Toyota’s Avalon, Buick’s LaCrosse and cars of their ilk have just been put on notice. Hyundai, the South Korean brand that has blasted its way into the economy car and small SUV segments–after a total 180 from their early days of disposable Excels–is at it again. The new target is the sub-$30K near-premium class, and the ’06 Azera sedan they just debuted looks to be a strong contender right out of the gate.
Replacing the solid-but-forgettable XG350, from the outside the Azera’s certainly got the goods. It pulls off the bland, “I’m a pretty expensive car but don’t look at me too much” persona adopted by everything from the Lexus ES330 to the Ford Five Hundred. Which isn’t to say it’s not attractive; it has the requisite chrome, soft curves, and pricey-looking rims all mated together in a well-rounded package that’s likely not to offend anyone. And Hyundai’s designers did get to express a bit of personality in the back end, at least. We find the rear three-quarter view to be perhaps the best-looking in the segment, with its humped haunches and sinewy curves over the rear wheels and trunk areas.
Like all Hyundais, the Azera will trade primarily on price. It starts under $25,000, significantly undercutting the competition (even allowing for discounts and incentives that have been slapped on some of its slower-selling brethren). The top-level Limited model, with the Ultimate option package model still comes in under $32,000–again a comparative value. Unlike its ancestors, however, the Azera will also trade on feature content–and that’s this car’s primary strength. Little touches like the power-folding side mirrors and one-touch power rear sunshade–included with the Ultimate package–are trick little gadgets rarely even found on cars costing twice as much as this. Plus, they make for easy showing-off.
The not-so-little features are done well here as well. The leather upholstery is gorgeous and buttery-soft. The plastics and other to-be-touched materials are high-end and inviting. Check out those vents, for instance–they feel solid and look great. The audio system, with six-disc CD changer and mp3 capability, sounds like a premium job. Keyless entry, power driver’s seat with memory, dual climate control with rear-seat vents, and power-adjustable foot pedals and steering wheel all come standard as well. No less than ten control buttons adorn the steering wheel, too. The absence of a navigation system is the Azera’s biggest luxury-car sin, and it’s forgivable when you consider the price vs. utility ratio of such things. In general, the Azera rates as a nice place in which to pass the time–quiet, well-equipped, and cosseting. If you have to spend 500 hours a year in traffic, why not do it comfortably?
Hyundai claims that interior volume actually bests that of the BMW 760 and Mercedes S-class, not to mention the Avalon. It’s also deadly quiet at speed–Buick should subcontract its Quiet-Tuning out to Hyundai. No less than eight airbags provide an invisible safety cocoon and stability control helps avoid crashes in the first place. Standard antilock brakes and traction control round out the safety package.
Generally, cars in this segment inspire, at best, yawn-tastic reviews in most automotive publications. The simple reason for that fact is the somnolent driving dynamics pervasive among this type of car–even the Avalon’s GT package hasn’t added much excitement to this class. Still, the Azera proves its mettle well on this front.
Acceleration is impressive–we recorded a 7.1-second sprint to 60 mph–due to the brand-new 3.8-liter V6 Hyundai designed for this car. Making 263 horses, this cream-puff of a motor is the most powerful engine ever in a Hyundai (and it’ll likely do good work in the upcoming Santa Fe redesign that’s set to grow to a seven-seater). An advanced CVVT design, all-aluminum construction and a variable intake add efficiency as well as power. EPA fuel economy has not been released yet, but we expect it’ll be above average for a car like this. The smooth-shifting five-speed automatic–with Shiftronic manu-matic action–is the icing on the power/economy cake.
Suspending this all-new chassis is a simple front double-wishbone/rear multilink setup that works well in this application. (The chassis is actually a stretched version of the platform that underpins the Sonata, one of our favorites in the midsize segment.) Body roll and lean are certainly present, but never to an alarming degree. In our brief time with several pre-production Azeras, we were unable to upset the car at all–the progressive understeer and well-planted nature of this car will be reassuring to many buyers, especially ex-SUV owners looking to replace their gas-guzzlers with something a little more economical.
Like all Hyunda’s, the Azera comes with the 10 year/100,000-mile warranty coverage. That warranty, which is almost single-handedly responsible for the public’s willingness to re-consider Hyundai cars after the early ’90s debacle, covers all powertrain components. There is a deductible applied for certain repairs over a certain mileage, however, and a few folks have reported less-than-stellar dealer experiences–but in the main, this is among the best coverage available on any new car.
“Luxury without guilt” is the marketing idea behind the new Azera. Hyundai has targeted a sales goal of 30,000 to 40,000 units annually, which it should have no problem reaching as long as it can get buyers into showrooms to see this car (and read the Monroney window sticker). If you’re in the market for a luxurious car completely devoid of ostentation–and if you’re on a budget–this is a must-see. Especially if you’ve been paying a premium price in the past.