Hyundai Azera makes competitive inroads to vaunted established brands

By Jim Meachen

SAVANNAH, Georgia. — Hyundai is allocating more than 20 percent of its 2006 advertising budget to the oddly named Azera. A Hyundai spokesman said they needed a catchy name, one that is not easily forgotten. So we guess Azera it is. Catchy!

Azera is Hyunadi’s first viable entry (the key word being viable) in the premium sedan market. The South Korean company is putting big bucks behind the car to help insure its success against stiff competition such as the Toyota Avalon — its chief target — the Buick LaCrosse/ Lucerne, the Nissan Maxima, the Ford Five Hundred, the Chrysler 300 and the Volkswagen Passat.

Sales in this segment grew by more than 50 percent last year and Hyundai wants a bigger piece of the action. It failed to make significant inroads with its top-of-the-line XG300 introduced in 2001 and the revised XG350. The XG is an acceptable sedan, but does not measure up to the competition in the segment.

If Hyundai can succeed in getting people into showrooms and then behind the wheel for a test drive, the 2006 Azera will be a success, even against the aforementioned vaunted competition.

Driving an Azera Limited, we were stuck behind slow-moving sightseeing trolleys through the historic section of Savannah before getting to the open roads and highways of Georgia and into South Carolina. We discovered that a test drive — in our case covering more than 200 miles — will leave you smitten with the quiet and powerful sedan.

The Azera, in showrooms since January, is more than competent and has little in common with the XG350 it replaces. It excels in many areas and at a price that undercuts its rivals — by several thousand dollars in some cases. And Hyundai’s now famous long-term warranty — five years/60,000 mile bumper-to-bumper and 10 years/100,000 mile engine and transmission — is an attractive bonus.

If you have nagging thoughts of Hyundai being an inexpensive, but quality-deprived brand and for that reason won’t give it a look, dispel those notions. Much like Toyota vehicles, which started life in North America decades ago as fuel efficient but cheaply constructed before mutating into cars and trucks of impeccable quality and dependability, Hyundai has also transformed its fleet into acceptability.

For instance, Hyundai finished above the industry average in the 2005 J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study and the Sonata was ranked one of the top three mid-sized sedans in initial quality. The Azera did even better in the 2006 study and was among the leaders in its segment according to Power.

A half dozen recent-model Hyundai vehicles made the “reliable used car” list in Consumer Reports 2006 annual auto issue. A surprising turnaround for a brand that had been vilified for reliability and that should be and is lauded.

With quality and dependability rising steadily, we figure many owners will have little use for the long-term warranty — but it’s nice to know it’s there and that makes Azera and all Hyundai’s attractive to consumers.

Hyundai officials made a big deal about comparing the Azera to Toyota’s crown jewel, the Avalon. The new Hyundai measures up quite well. Few Avalon owners will be convinced of this equality. But really the Azera is good enough to win over prospective buyers particularly when price and warranty are factored into the equation.

The Azera is remarkably quiet — much like the Avalon — at all speeds and it reaches speed limits effortlessly thanks to Hyundai’s new Lambda 3.8-liter all-aluminum 24-valve V-6 generating 263 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque directed through a five-speed automatic transmission.

The setup is comparable to the Avalon’s 268 horses and trumps the V-6 engines in the Buick Lucerne and Ford Five Hundred.

The performance is rewarding. Hyundai says the Azera can reach 60 miles per hour in 6.5 seconds. That figure is believable and is very much in Avalon territory. And we could not detect any torque steer from the front-wheel drive setup on a couple of full-throttle leaps.

This luxury power is combined with a well-controlled ride that is close to soft, but never floaty in the marshmallow vein of some big luxury sheetmetal of the recent past.

The Azera has a spacious cabin suitable for five adults, although in reality the rear center position is best left unoccupied for trips longer than an evening out at a favorite restaurant. But that can be said for most sedans.

Rear-seat legroom is generous, headroom is adequate at all four corners and trunk room at 17 cubic feet is spacious.

The interior is well designed with remarkable fit and finish. The Limited model we tested was luxuriously finished in dark wood, brushed metal accents and scrumptious leather upholstery.

Much of the dashboard setup including the electroluminescent gauges and the center stack displays — particularly the stereo readout — were benchmarked if not nearly copied from Toyota/Lexus. But, hey, it works and Hyundai has without apology over the years successfully borrowed things that work in other brands.

Hyundai comes in two well-equipped trim levels, SE and Limited, starting at $24,235. The Limited begins at $26,835 and a Limited with the Ultimate package runs $29,995.

Standard features are generous on the base model including dual-zone climate control, a full array of power equipment, power driver’s seat, stereo with a MP3-compatible CD player, antilock brakes, traction and stability control, seat-mounted side airbags for both front and rear passengers and head-curtain airbags.

Move up to the Limited and such desirable features as heated leather seating, 17-inch alloy wheels, upgraded 315-watt Infinity stereo system with 6-disc changer and 10 speakers and power rear sunshade are added.

The Ultimate package adds power-adjustable foot pedals, power sunroof, power adjustable tilt and telescoping steering wheel, rain-sensing wipers and a memory system.

Notable by its absence is a navigation system, which is now available on most cars costing over 25 grand. Hyundai officials say it’s in the works, but wasn’t ready at launch. Satellite radio is also unavailable.

Hyundai has successfully overcome its quality problems of a decade ago. The South Korean automaker now builds good cars at amazingly low prices and with the industry’s best warranty. And the Azera will surely help Hyundai build on its new image while stealing sales away from the vaunted Avalon.