SEOUL — Hyundai can build big, spectacular things. In 2014 it created the CSCL Globe, the world's largest container ship at the time. With a 77,200-hp two-stroke engine and a deck the size of four soccer fields, it can deliver 19,000 shipping containers anywhere in the world. By comparison, the new 2020 Hyundai Palisade isn't all that large — but it will soon become the brand's biggest and most powerful SUV ever.
About the size of the Ford Explorer and the popular Honda Pilot, the Palisade is already on sale in South Korea, where it is assembled at Hyundai's massive plant in Ulsan alongside the Tucson, Ioniq and Veloster. But the replacement for the Santa Fe XL won't hit Hyundai's American dealerships until summer 2019. It's part of an SUV onslaught by the automaker, which has just introduced the smaller Kona and Santa Fe models. And Hyundai says there's more to come.
Unlike the Ford Explorer, which will soon return to a traditional rear-wheel drive architecture, the 2020 Hyundai Palisade uses a new front-wheel drive chassis it will share with the coming Kia Telluride. The SUV is 3 inches longer, about 3.5 inches wider and over 2 inches taller than the Santa Fe XL, and its wheelbase has grown 4 inches. That matches the Nissan Pathfinder at 114.2 inches, and outstretches the Explorer, Pilot and Toyota Highlander. However, the Chevy Traverse and Buick Enclave share a 120.9-inch wheelbase, and at 204.3 inches long they've got 8 inches of length on the Palisade.
Despite all that size, the Palisade doesn't feel like a container ship from behind its leather-wrapped steering wheel. After two cold snowy days driving Korean-market spec Palisades around northern South Korea, both on and off road, we flew home to California impressed by the SUV's dynamics, packaging and comfort.
Inside, the Palisade's front seats are firm with significant bolstering, and the seating position is perfect. Hyundai has gotten the details right, even carving the SUV's A-pillars extra thin to better your forward view. Fit and finish are impressive, coming close to Genesis levels with our test car's quilted Nappa leather, suede headliner and knurled knobs. Its pale striped wood trim, although fake, pulls off the yacht feel SangYup Lee, Hyundai's Head of Global Design, says he was going for. By the way, before joining Hyundai, Lee was the lead designer at Bentley, where he created that company's first SUV, the Bentayga.
Hyundai told us there are no differences in the SUV's ride and handling tuning from those that will be sold in America, but the 197 horsepower, 2.2-liter four-cylinder diesel in our test vehicle won't make it to the States. At launch, all Palisades sold in the U.S. will be powered by a new version of Hyundai's Lambda 3.8-liter V6. To improve fuel economy, in this application the engine runs on an Atkinson Cycle under light loads, and Hyundai is estimating its output at 291 hp at 6,000 rpm and 262 pound-feet of torque at 5,000 rpm. Strong numbers for this class. Unfortunately, the Palisade's EPA fuel economy ratings are not yet available.
Front-wheel drive and the Hyundai's excellent in-house developed eight-speed automatic transmission will be standard. Its HTRAC all-wheel drive system will be optional. Although big V6s still rule this class, eventually we do expect other engines to be offered in Palisades imported to the United States.
Driving around downtown Seoul is very much like driving through mid-town Manhattan, right down to the taxis and the traffic. In this environment the Palisade feels solid, responsive and light on its feet. There's a satisfying heft to the steering, which is quick with a 15.6:1 ratio, and the Palisade feels agile on its optional 20-inch Michelin Primacy Sport Tour tires. Although it is, the big SUV doesn't feel nose-heavy. In fact, it feels much lighter overall than its 4,475-pound curb weight, and its balance will improve with the all-aluminum V6, which weighs 150 pounds less than the smaller iron block diesel.
There's plenty of road feel in the steering and chassis. The ride is comfortable, although some drivers may find it to be firmer than they expect. It's probably a bit more compliant on the standard 18-inch tires, which are considerably lighter, shaving 5.5 pounds off each corner. Sport mode unnecessarily adds more weight to the steering but cranks up the response of the throttle and transmission nicely.
Hyundai attempted to tackle noise and vibration with under-hood insulation and special sound-deadening carpets, but the Palisade is no isolation chamber, thanks to the diesel engine. We suspect the Palisade will be considerably more refined with the U.S.-spec gas engine.
Hyundai was eager to demonstrate the different modes of the SUV's HTRAC all-wheel drive system, which includes Mud, Sand and Snow, so we drove Palisade on some very mild dirt roads and a beach southwest of Seoul. This is no serious off roader, and we quickly buried the SUV up to its axles in the deep, soft sand. With 7.9 inches of ground clearance, at least Palisade will handle the gravel parking lot at Coachella without breaking a sweat.
And it'll get the whole family there. Adults can actually sit in the third row comfortably, and three pre-teens can fit back there without complaining. The second row slides to balance out the legroom when you're using the Hyundai's max seating capacity, which is eight, or seven if you get the second row captain's chairs. Third row access is also in the positive column, as the second row jumps out of the way with the push of button. Split 60/40, a power folding third row will be available, and there's a sizable amount of additional storage under the Palisade's cargo floor.
Other highlights are generous interior storage and solid ergonomics, which includes Hyundai's first push button shifter, 10 cupholders by our count, and an available 10.25-inch infotainment touchscreen. Hyundai will offer a fully-digital and configurable 12.3-inch instrument cluster, which recently debuted on the 2019 Kia K900.
Hyundai hasn't skimped on the safety either. The SUV's long list of standard active safety systems should add up to an IIHS Top Safety Pick+ and a 5-star NHTSA rating.
Problems? Well, there's no onboard Wifi, which seems like a major oversight in all-new family vehicle. And the Palisade won't launch with an available hybrid version – a surprise given Hyundai's investment in electrification of late. Heck, the new Kona Electric just might win the North American SUV of the Year title.
Hyundai won't discuss sales projections, but admits the United States is the most important market for the large SUV and will make up the bulk of the Palisade's sales volume. Today the Elantra is Hyundai's biggest seller in the U.S., with 185,339 sold through November, and the Tucson is its most popular SUV with 126,915 sold over the same time period.
Hyundai also isn't ready to discuss pricing. Zayong Koo, Hyundai's vice president, would only say, "Pricing will be similar to competitors." That means we should expect the Palisade to cost somewhere between $32,000 and $50,000 depending on its trim level and options.
They're going to sell a lot of these things.