mind shaping the Palisade's lines.

With a clear and strong base containing the Palisade's visual weight below the character line, stray lines of chrome trim are allowed to work their way towards the rear from their starting point at the base of the A-pillar. But rather than merge to create a loop, the upper line bisects the C-pillar and drops downwards behind it, only joining the lower chrome stripe if the mind connects the two with an imaginary line.

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The rear profile holds onto its boxy aesthetic for dear life while curved headlights and slightly rounded edges add a modern touch, with a thick lower lip shining bright and containing the Palisade's single exhaust pipe.

The front end is the Palisade's most controversial. It's more Kona than Santa Fe, awkwardly joining aggressively thin headlights with a wide and muscular silhouette, a shiny and imposing grille with thick and equally imposing borders, and blocky daytime running light housings. Looks are subjective, but in our eyes, the front end doesn't follow the same philosophy as the rest of the SUV and could stand to be simplified.

Engine, Performance, & MPG: Smooth Center, Rough Around The Edges

There isn't much you can't learn about the Palisade's numbers from looking at the Kia Telluride's specs sheet. Like the Kia, the Palisade gets a 3.8-liter V6 engine that makes 291 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque. Power is routed to the front wheels by default or is split between the front and rear wheels if a buyer opts for the front-biased HTRAC all-wheel drive system. In both cases, engine output is sent through an eight-speed automatic transmission that can be shifted using steering wheel-mounted paddles. And because the Palisade is intended to be a comfortable family vehicle that shines brightest on a road trip, Hyundai engineers ensured it could tow up to 5,000 pounds.

Hyundai's Lambda II engine is also unique in the sense that, like the Toyota Tacoma, it's capable of running on the fuel-saving but performance-compromising Atkinson cycle under light loads and switching to the more traditional Otto cycle when performance is needed. That allows the naturally-aspirated V6 Palisade to get an EPA rating of 19/26/22 city/highway/combined in front-wheel drive spec, while the all-wheel drive version's numbers drop to 19/24/21. Strangely enough, that means the front-wheel drive Palisade gets 1 mpg less in the city and combined categories than its Telluride counterpart.

Interior Design: Comfort And Cohesion

It's easy to assume that weight is the culprit for the fuel economy penalty given how luxurious the Palisade's cabin is. Even though it starts out cheaper than the Telluride, Hyundai positioned the Palisade as the more upscale choice between the two. A rich blend of deluxe textures greet the eyes when stepping inside. And whether it's quilted leather, metal, or even plastic, the touch surfaces feel expensive and carry weight behind them. Buttons have been fine-tuned to respond with assurance and the perfect amount of feedback, feeling better than those in many luxury cars, though the plastics do get cheaper as you move away from the touch surfaces and feel the larger interior panels that most passengers rarely notice.

But the focus on practicality is never lost throughout the cabin. Room has been opened up in front by removing the Telluride's shifter and replacing it with a push-button mechanism. Rather than leave open space in the area between the center console and dash, Hyundai connected the two with a slanted panel that houses the shifter, drive mode selector, HVAC controls, and various driving functions, designating the space underneath it as additional storage.

In the second row of our Limited-trimmed tester we found captain's chairs (buyers can opt for a bench or captain's chairs without altering the sticker price) with heating and cooling abilities, HVAC controls, USB connectivity, armrests, and plenty of headroom with which to look up and spot the Alcantara-mimicking headliner or panoramic moonroof.

The third row is certainly not short on tech either, with the outboard seats on the three-person bench featuring even more USB charging outlets, cup holders, and even switches to electrically recline each side.

Trunk and Cargo Space: Drive Like A Crossover, Space Like An SUV

The benefit to the 2nd-row captain's chairs, of course, is easier access to the third row. Yours truly's 5'8" frame had no trouble getting back there and feeling like there was space. Adults over 6-feet will start to feel the pinch, but with 31.4 inches of legroom, the Palisade's 3rd row is in line with many of its competitors. Legroom for the rest of the Palisade bests much of the competition, with the front seats getting 44.1 inches and the 2nd row measuring out to 42.4-inches. Headroom is also on par with the competition, with measurements peaking at 40.7 inches up front and going down to 37.8 inches at the rear.

Trunk space behind the power liftgate, even with the third row deployed, is a generous 18 cubic feet. That goes up to 45.8 cubic feet when the third row is stowed and tops out at 86.4 cubic feet with only the front row left up.

Among the competition, the substantially more expensive 2020 Ford Explorer is the only model that seems able to keep up with the Palisade's interior room and range of features, with both able to be spec'd with power-folding 3rd and 2nd-row seats.

In terms of practical interior storage, the Palisade fires shots at its rivals by including smartphone pockets in the second row (within reach of the USB charging outlets), a Qi wireless smartphone charger in the center console, and front seat cupholders that can be stowed to open up space for a purse or pocket cargo.

