RICHMOND, Va. -- Cruising the I-64 slab across Virginia's Piedmont Plateau, one driver senses we're steering a fine luxury car -- a sleek four-door sedan rigged with a lively powertrain, agile suspension settings and lots of cushioned comforts in the cabin like a contoured driver's bucket which contorts under power controls to umpteen different positions. We're having a pleasant experience in a deluxe machine, please understand, as amplified by symphonic sounds filtering through a CD deck and filling the cabin. Forward and side visibility, projected outward through massive tinted windows, encompasses the road scene in a superior design.
Steering wheel, tilted precisely to a preferred angle, feels of soft leather, as do the seats. And a convenient cupholder cradles our coffee mug within easy reach. With little effort, hands can cut the steering wheel and cause this vehicle to move quickly into another lane.
And with only light pressure exerted, our right foot can summon stout horsepower and enable us to scoot ahead of traffic. What a fine luxury car this tester proves to be: It's refined with fancy passenger comforts, liberated with exacting handling mechanisms, enthusiastic with power. Yet we see in the rearview mirror an image which confronts this impression of driving a refined luxury car: The mirror's reflection is not the limited quarters of a four-door sedan but the boxed cavern of a vast van, with second and third tiers of seats apparent and enough space in the bay behind the third tier for a load of luggage.
Driver must remind self that the vehicle for this trip is not a fancy sedan but actually a people-hauling minivan. A bumper badge informs us it's the Entourage, a new moniker for the first minivan in North America from Hyundai, largest car company in South Korea. Entourage rides on a dedicated minivan platform which forges a long wheelbase and broad wheel track to set up spacious quarters for the passenger compartment.
There's room for as many as seven riders with front-row bucket seats, second-row seats that flip and fold and a third-row bench that folds down and disappears to form a flat floor in the cargo bay. And Hyundai manages to pack aboard so much safety gear. Every edition of Entourage stocks passive safety systems like frontal and seat-mounted side-impact air bags for front seats and curtain-style air bags above outboard seats for all three rows.
For active safety, every issue also has a disc brake at every wheel, with electronic linkage to a four-channel anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake force distribution (EBD). All Entourage trim versions also carry an electronic stability control (ESC) device which automatically coordinates the brakes and throttle to check against lateral wheel skidding. For responsive handling as well as a comfortable ride quality, Entourage employs a four-wheel independent suspension system with MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link arrangement in back.
The rack and pinion steering mechanism brings a direct touch with power boost keyed to engine-speed sensors. And for excellent pedal juice every Entourage draws from a twin-cam 3.8-liter V6 with CVVT (continuously variable valve timing). The V6 romps with 250 hp at 6000 rpm and 253 lb-ft of torque at 3500 rpm.
It links to a sophisticated electronically-controlled five-speed automatic transmission featuring Hyundai's Shiftronic manual shift mode. To access the Shiftronic mode, a driver simply slaps the shifter lever laterally into a separate gate, then tips the lever forward or back to bump sequentially up or down the gear ladder. The exterior package of Entourage discards typical ho-hum minivan styling in favor of an assertive design that features distinctive shapes and chiseled lines.
Note the strong face with a forward-thrust chrome grille and flanking dropped fenders, the creased lines on a broad sloping hood and corner headlight clusters containing jewel-like lenses shielding projector lamps. The massive windshield shows a keen rake sweeping into the curvy roofline crowned by standard roof-rack rails. Trailing edge of the roof adds a spoiler lip with integrated brake light, followed by the top-hinged rear liftgate and corner taillamp clusters.
Inside the passenger compartment, Entourage is really big. The long wheelbase (just shy of ten feet) and a broad width (6.5 feet) end up making a cabin of full-size scale -- the interior volume amounts to 172 cubic feet of room. Cabin layout is conventional with captain's chairs up front and a second row of flip-and-fold chairs that roll out on wheels. The third tier contains Hyundai's three-place Hideaway seat that drops into the floor.
Hyundai builds the Entourage in three trim grades -- entry-level Entourage GLS, a well-stocked SE and the luxurious Limited. Entourage GLS provides a lot of equipment as standard -- from a premium climate system with dual front zones and separate second-row controls to power controls for windows and door locks and mirrors, a remote keyless entry device, cruise control and an audio kit with AM/FM/CD. Entourage SE adds 17-inch alloy wheels, power controls for the two sliding side doors and power for the driver's bucket, a leather steering wheel and shift knob, foglamps, audio controls mounted on the steering wheel, automatic headlights, a compass and trip computer.
Entourage Limited brings luxury goods like leather seats, electroluminescent gauges and power for the liftgate. Options range from a DVD entertainment kit with eight-inch LCD video monitor to a deluxe Infinity audio system. Hyundai's MSRP chart for Entourage begins at $23,794 for the GLS, with SE trim starting at $26,295 and the Limited tagged at $28,795.