You’d love Asheville. Especially in August. All that cool, low humidity mountain air. Those jaw-descending views of the Blue Ridge and Great Smokey Mountains. The craft beer. Lots of craft beer.
Cruise through the book-store and coffee-shop-laden downtown and it seems every other car has a Florida tag. Come May-time, I reckon half of the Sunshine State heads north to North Carolina and doesn’t come back till November. Smart people.
With temps here at home soaring into the high 90s and humidity off the charts, what better place then to test-drive Hyundai’s terrific new, family-friendly Palisade three-row SUV than the town they call the Land of the Sky?
This high-ridin’ soft-roader replaces the previous Santa Fe XL as the new flagship of the Hyundai SUV line-up. With seats for up to eight, a single-minded focus on quality and refinement, and terrific road manners, this new Palisade – along with its Kia Telluride sibling – is the hot new entry in the mid-size sport-ute class.
And boy is it astonishing value for money. A base, front-drive SE model can be had for just $31,550. Step up to the nicely-equipped SEL and the tab starts at a mere $33,500.
I’m driving the top-of-the-line, diamond-quilted-leather-upholstered Palisade Limited with more bells and whistles than an Amtrak. It stickers for $44,700 which at KMart, would be deemed a Blue Light Special. Even checking every option box, the most you could splurge is $48,000.
From our base at the funky, art-filled Grand Bohemian Hotel in Asheville’s Biltmore Village, we point the Palisade’s huge chrome grille out on to the Blue Ridge Parkway for a cruise up to Mount Mitchell State Park – at 6,684 feet, it’s the highest point east of the Mississippi.
There’s only one engine on offer and that’s Hyundai’s terrific 3.8-liter V6. It’s a little old-school in that it isn’t a four-cylinder turbo, or a hybrid. But with 291-horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque on tap, it has muscle-a-plenty to move this 4,400-pound ute.
That said, we didn’t invite seven of our closest 300-pound high-school weightlifters for a ride, or hook a 5,000-pound bass boat to the rear hitch. But with just two of us aboard, the big ute never felt anything less than feisty and eager.
Part of its lively performance is down to the terrific, smooth-shifting eight-speed automatic. And Hyundai has kindly added steering-wheel-mounted paddles for manual shifting.
Front wheel drive is standard, but if I were buying I’d pay the extra $1,700 for optional all-wheel drive. While 99 per cent of the time you won’t put a tire offroad, the system provides peace of mind when those arena parking lots get goopy.
Through the Blue Ridge Parkway’s twisties, the big Palisade never put a foot wrong, carving curves with poise and balance. Lovely steering too, with lots of feedback and precision.
Where, for me, the Palisade scores its highest marks is with its refinement. Over lumps and bumps – and even along the Biltmore Estate’s muddy offroad adventure course – the Hyundai has a magic carpet-like ride quality.
Couple that with minimal engine noise, and low, low wind and tire roar, the big 4×4 feels so much more expensive and upscale than the sticker suggests.
Add to all this a cabin that looks and feels a million bucks. Our Limited’s diamond-quilted Nappa leather interior with La-Z-Boy-like middle row captain’s chairs was a splendid place to be during our tour of Asheville.
And even if you had to squeeze into the third row, no problem. There’s actually room back there for a couple of adults without them feeling pain and suffering.
Maybe the icing on the cake? Hyundai still offers that 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty, and bumper-to-bumper five-year/60,000-mile coverage.
Think of it as an SUV with a whole ‘mountain’ of appeal.