Driving Impressions: Almost A Luxury Car

Hyundai chose the beautiful shores of Couer d'Alene as the location for our drive for one reason: because it's a destination frequented by families, the demographic it built the Palisade for. It also happens to have hundreds of miles of winding Idaho roads on which to experience the Palisade. Those winding roads are no good for Comfort Mode, where steering is too soft and the on-center point too large for frequent see-sawing of the steering wheel, but Sport Mode helps quell that slightly by adding weight to the steering wheel and making turn-in sharper.

It also improves throttle response and gearing, though the naturally-aspirated engine does feel slightly underwhelming in either mode since adding small amounts of throttle input forces the eight-speed transmission to downshift in order to build any meaningful amount of forward momentum.

Still, the communication between all of the powertrain's entities, the engine, transmission, and HTRAC all-wheel drive system, is very smooth, and that translates to seamless operation from the Start-Stop system.

The engine does sound a little rough at higher revs, but vibrations never make it to the pedal or into the cabin. Driving downhill at speed on a windy Idaho day uncovers a bit more wind noise than many luxury buyers would be happy with, but again, this isn't an SUV that commands luxury car prices. The Palisade also rides very comfortably, soaking up bumps and road imperfections with ease and using its stiff frame to remain composed during the process. And the Palisade also exhibits a curious luxury car trait: feeling smooth and controllable at high speeds, seeming to shrink itself in the corners so that a driver feels like they're piloting a smaller and more agile machine.

Reliability and Problems

Since the Palisade is not just a brand new car but a brand new model for Hyundai, not much is known about how reliable it is. What we do know, however, is that Hyundai's overall reliability rankings are fairly high, with the brand earning a top ten spot in J.D. Power's 2019 Vehicle Dependability Survey. Hyundai also has one of the industry's best warranty programs, which includes a five-year or 60,000-mile full-vehicle limited warranty, a seven-year, unlimited-mileage rust warranty, and a 10-year or 100,000-mile limited powertrain warranty.

Price and Trims

Hyundai sticks with tradition for the Palisade and continues to undercut many of its competitors despite offering more options. A base front-wheel-drive SE costs $31,550, which is $140 less than the cheapest Telluride (not including destination). Opting for the SEL brings the price up to $33,500, while the range-topping Limited makes a big leap to $44,700, with destination for all models coming out to $1,045. Selecting all-wheel drive pushes the price of each model up by $1,700, bringing the SE to $33,250, the SEL to $35,200, and making the most heavily outfitted Palisade money can buy come out to $46,400.

Hyundai's pricing logic is very sensical. Product planners figured that entry-level buyers are looking for the cheapest option available and don't want to bother with packages, while Limited customers just want everything and don't want to worry about an options list either. So Hyundai complied, giving SE customers a wide range of standard features including smart cruise control, forward collision alert, lane keep assist, driver attention warning, and rear cross-traffic alert, without offering confusing options. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto also come standard on the 8-inch touchscreen display, while SEL buyers get more standard features like heated front seats, rear-seat HVAC controls, blind spot collision avoidance, and cross-traffic alert.

SEL buyers can also opt for the Convenience Package for $2,200 or the Premium Package for $2,400, the former getting 20-inch wheels, auto-leveling rear suspension, 3rd row USB outlets, Hyundai's rear occupant alert, and a 7-inch gauge cluster display, while the latter gets leather seats, LED headlights, a power 3rd row, and a heated steering wheel and 2nd row. Additional options include the $800 sunroof and $1,250 Driver Guidance option.

Stepping up to the Limited Palisade is an expensive move, but Hyundai tries to justify the price by adding Nappa leather seating, ventilation on the front and rear seats, a 10.25-inch wide touchscreen infotainment, a 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster, ambient lighting, a Harmon Kardon sound system, a dual panoramic sunroof, a surround-view monitor, a "blind view monitor" that projects what the Palisade's side cameras are seeing onto the digital gauge cluster, and special 20-inch wheels.

Verdict: The New Number One

At the conclusion of our Telluride drive, we claimed that Kia's three-row SUV was the new segment leader. And as its closely related sibling, the Hyundai Palisade sits right there with it. It was months ago at a Hyundai Veloster N drive that we heard the company's product planners talk about the brand had taken over America. First, it tried to undercut the competition in terms of price. Next, it targeted quality by building robust vehicles backed by the industry's best warranty program. And finally, it's zeroed in on the emotional bond between a car and its driver with good designs and inspiring driving abilities. The Palisade is further proof that Hyundai has mastered that third area.

Unlike many of its competitors, even the more established ones, the Palisade excels in every area that counts. It offers optimum utility, luxury car comfort, a spacious and well-appointed cabin, plenty of standard features, and does so for a fraction of the price. And best of all, the Palisade has a cohesive soul that's easy to fall in love with, solidifying our opinion that Korea's car brands are quickly becoming the segment leaders that the competition needs to beat. Look out, Japan, because Korea has put you on notice.