The Hyundai is the happier handler, though. It's 2.1 seconds quicker through our figure-eight test, which combines transitional handling, grip, acceleration, and braking. And it grips through the skidpad at 0.77 g versus the Lexus's 0.68g run. Is the Hyundai chassis that much superior? No. It's the RX's insistence in keeping you overly safe that electronically inhibited its performance. It sensed that our max-handling performance testing was impending accident doom and lit up the stability controls at anything more than the slightest provocation. Beepers beeped, brakes braked, and the throttle was dialed out until the RX 350 knew we weren't going to crash. This also was the case on our mountain road loop, even during moderate cornering. The Lexus computer wizards need to dial the electronannies back a notch or two.

In real-world driving, both do the job nicely and will take you and your occupants anywhere you want to go in comfort. Ride quality is about equal, although the Lexus exhibits less wind noise at higher speeds. Both have good steering and brake pedal feel. Kudos to the Hyundai's six-speed automatic transmission. It has one more gear than does the Lexus's, shifts smoother without being mushy, and responds quickly to downshift demands. The RX's trans shifts more harshly under heavy load. The Veracruz turns in more confidently and steers in a more linear manner. When you bend the Lexus into a corner hard, it asks for a steering correction. If you overdo it, the RX calls in the stability controls.

The Veracruz's center stack is a model of logic. Each portion of it is dedicated to its respective function: HVAC, audio, etc. The knobs and buttons are easy to understand and do what you want them to in an intuitive way. The RX's are okay, too, but there are foibles, such as giving you a switch to control temperature, but insisting you go into the Climate portion of the nav screen to adjust the fan speed. Stupid. And why is the rearview-mirror adjustment switch hidden behind a door on the instrument panel? Both have high-quality, supportive seating, although we missed having separate armrests in the Hyundai.Premium Japanese brands are known for using first-rate materials, boasting superior fit and finish. Korean brands have previously been known for none of the above. This pair demonstrates how narrow that gap has become. The Lexus is still the king here, using great surfaces everywhere and bolting them together flawlessly. The Hyundai uses components of nearly equal quality, assembled almost as well. The leather and vinyl on the seats didn't quite color-match, the silver finish on the center stack doesn't appear all that sturdy, and there were a few misaligned bits of trim. It's in areas such as these where you can spot the difference in cost, although it's not as great as the dollar spread might indicate.

If we accept that the Lexus's brand cachet, dealer-service reputation, reliability reputation, and historically high resale value are worth the 25-percent premium, price is no longer an issue. So which should you buy?The Lexus faithful won't be moved by the Veracruz. They're a loyal bunch and likely will replace their current RX with another. By doing so, they'll get a sophisticated, high-quality piece that's even nicer than their last one. It'll serve them well and return that loyalty at trade-in or re-lease time. The RX 350 remains the category leader, and the Veracruz does little to impact that. But can you get most of the goodness at 20 percent off?

Yes.

Equip the Veracruz properly, and it has the mojo to compete with the higher-priced vehicle. It doesn't yet match the Lexus's overall levels of polish, but it's darn close, which makes it very nice indeed, measured against most other offerings. It drives as well, rides with aplomb, and feels all of a piece. The Veracruz gives you that important third-row seat and plenty of cargo space, which is why most people shop this type of vehicle. The fact that it costs less is no longer an excuse to buy a Hyundai. It's just a smart reason. If it's the RX you must have, and the cost delta doesn't matter, buy one and you'll be delighted. Feel like saving some money for something that's functionally as good and a well-conceived machine in its own right? Consider the Veracruz Limited, and you'll be equally delighted. Keep the change.



1st Place: Hyundai Veracruz Limited AWD
Does everything well and advances the brand. A nice blend of value and luxury touches.

2nd Place: Lexus RX 350
Still a well-polished piece, if you want everything that goes with the badge. and are willing to pay a bit more for it.