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The Maine attraction

If there was ever a road well suited for fast driving in a sport sedan, it is Route 201 in northern Maine. It has very little traffic and runs practically straight as an arrow from Skowhegan to the Quebec border.

In a two-and-a-half-hour drive north from Portland to The Forks — a tiny dot on the map with 37 residents — we hardly saw a state cop. Of course, this was a midnight run in a well-chosen steed: a Hyundai XG350.

A Hyundai? They don’t make any sporty sedans! Oh, but they do. The XG350 is new to me, but a variant has been in the Korean carmaker’s lineup since 2001, when it debuted as the XG300. The obvious reason for the change in nomenclature is an upgrade to a 3.5-liter V-6 engine, producing 194 horsepower.

The reason I was pointing this new Hyundai toward the great white north was a much-needed family vacation. The kids had been bugging me to take them to Disney World, but I had something a bit more natural in mind. A week before, the family had "thrilled" to a whitewater rafting ride (on tracks) in a Connecticut water park. Now we were on our way to experience the real thing at Northern Outdoors‚ Forks Resort Center (800-765-7238), where they virtually invented whitewater rafting in New England. Family vacations are getting hard to find in our cynical age, but this promised to be a great one.

The first rides on the Kennebec were taken in 1976, when paper companies were still sending raw logs down the river to be processed. Now the river is pristine, and rafting is a hugely popular sport that’s helping revitalize the economy of northern Maine. The chance to see a moose is a big draw, too, though too often people meet moose by accident — with more damage to the cars than to the moose.

My wife wanted me to borrow a minivan with a DVD player to keep the kids happy on the ride north, but the XG300 was a better choice for mom and dad. Even though it lacked a DVD, it had an excellent stereo to play their Spongebob Squarepants CD. It also had an absolutely cavernous trunk to swallow the considerable luggage you need to make river trips.

The XG350 looks like, feels like, and cruises like a much more expensive car. In keeping with Hyundai tradition, it is the least-expensive entry in its class. The car starts at $23,999. The competition is cars like the Chrysler Concorde, Toyota Camry and Volkswagen Passat, though the loaded XG350 is bigger and more luxurious than most others in its price range.

MSN’s Daniel Heraud on the Hyundai: "Given the technology and high level of standard equipment it packs, the XG350 is a real bargain. If its quality proves to be reliable, it may just well attract a lot more than Hyundai’s faithful buyers."

And that is indeed the question: If Hyundai can make this car as reliable as the Accord and the Camry, buyers will line up for its sophisticated driving qualities, comfortable accommodations for five (including a very roomy back seat) and high level of standard equipment. It also can deliver 26 miles per gallon in highway driving.

We made it home without hitting a moose, having had a wonderful time running the Kennebec (the kids admitted it was better than the amusement park), hiking to the top of Pleasant Pond Mountain and river kayaking until we dropped. Good trip, good car!

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