2020 Hyundai Palisade first drive review: Crocodile eyes, family-friendly heart

A few years ago, Hyundai finally launched Genesis as a standalone luxury brand. Today, it has a range of very solid new models, but so far, almost nobody's buying. Why? Because premium shoppers want three letters: S-U-V. It's going to be a while before they can finally get one from Genesis, but until then, this 2020 Hyundai Palisade might do a surprisingly good job of filling in -- if people can look past its everyday badge.

That's because this Palisade can be equipped to levels that feel startlingly premium, with a cabin in upper trims that feels a notch above segment stalwarts like the Ford ExplorerHonda Pilot, Kia SorentoNissan Pathfinder and Toyota Highlander, not to mention newcomers like the Volkswagen Atlas and Subaru Ascent

At Hyundai's invitation, I headed to the automaker's home market of Korea to check out this new crossover well ahead of its summer, 2019 North American on-sale date. 

Piercing stare

We'll start with the exterior, which shares some major themes with the Palisade's kid brother, the new-for-2019 Santa Fe. Those design touchstones include an imposingly large, thickly framed six-sided grille bookended by unusually narrow headlights. The Palisade's pugnacious nose has a decidedly vertical feel, thanks mostly to the aforementioned low-set headlamps and distinctive multi-piece daytime running lamps that look like opposing parenthesis. Hyundai's VP of styling, SangYup Lee, calls these lights "crocodile eyes." They're echoed at the rear, where the fascia surrounding the upright tail lamps is scalloped away similarly. 

Overall, the 2020 Palisade's look is bold and techno in a way that its rivals aren't. I like its brashness, and I suspect some shoppers will, too. Others, however, may find its unconventional appearance off-putting.

The Palisade's bold front end is something of a gamble.

Hyundai

Premium insides

While the Palisade's outer wrapper has a vertical theme, its cabin emphasizes the horizontal, with a low, wide dashboard dominated by gauge cluster pod that flows outward into a floating central infotainment screen -- not entirely unlike what Mercedes-Benz has executed on models like its S-Class. Lee calls this lateral inside/vertical outside duality "Jekyll and Hyde," but the transition between the exterior and the cabin doesn't feel like nearly as strange a case as that legendary character's split-personality transformation. 

Literary aspirations aside, there's no denying the Palisade's interior feels upscale. The high-end model I sampled included a richer-feeling headliner, supportive Nappa leather seats with quilted accents, dual sunroofs and large expanses of expensive-looking gray matte-wood trim. 

I also sat in another Palisade with similar burgundy leather seating and a darker gray-colored dash with metallic technical-finish trim, and it likewise looked and felt properly rich. (If my tester were equipped with the optional 12.25-inch all-digital cluster, it could've passed muster as a Genesis-branded rival for the Acura MDX and Buick Enclave -- if not beyond.)

Palisade's quiet cabin also features good outward visibility.

Hyundai

A well-organized center console flows downward between the seats, sitting up quite high, with a small pushbutton shifter below the HVAC controls. Moving to this style of electronic gear selector feels gimmicky, but it's freed up real estate under the floating stack for large purses and oddments (though that space is somewhat awkward to access, especially for the driver). 

The center console itself features a large lidded cubby area with available Qi wireless charging dock, USB port and a pair of deployable spring-loaded cup holders. The latter seem clever at first, but they don't adjust and aren't always the right size (particularly for some water bottles and those increasingly trendy slim soda cans). Conventional cup holders would've been better -- this solution feels too clever by half, and somewhat fragile.

A large and deep armrest bin ensures whatever didn't fit in the door pockets, glovebox or recess below the shifter will have a ready place. There is a commendable amount of storage space up front, and indeed, everywhere else, too.

A wide-aspect-ratio touchscreen features Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and two-source Bluetooth.

Hyundai

Family-friendly tech

Available cabin tech is typical Hyundai, which is to say, plentiful and readily decipherable. Perhaps more than any other brand, Hyundai (and its corporate siblings at Kia) have developed a knack for simple, well-laid-out switchgear and easy-to-use yet powerful-enough infotainment.

