Apparently, Hyundai would rather have a Buick.
But it's not a new Buick -- the Lucerne or the LaCrosse -- that the South Korean car company wants. Those Buicks are nicely turned family sedans with reasonably robust suspension systems, great ride and good handling.
But with its 2006 Azera SE sedan, Hyundai Motor Co. is aiming at the Buicks of old -- those loping leviathans endowed with squishy suspension systems, feather-touch steering and handling that is as unpredictable as the direction of the leading political parties.
In short, the Azera SE is the softest, most ambling car I've driven since being behind the wheel of a 1996 Buick Park Avenue. That's saying something.
Initially, I thought the problem stemmed from having driven too many sports cars before climbing into the Azera. That happens. You spend several weeks driving wildmobiles such as the Dodge Viper, Chevrolet Corvette Z06 and the wonderfully wacky and exceptionally fast Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR, and you start thinking that all cars should behave and feel like them.
So I decided to put some space between me and the hot rides. I drove a Honda Accord LX V-6, a teeny-weeny and awfully light Toyota Yaris, my wife Mary Anne's Mini Cooper and a Honda Odyssey minivan borrowed from my frequent partner in vehicle evaluations, Ria Manglapus.
Then I returned to the Azera, which still felt as squishy and drift-prone as ever.
I asked Mary Anne for a second opinion, saying nothing about my feelings. I simply gave her the Azera's keys. She drove the car for an hour, parked it and jumped back into her Mini Cooper.
Mary Anne's Azera comment: "I can't feel anything in that car. I feel as if it has a mind of its own, like I'm not in control."
I then gave the keys to Ria, whose initial take on the Azera was quite different from mine and Mary Anne's.
Driving out of our speed-bump-impaired Arlington neighborhood, "I thought it was just another car," Ria said. But she said she was surprised by the Azera's highway acceleration and was "wowed by the smoothness and comfort of its ride."
What's going on here?
It has much to do with expectations.
Frequent visitors to this space know that I now hold Hyundai and Kia Motors Corp. in high esteem. The South Korean car companies have come a long way since their arrival in the United States in the late 1980s. They are bona fide contenders in market segments for small cars, small sport-utility vehicles and minivans.
But Hyundai is pursuing the market for midsize and larger premium family sedans -- occupied by cars such as the Toyota Avalon, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Buick Lucerne, Ford Five Hundred and Honda Accord LX V-6.
The Azera easily matches those cars in standard equipment and amenities. It trounces them on price. But I was so taken with the Azera's overall craftsmanship -- its impressive exterior and interior styling, the quality of its cabin materials and their general excellence of assembly -- I expected all of that good stuff to be reflected in ride and handling, too. It wasn't. I was disappointed.
Mary Anne, on the other hand, is addicted to her Mini Cooper. She tends to judge all other cars by how well or poorly they stack up against her automobile, especially when it comes to maneuverability. If you are accustomed to a Mini Cooper's agility, you'll be disgusted by the Azera's timidity around curves and in sharp corners.
Ria is wedded to all things Honda. But she spends most of her time ferrying family members in her Odyssey minivan. Almost any car feels good after life in a minivan. Besides, Ria, as many people do, still harbored suspicions about South Korean automotive quality. The Azera greatly exceeded her expectations.
Nuts & Bolts
2006 Hyundai Azera SE
Complaints: The Azera is too softly sprung for my tastes. Its handling is imprecise. It reminds me of the big, American float-mobiles of yesteryear. But not everyone agrees with that assessment.
Ride, handling and acceleration: Soft, squishy and fast.
Head-turning quotient: The Azera is an attractively sculpted car. Exterior lines are classic, clean and sophisticated. The interior is elegant and ergonomically sensible, a nice mixture of luxury and practicality highlighted by faux-wood accents and satin-finish metal pieces. The car has high eye appeal.
Body style/layout: The Azera is a front-engine, front-wheel-drive, midsize family sedan competing in the entry-level luxury car segment. It replaces Hyundai's XG-Series sedans, which were introduced in 2001. There are two Azera trim lines, the tested SE and the super-posh Limited.
Engine/transmission: The car is equipped with a standard 3.8-liter, 24-valve V-6 engine that develops 263 horsepower at 6,000 revolutions per minute and 255 foot-pounds of torque at 4,500 RPM. The engine is mated to a five-speed automatic transmission that also can be shifted manually.
Capacities: The Azera has seating for five people. Trunk capacity is 16.6 cubic feet. Fuel capacity is 19.8 gallons of recommended regular unleaded gasoline.
Mileage: I averaged 26 miles per gallon in highway driving.
Safety: Impressive. Standard equipment includes traction and stability control, four-wheel disc brakes with antilock protection, side and head-curtain air bags, and active front head restraints -- all at a price considerably below that of many traditional, premium family sedans.
Price: Base price on the 2006 Hyundai Azera SE sedan is $24,335. Dealer's invoice price on that model is $21,901. Price as tested is $25,195, including $200 for the "powder white pearl" paint job and a $660 destination charge. Dealer's price as tested is $23,668.
Purse-strings note: Considering the Azera's lengthy list of standard equipment and amenities, its overall excellence in craftsmanship and its attractive price, it gets a "buy" from this column. Just remember that you pilot this one in the manner of a yacht as opposed to driving it in the manner of a Porsche.
Cars.com Expert Reviews
|Jim Flammang||Cars.com National||April 29, 2005|
|Mark Glover||The Sacramento Bee||August 4, 2006|
|G. Chambers Williams III||Star-Telegram.com||May 31, 2006|
|Colette Fischer||Mother Proof||May 30, 2006|
|Warren Brown||washingtonpost.com||May 14, 2006|
|Jim Mateja||chicagotribune.com||March 26, 2006|
|Anita Lienert||The Detroit Newspapers||March 15, 2006|
|G. Chambers Williams III||Star-Telegram.com||December 1, 2005|
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