Hyundai, the South Korean automaker that brought its first cars to the United States in 1986, has come a long way during the past 19 years.
The best evidence of that can be seen in the company's all-new flagship sedan, the 2006 Azera, which goes on sale in early December.
At the top of the Hyundai lineup, the Azera is a full-size premium sedan that replaces last year's XG350.
Aimed squarely at the segment-leading Toyota Avalon, the Azera starts at just under $25,000, yet offers more amenities at that price than consumers will find in the base Avalon, which begins at under $27,000.
Moving up to the Azera Limited model, for under $30,000, consumers will find a car that seems more like a Lexus than a Hyundai, still priced more than $4,000 less than a comparably equipped Avalon.
The Azera's 263-horsepower, 3.8-liter V-6 engine (up 69 horsepower from engine in the 2005 XG350), also is among the most powerful base engines in this class, which also includes the Buick LaCrosse, Pontiac Grand Prix, Ford Five Hundred/Mercury Montego, Nissan Maxima, and Chrysler 300. That's more than the Grand Prix and LaCrosse's 200 hp. or optional 240 hp.; the 300's base 190-hp. or midlevel 240-hp.; and the Five Hundred and Montego's 203 hp., the only engine offered in those big sedans.
The most surprising thing about the Azera is that it doesn't fit into anyone's preconceived notions about Hyundai automobiles, which many consumers view as less-expensive but also somewhat inferior to their Japanese counterparts.
Hyundai and Chrysler were rated the least-trusted auto brands in the United States in a recent Strategic Vision survey of consumers who bought new vehicles during the 2005 model year. But finding something inferior about the Azera, even in direct comparison with the segment's benchmark, the Avalon, might be a real challenge.
"The all-new Azera takes luxury appointments and personal comfort to a whole new level of sophistication," Hyundai Motor America President and Chief Executive Robert Cosmai said in an introduction of the vehicle to the automotive media.
"It offers the roominess and luxury of cars costing far more, and delivers on Hyundai's promise of superior safety and value. Azera will earn distinction for segment-leading standard safety features, refined styling, and content that is generally reserved for higher-priced luxury sedans."
Whether many consumers can be persuaded to spend $25,000 -- let alone $30,000 -- on a Hyundai remains to be seen. The XG350, which was arguably a much-weaker attempt at creating a full-size premium sedan, was not a big seller during its three years on the market, with sales topping out at about 15,000 a year.
But Hyundai says it expects the Azera to double that, to at least 30,000 a year -- about half the number of Avalons that Toyota expects to sell. Getting Avalon intenders to visit Hyundai showrooms first to consider the Azera will be Hyundai's biggest challenge if it wants to compete directly against the Avalon.
Taking customers from the Avalon might not be necessary, however, to reach the 30,000-unit sales target. People looking for an affordable premium sedan, but who wouldn't consider an Avalon because of its higher price, might find the Azera to be just what they need.
"The Azera is a smart purchase for people who don't need a well-established brand," John Krafcik, Hyundai Motor America's vice president for product development, said during introduction of the vehicle.
These buyers might include some shoppers who would also consider fully loaded versions of the slightly smaller Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, but also might include some who visit Hyundai dealerships to look at the midsize Sonata sedan, and find that the Azera offers a whole lot more car for less than what a well-equipped Camry or Accord might cost.
The Azera essentially is a stretched version of the new Sonata sedan that debuted for 2005, just as the Avalon is a stretched version of the Camry. The good news is that the current Sonata is a very good car in its own right, a formidable competitor to the Camry and Accord that is priced thousands of dollars less.
Although based on the Sonata, the Azera is significantly different. It has its own unique exterior sheet metal, and a much more-refined interior. The floor pan also is different from the Sonata's, a necessity since the Azera is longer and roomier.
The Azera, obviously, is the most luxurious Hyundai yet. It perhaps offers a prelude to what consumers will see when Hyundai launches its planned premium brand, probably within the next two years. The company has decided that if Toyota can have Lexus, it can have its own upscale brand as well.
Among standard features even on the entry SE model are halogen projector-beam headlights, dual-zone automatic climate control, self-dimming rearview mirror, HomeLink universal garage/gate opener, power driver and passenger seats, power windows/mirrors/door locks with remote, engine-immobilizer security system, and woodgrain and metal interior accents.
Also included on the SE are electronic stability control; 16-inch, five-spoke aluminum-alloy wheels; traction control; six-speaker AM/FM/compact-disc audio system with MP3 playback; LED taillights; active front head restraints; and cloth seats.
Options include a power sunroof; premium 10-speaker Infinity audio system with an in-dash, six-disc CD changer; and heated front seats.
Moving up to the Limited model brings leather seats; 17-inch, 10-spoke alloy wheels; the heated front seats; an electroluminescent gauge cluster; wood trim on the steering wheel; and a power rear sunshade that automatically lowers when the transmission is shifted into reverse. Also included are bumper moldings with chrome-inserts.
Limited model options include the Infinity audio system; power-adjustable tilt-and-telescopic steering column; cabin air-filtration system; memory for the front seats; power-adjustable foot pedals; and rain-sensing front wipers.
Both models get the same V-6 engine, and both come with the same five-speed automatic transmission. As with most upscale automatics these days, it comes with a manual-shift function that lets the driver decide when to change gears, or it can be left in fully automatic mode.
Safety features abound on the Azera. Both models come with eight standard air bags, including dual front, front and rear seat-mounted side, and front and rear overhead side-curtain air bags.
The stability-control system and the standard antilock brakes are designed to help avoid collisions, while the air bags and front headrest pre-tensioners are among so-called passive safety features intended to protect occupants should a collision occur. No federal crash-test results have been released yet for the Azera.
Inside, this car looks nothing like the Hyundais of the past. Think Lexus, not Hyundai. Fit and finish is excellent, and materials seem much more expensive than we've seen before from South Korean automakers.
The cabin is among the roomiest in the class, giving five adults quite comfortable seating for around-town or cross-country jaunts. Hyundai says the Azera has more interior space than the Avalon, BMW 760i and Mercedes-Benz S-class sedans. It's also quieter at highway speeds than most of the competition -- even quieter than the Lexus ES 330, Hyundai says.
Ride comfort is equal to that of competitors as well. The car has a double-wishbone front suspension, with a multi-link setup at the rear.
A great plus with any Hyundai vehicle is the warranty, which is among the best in the industry. It includes basic bumper-to-bumper coverage for five years or 60,000 miles (whichever comes first), powertrain coverage for 10 years/100,000 miles, seven years/unlimited mileage on corrosion; and five years of 24-hour roadside assistance (with no mileage limit).
The roadside service includes emergency towing, lockout service and limited coverage for trip-interruption expenses, Hyundai says. There is no deductible on any of the coverages.
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G. Chambers Williams III is staff automotive columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and former transportation writer for the Star-Telegram. His automotive columns have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at (210) 250-3236; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Quick facts - 2006 Hyundai Azera
The basics: This is Hyundai's all-new flagship, a fiull-size premium sedan designed to compete against vehicles such as the Toyota Avalon, Buick LaCrosse and Nissan Maxima. It comes with lots of standard features, and looks more expensive than it is.
Under the hood: Standard is a 263-horsepower, 3.8-liter V-6 engine with 255 foot-pounds of torque, which is among the most powerful in this class. It is connected to a five-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift feature.
Available models: Base SE and uplevel Limited (which gets leather interior).
Fuel economy: EPA ratings have not been released yet.
On-sale date: Early December.
The price tag: From about $25,000 to $30,000.
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