The latter is displayed on an available 10.25-inch touchscreen with a wide aspect ratio, well-laid-out menus, crisp graphics and good response times. Even if you don't opt for the fully digital gauges on top-shelf Ultimate models, a large multi-function display in the cluster can momentarily display the live video feed from the right- or left-hand-side camera when the turn signal is activated to aid while passing. Think of Blind View Monitor like Honda's love-or-hate LaneWatch, only smarter. (You don't have to look further away to the center screen, and it works on both sides of the vehicle, unlike Honda's system.)

Blind Spot Monitor shows an in-cluster feed from the side cameras when the turn signal is activated.

Hyundai

This Hyundai lives in a family-first segment, and the best models offer unexpected tech to make living with small children easier. The Palisade is no different, offering an available second- and third-row Driver Talk intercom, as well as a Rear Sleep Mode that disables the rear speakers so parents can listen to guilty-pleasure tunes without waking the wee. Not only are Apple CarPlay and Android Auto standard, the infotainment allows for the simultaneous Bluetooth pairing, meaning the driver can have phone connectivity while a teenager plays Spotify deejay.

An ultrasonic rear occupant alert system is also offered. Designed to curb the likelihood of accidentally leaving children or pets in the rear seat, the system beeps the horn and flashes the lights if motion is detected in back after the driver leaves the vehicle. For the truly oblivious, Rear Occupant Alert can even ping a paired mobile phone with an alert.

Seating palooza

The Palisade is available with seating for seven or eight, with a split-sliding 60/40 second-row bench or a pair of captain's chairs accounting for the variation. The latter are particularly comfortable, and available with both heating and cooling (a rarity in this class), plus, the captain's chairs features convenient walk-through access to the third row. All seats are serviced by minivan-like roof-mounted HVAC vents, and there are up to seven USB ports and 16 cupholders. Wi-Fi and a rear-seat entertainment package are as-yet unconfirmed.

Available second-row captain's chairs feature optional heating and cooling.

Hyundai

Regardless of seating configuration, Hyundai has smartly sweated the tilt/slide mechanism to access the third row. The one-touch spring-loaded mechanism is easy to use, even for kids, though the aperture between the scootched-forward second row and the way-backs remains somewhat tight for adults (just like every other vehicle in this class). The way-backs offer power folding and unfolding, and they work well.

Once in the third row, there's surprisingly good space, including plenty of headroom. The bottom cushion sits low to encourage a slightly knees-up posture, but the amount of travel on the sliding second row makes life in the cheap seats significantly more comfortable if other passengers are willing to accommodate.

This is solid packaging for this segment, and you can tilt the third-row backrests to prioritize comfort or maximizing cargo space. Make no mistake -- the Palisade is still a midsize SUV, albeit a large one. If you're looking for greater room, you'll need to step up to something larger, like the joyless Traverse, or a Ford Expedition, which is decidedly more truck-like.

Our Palisade will be powered by a 3.8-liter V6 with 291 hp and 262 pound-feet of torque.

Hyundai

Powertrain particulars

Under the hood, North American buyers will find Hyundai's 3.8-liter naturally aspirated V6 yoked to a standard eight-speed automatic in either front- or HTrac all-wheel drive configurations. Unusually, the engine can run on the Atkinson Cycle, a tech that is usually reserved for hybrid powertrains. Being such an early drive, however, the 291-horsepower, 262-pound-feet-of-torque six is not what motivated my Palisade. Instead, it was powered by a Korean-market 2.2-liter turbodiesel.

The diesel was very well behaved and sufficiently powerful (190 hp and 322 pound-feet), but ultimately irrelevant to US and Canadian customers, as it won't be offered. Despite committing to offer a diesel in the North American Santa Fe back in February, that engine has been canceled, and won't be reprised here. It's gas or nothing, at least unless Hyundai decides to offer a hybrid or some sort of model with a plug. (Hyundai isn't committing to further powertrain variants, but I was able to confirm that the model's chassis -- which it shares with Kia's forthcoming Telluride SUV -- does accommodate at least some level of electrification.)

