The 2020 Hyundai Palisade is classy, capable, and packed with features
by Matthew de Paula //
We’re driving through Hell in a Hyundai Palisade, but as long as we keep a leisurely pace, the ride is actually quite serene.
Hell isn’t an abstraction in this case, it’s a physical location. The drive route Hyundai has chosen for the regional launch of its all-new midsize SUV meanders through a sleepy Michigan town called—you guessed it—Hell. This rural area an hour west of Detroit is one of few places in the Great Lake State with winding roads. Not that it really matters for a vehicle like the Palisade, whose very name evokes its purpose.
“When we thought about naming this vehicle—our first eight-passenger SUV—and the fact that it’s the flagship of our Hyundai lineup, we had to think of something that really had a sense of timelessness and sturdiness and security, and Palisade was a name that kept popping up,” says Mike O’Brien, vice president, product, corporate and digital planning, Hyundai Motor America.
The name, as the vehicle itself, is all about projecting safety and security. Its driving dynamics reinforce that point—for better or worse—as do the proportions and design details. Like a “line of bold cliffs”—Merriam-Webster’s definition of “palisade”—this SUV has an imposing appearance, with a more upright stance than other Hyundai SUVs and a towering hexagonal grille large enough to strike envy in Ford F-150 owners.
The Palisade shares its underpinnings with the Kia Telluride, but is manufactured in Korea rather than the United States. In person, it looks more like a full-size SUV—a Korean Cadillac Escalade, perhaps—but Hyundai puts it up against midsize competitors, including the Honda Pilot, Ford Explorer, and Toyota Highlander. It’s considerably bigger than Hyundai’s next largest vehicle, the Santa Fe XL (three inches longer, 3.6 inches wider, 2.4 inches taller, with a four-inch longer wheelbase), but slightly smaller in exterior dimensions than the Explorer and Pilot.
It also looks more upscale than other Hyundais. O’Brien attributes this to details inspired by Cadillac design, such as the flush-fitting windows that create smooth transitions between glass and body panels. Other impactful elements include the vertical LED daytime running lights, “wraparound” rear windows—there are actually roof pillars under the glass—and the pronounced character line that stretches stem to stern.
Though not quite on par with that of a luxury SUV, the interior has an upscale vibe with an attractive design and layout, soft-touch materials, textured surfaces, and fancy stitched upholstery. The clean, horizontal lines of the dashboard would look at home on a Mercedes-Benz. It’s quiet inside, too, as body cavities of the vehicle’s structure were injected with foam and the floor crafted to fit specially designed acoustic panels.
Hyundai worked hard to one-up competitors, a tactic that has long been the brand’s reason for being. Not only are there seven USB ports on the Limited model, Hyundai incorporated two of them in a unique place: on the backs of the front seats, replete with small mesh pockets to hold a smartphone while charging. Not only is there a turn signal-activated blind-spot camera like on some Hondas, the image is displayed in the Limited model’s 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster, which is in front of the driver, rather than off to the side on the center console. Roof-mounted a/c vents have a diffuser setting to prevent the bane of backseat riders: facial turbulence. The rear power liftgate opens automatically as you approach it—no foot flailing to trigger sensors under the bumper required—so long as you have the key fob on your person. There’s even a hilarious but probably useful intercom system that pipes parental admonitions through the rear speakers.
You get the idea. It’s a Hyundai, it's chock full of stuff.
Despite all the accoutrements—or perhaps because of them—the experience inside a Palisade is pretty much the same as with any other family-sized SUV. The leather-wrapped steering wheel feels pleasantly smooth. The optional heated and cooled seats heat and cool like any other. The center touchscreen, though snappier in operation than some competitors’, has a customizable menu system that takes getting used to, just like other ones do. There are safety systems galore, optional glass roof panels, the choice for either two individual seats or a three-place bench for the second row.
What really stood out is how well executed the third-row seating is, including ingress and egress. With the sliding second row moved forward a bit, the wayback was spacious enough for my lanky six-foot frame. Three adults across might be tight; two adults or a trio of kids, doable.
In terms of interior dimensions, the Palisade’s third row has 2.7 inches more headroom and 0.5 inches more legroom than a Santa Fe XL, but slightly less in both dimensions than the Explorer and Pilot. The Palisade is narrower than those two rivals, so naturally, the cabin in the front and second-row seating areas isn’t as wide. But it has more than a three-inch advantage in second-row legroom over both. Cargo capacity is slightly less than that of the Explorer and slightly more than that of the Highlander and Pilot, depending on the measurement.
