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Hyundai Breaks Out of Its Past by Joseph
Grand transformation goals are the order of the day.
Okay, let’s be honest,
there was a time when the name Hyundai bolted to the back of a new car was
likely to ensure it low priority in a press fleet. If there were three vehicles
in my own driveway, it was certain to be the last I’d take out for a test drive.
That changed, a few years back, when I took delivery of an early
The SUV boasted an unexpectedly striking design, and proved a lot of fun to drive. For the first time, when someone asked whether I liked what I was driving, I could say, “It’s nice,” without adding the immediate modifier, “for a Hyundai.” Since then, I’ve found that most of the automaker’s new products are fun to drive, and adding the fact that they’re Hyundais is no longer a pejorative. Apparently, a growing number of American motorists agree.
The Korean carmaker barely missed
capturing the title of top mainstream brand in the latest Vehicle Satisfaction
Award. Honda just squeaked by in the annual consumer study by the consulting
firm, AutoPacific. But Hyundai still managed to capture wins in two product
segments, including both the
“This is a very different Hyundai than what it was ten years ago,” said Michael Deitz, a senior planner for Hyundai Motor America. No kidding. Back then, the automaker’s lineup of econoboxes were quality and reliability nightmares sold solely on price. As the old carney barkers liked to remind you, “Ya pays your money, ya takes your chances.” And the odds weren’t all that good.
An altogether different Hyundai
The Azera represents a very different Hyundai, a brand intent on repositioning itself as one of the leaders in the global auto industry. Sure, you can still get a basic econobox with crank windows and manually operated mirrors. But to be taken seriously, Hyundai is rapidly fleshing out its lineup, adding desirable content and moving steadily upscale.
The Azera replaces the automaker’s earlier flagship, the XG350, though senior company officials hint that an even more lavish offering may be in the works. For those who can’t wait, the Azera is certainly worth considering, as we recently discovered.
There’s a clear, familial resemblance to the latest Hyundai Sonata, certainly no surprise. And both cars could easily be mistaken for Japanese. That’s no surprise, of course. The Korean maker has an almost fanatic drive to take on its Asian rivals. The back-slanting “H” on the grille is, of course, the giveaway.
Like Sonata, the new sedan is visually attractive and decidedly more upscale than early Hyundai offerings. It’s a lot more distinguished than the old XG, a nouveau poseur that seemed almost a parody of what a luxury car is supposed to look like. Azera has a nicely rounded shape, with a rear that tucks in a little too tight. Despite plenty of chrome, it actually may be a little too muted to truly reflect its top-tier position in the lineup.
But you’ll certainly get plenty for your money. In the base SE trim, the sedan delivers standard features including power driver’s seat, dual-zone climate control, a CD player with MP3 compatibility, a tilt/telescope leather-wrapped steering wheel, and 16-inch alloy wheels. The Limited edition adds ten-spoke, 17-inch wheels, heated front seats, a power passenger seat, electroluminescent gauges, and a power rear sunshade. Options range from power-adjustable pedals to an audiophile Infinity sound system.
Seeing a competitive opening,
Hyundai is making a big push in the safety arena, with plans to offer such
desirable features as ABS, traction control, and electronic stability control
virtually across its lineup. They’re already on the list with Azera, along with
an array of airbags: front, side, and head curtain.
All in all, it’s quite a combination for a four-door that starts at $24,995 and tops out fully loaded, according to Dietz, at $29,995, with the Ultimate Luxury package. That package does omit a few things Hyundai hasn’t yet worked into its catalogue, such as satellite radio, a navigation system, and a hands-free phone interface. But we’ve been assured those increasingly common features are in development, and will start showing up during the Azera’s lifecycle.
Slip behind the wheel and you’re likely to be impressed with the general ergonomics of the Azera. Instrumentation is well placed and, especially with the electroluminescent displays, particularly easy to read. Switches and knobs are equally well positioned. The overall look is refined. The choice of materials, even the fake wood on the Limited we drove, was well executed, though we were disappointed with the unusually large gaps in the instrument panel. Hyundai needs to tighten them up to truly rival the best of the Japanese.
We’d also like to see a complete redesign of what are largely useless cupholders. We’d be afraid to carry a cup of hot coffee, fearing that a sharp turn would launch it into our laps.
The sedan is quite roomy, front seat and back. Seating itself proved comfortable and reasonably supportive, though there’s not a huge amount of lateral support for those who might have a sportier driving style.
Perhaps that was a conscious choice, because the Azera doesn’t boast the same sort of sporty driving dynamics that so impressed us when we tested the latest edition of the Sonata. If anything, the road feel is almost a little Buick-like. We’re not trying to damn with faint praise. There are plenty of folks who like that sort of highway cruiser, but found the ride just a little too soft and the steering a bit numb.
Hyundai’s new 3.8-liter V-6 is an impressive package. It turns out 263 horsepower, and mated to a smooth-shifting five-speed automatic, Hyundai claims it can launch from 0-60 in 6.5 seconds. The problem is that this pony doesn’t like to sit still, so throttle tip-in seemed a bit abrupt. We don’t want to overplay this issue, but it takes a little effort to achieve a smooth, rolling start.
On the other hand, it’s hard not to appreciate the attention Hyundai engineers have paid to the overall refinement of the powertrain. It’s surprisingly refined and amazingly quiet. Indeed, cabin noise levels are almost Lexus-like, a notable achievement for a brand like Hyundai.
We’d be tempted to use the word, serene, to describe the overall driving experience. The Azera would make an excellent daily commuter car, but we could just as well see driving one of the sedans on a long, lazy drive, especially if it were equipped with the Ultimate Luxury Package.
The question is whether the Azera
will show up on the shopping list of those buyers this roomy and stylish
offering is intended to reach. By the automaker’s own admission, less than a
quarter of all
2006 Hyundai Azera
Base Price: $24,995
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Engine: 3.8-liter DOHC V-6, 263 horsepower/255 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 192.7 x 72.8 x 58.7 inches
Wheelbase: 109.4 inches
Curb weight: 3629 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/highway): 19/28 mpg
Safety features: Anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control; front, side, and curtain airbags.
Major standard features: Power driver’s seat; dual-zone climate control; AM/FM/CD player with MP3 compatibility; tilt/telescope leather-wrapped steering wheel; 16-inch alloy wheels
Warranty: Five years/60,000 miles