Drive selector settings include Comfort (default), Eco, Sport, Smart, as well as Snow, Mud and Sand.

Hyundai

Since I haven't driven the gas powertrain, I can't comment on its performance in this circa-4,500-pound SUV, but I can tell you that the all-wheel drive system features a split-mode Drive/Terrain drive mode selector with settings for Comfort (default), Eco, Sport, Smart, as well as Snow, Mud and Sand. The dial optimizes the throttle, transmission shift schedule, steering weight and traction systems for various driving styles and terrains.

Even so, don't mistake the Palisade for anything other than a road-biased crossover. With just shy of eight inches of ground clearance, it's more than capable of trundling across muddy fields at county fairs, but don't expect anything approaching Jeep-like abilities. Our Korean event planners got a bit overambitious and ended up with several stranded vehicles on a beach when too much soft sand was churned up by overexuberant journalists (fortunately, Yours Truly was not among the guilty).

Front MacPherson struts and a rear multi-link suspension are well-tuned.

Hyundai

Steering and suspension

While some officials I spoke with say that NA-market models will feature an identical 15.6:1-ratio steering and the same suspension setup as the Korean model I drove, there will doubtlessly be specific tuning to accommodate regional customer ride and handling preferences (South Koreans tend to favor very soft rides).

There's nothing revolutionary going on with the Palisade's suspension: Simple MacPherson struts paired with coil springs and a rear multilink setup with a stabilizer bar are standard. There's no computer-controlled variable damping, but a load-leveling rear is optional. Regardless, I found the big SUV's ride and handling to be consistently agreeable, whether on the freeway, single-lane B-roads or on a modest woodland trail -- even though my test vehicle was fitted with optional 245/50 20-inch Michelin Primacy Tour A/S tires. (18-inchers come on lesser trims).

Part of that good ride quality comes from the Palisade's long 114.2-inch wheelbase, which helps to smooth out body motions while providing for the aforementioned roomy cabin. Overall length sits at 196.1 inches, 3 inches longer than the outgoing 2019 Santa Fe XL (a one-year model previously known simply as "Santa Fe"). Overall, the Palisade is large for its class, although the Chevrolet Traverse handily outspans it.

Hyundai has yet to release pricing or fuel economy figures.

Hyundai

Efficiency and towing

Fuel economy has yet to be disclosed for the Ulsan, Korea-built SUV -- it'll be revealed closer to the Palisade's summer, 2019 on-sale date. The same goes for pricing, but smart money suggests MSRPs will start around $31,000 for a front-drive model and climb to around $50,000 with all the boxes checked.

Like its competitors at Honda, Ford, Subaru, Toyota and VW, max towing capacity is pegged at 5,000 pounds. Among its chief rivals, only the Nissan offers more (6,000 pounds).

Safety first

You can't launch a family vehicle today with a straight face without having gobs of safety gear aboard. The Palisade answers the call with standard forward-collision avoidance with pedestrian detection, smart cruise control, high-beam assist, blind-spot warning, backup camera with rear cross-traffic alert, and even Safe Exit Assist, which prevents your brilliant little snowflakes from opening a rear door into oncoming traffic. 360-degree cameras and front parking sensors are optional.

Hyundai's new Palisade is a well-rounded family hauler with surprising luxury and flair.

Hyundai

Ready for battle

Chock full of heavily updated and all-new competition, today's three-row family SUV segment is an especially tough nut to crack. We'll have to wait to drive the US-spec model to know for sure, but the 2020 Hyundai Palisade not only appears to have what it takes to strike fear in the heart of category stalwarts, it could sway a few luxury-brand shoppers, too.

Genesis needs its own version of the Palisade, and it can't come quickly enough.


Editors' note: Travel costs related to this feature were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. While Roadshow accepts multiday vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews, all scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms.

The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.

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