Heavy third-row users will appreciate the one-touch slide-and-fold feature on the second-row seats. It combines with the scalloped door sill and well shaped and positioned grab handles to make this one of the easiest third rows to get in and out of. Power folding/reclining capability for the third row is optional and, Hyundai is quick to point out, not currently offered on the Honda Pilot, Subaru Ascent, or Volkswagen Atlas.
Every automaker engages in this kind of one-upmanship, but Hyundai is particularly keen on it. The Palisade PowerPoint presented at the press briefing had several slides featuring information-dense tables that quantified advantages over competitors in tidy rows of green digits. The thing is, you can’t glean how a vehicle behaves in real life from such marketing numerology. And in that regard, the Palisade fares so-so.
Outward visibility is good, except for the oddly high dashboard, which squashes the windshield view. Seating comfort and control layout and placement gel with the driver and create a sense of ease behind the wheel. Kudos to Hyundai for not saddling the Palisade with a wonky jog dial, track pad, or mouse-like device to control menus on the center screen—it uses a more straightforward touchscreen and hard buttons instead. Little outside noise penetrates the cabin, even when traveling at highway speeds, but the Harman Kardon stereo sounded disappointingly tinny, regardless of how we adjusted the settings.
Here’s another, bigger disappointment: Despite touting a chassis with nearly 24 percent better torsional stiffness than the Santa Fe XL and outfitted with German Sachs dampers, both the SEL and Limited models we drove (70 miles in total between the two) felt lumbering when hustled around the twists and turns of Hell. It’s not surprising, considering the vehicle’s focus on comfort and safety and 4000-pound-plus curb weight. But it is indeed surprising that impacts from small road imperfections ripple up into the cabin with so much frequency.
That was the case in both the SEL, which rides on 18-inch wheels, and the Limited, on 20-inchers. This phenomenon is present in on other vehicles that purport to have smooth, sophisticated rides, and it could be due to the epidemic of overly large wheels that look really cool but leave too little room for bump-absorbing tire sidewalls.
Steering feel is best with the center console’s drive-mode dial set to Sport. This calibration could well serve as the standard across all modes—which include Smart, Comfort, Eco and Snow, besides Sport—as it tones down the electrical boost, yet is by no means heavy. The HTRAC all-wheel drive system, a $1700 option on all models, somewhat makes up for the steering’s vagueness by using torque vectoring to better rotate the vehicle through turns. For those keeping tabs on torque distribution, up to 50 percent of the engine’s power can be sent to the rear wheels in Sport mode, depending on sensor input. In Comfort and Eco, it’s only 35 percent and 20 percent, respectively.
In reality, the Palisade is far more capable than it feels, given the lack of steering feedback and pronounced body roll. The few times I dove into a turn carrying more speed than felt prudent, the Palisade smoothly tracked right through, without drama. It just lacks that unflappable feeling that some other SUVs exude, namely from Mazda and the German luxury brands.
To its credit, the 291-horsepower V-6 engine sounds decent under full throttle and works well with the eight-speed automatic to get the Palisade briskly up to speed. With 262 pound-feet of torque and a standard towing package that includes 5000 pounds of capacity, a heavy duty oil cooler, trailer pre-wiring, and trailer sway control, the Palisade seems like a worthy contender for classic-car and boat owners who tow often. An auto-leveling suspension and Class III receiver hitch are optional.
Average projected fuel economy on front-wheel-drive models is 22 mpg and 21 mpg on all-wheel-drive models.
As always, Hyundai made sure to price competitively, particularly with the mid-level SEL and upper Limited trims. The base SE starts at $32,595, including dealer delivery charges. The SEL, which Hyundai expects most buyers will opt for, starts at $34,545 with delivery. By Hyundai’s calculations, that’s $830 less than a Pilot EX, $860 less than an Ascent Premium, and a whopping $7365 less than a Ford Explorer with the 202A options package. The Limited, which starts at $45,745, costs more than $3000 less than the Atlas, Explorer and Pilot. But you’ll still have to pay $160 if you want carpeted floor mats, even on the all-in Limited.
And of course, there’s the 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty, which if you’re the type to keep your vehicle for a while, could very well come in handy, considering that (after years of consistent and impressive improvements) Hyundai and sister company Kia have recalled 2.3 million vehicles since 2015. The most recent six-figure spate was for engine fires. I wonder if any of those burned in Hell.