Wednesday, January 11, 2006

2006 Hyundai Azera First Drive

An H-badged sedan with style and substance…and it’s not a Honda
by Thom Blackett

Introduction Wherever you look, people are trying to move up. With each step up the socioeconomic ladder, we reward ourselves, whether it’s with a better apartment in a nicer neighborhood, eating at restaurants with linen rather than paper napkins, wearing clothes with trendy labels instead of low price tags, or driving a car with leather seats by a respected nameplate. People invest in themselves, but it’s not just something we do – businesses do it, too, especially car companies. In recent years, both Subaru and Volkswagen have tried to reposition their brands as upscale alternatives to the status quo. Now the new kids on the block, the Koreans, are having a go at upward mobility. Kia started the trend a few years back with the Amanti, and now, for 2006, Hyundai is taking a shot at the entry-luxury market with the all-new Azera, a stylish flagship sedan that marks the demise of the generic XG350. Prices for the Azera start at about $25,000 for a cloth-clad model, though Hyundai executives claim that a fully-loaded Azera won’t break the $30,000 threshold, and that’s with a 263-horsepower V6 and a healthy list of amenities and safety equipment, not to mention the heralded 100,000-mile powertrain warranty. But are buyers interested in a Hyundai that can teeter on $30,000? As far as the company has come in recent years with models like the redesigned Sonata sedan and the Tucson SUV, only time will tell if shoppers are willing to lump luxury and Hyundai together, especially in the face of stiff competition in a crowded segment. Based on a brief drive, we’d say that Hyundai has put together a great first attempt, albeit one that needs a few more minutes in the oven before being offered to finicky customers. Model Mix Hyundai’s new flagship will be offered in two trims: SE and Limited. The SE model is expected to start below $25,000 (including a $495 destination charge) and includes standard features such as front fog lights, premium cloth seats, power heated rearview mirrors, 16-inch alloy wheels, dual-zone automatic climate control, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. The standard sound system includes a CD player, an MP3 player, and steering wheel controls for volume, mode and mute – but no button for tuning the radio. The “base” 2006 Hyundai Azera SE also includes power windows, locks, and mirrors; power adjustable front seats; a tilt and telescopic steering wheel; a 60/40 split folding rear seat; and a compass. Optional equipment consists of a power sunroof, carpeted floor mats, an upgraded audio system with a six-disc in-dash CD changer, and heated front seats with five settings. If the SE doesn’t offer enough stuff, the 2006 Hyundai Azera Limited comes loaded with luxury for an estimated price of $27,000. That added coin buys standard leather upholstery, a power rear window sunshade, heated front seats, an electroluminescent gauge cluster, 17-inch alloy wheels, floor mats, a wood-and-leather steering wheel, and chrome bumper accents. Buyers looking for a fully pimped Azera Limited can add power folding mirrors; a power sunroof; an upgraded sound system with a six-disc in-dash CD changer; a power tilt and telescopic steering wheel; power foot pedals; a memory function for the driver’s seat, mirrors, and steering wheel; and rain-sensing windshield wipers. For most people, the better value is found in the SE model with its long list of standard features and lower sticker price. The SE has the same styling and powertrain as the more expensive Limited model, and like all Hyundais, comes with a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty, a five-year/60,000-mile basic warranty, a seven-year/unlimited miles corrosion warranty, and five years of roadside assistance. However, if you want all of that with leather seats and a wood steering wheel, you’ve gotta pony up the cash for a 2006 Azera Limited. Nuts and Bolts At the heart of the 3,629-lb. Azera is an aluminum, dual overhead cam, 24-valve, 3.8-liter V6. This engine features continuously variable valve timing, a horsepower rating of 263 that peaks at 6,000 rpm, and 255 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,500 rpm. According to the EPA, the Azera should achieve 18 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway. The Azera’s front wheels are driven by a five-speed automatic transmission that offers a Shiftronic manual shifting feature to make the driving experience a bit more engaging, while front ventilated discs and rear solid discs address the issue of braking. Stretch and lengthen a Hyundai Sonata midsize sedan, and you’ve got the foundation for the new 2006 Hyundai Azera. Like the Sonata, the 2006 Hyundai Azera is suspended up front by double wishbones with coil springs, with a multi-link independent setup out back. – Both ends of the Azera get stabilizer bars. Connecting it all to the road are 225/60R16 tires on the SE, with the Limited getting larger 235/55R17 rubber. Steering is courtesy of an engine rpm-sensitive rack-and-pinion system. Design In many ways the 2006 Hyundai Azera resembles the smaller Sonata, with smooth, rounded body lines, large wraparound taillights, and rectangular yet streamlined headlight housings. But unlike its comparatively diminutive sibling, the Azera incorporates a center panel that creates the illusion of a full-width taillight, and the rear haunches are significantly flared, trailing off alongside a raised trunk lid. It’s a look that hints at the much-maligned bustle-butt of the BMW 7 Series, a design that has been copied to varying degrees other manufacturers, as well. The rear perspective also conjures up thoughts of the old Mazda 929/Millenia, while the sloping C-pillar creates a short trunk lid, much like the redesigned Lexus GS and IS models. The Azera’s front end looks a bit like a previous-generation Toyota Camry from certain angles, but with a mild power dome on the hood. Overall, Hyundai designers have included so many existing styling cues as to make the Azera unique – and attractive. Shoppers known for conspicuous consumption may pass on this flagship because of its badge, though chances are they wouldn’t be walking a Hyundai lot in the first place. Inside, the 2006 Azera Limited we tested was loaded with more luxury than we’d ever seen, or expected to see, in a Hyundai. Indeed, the Azera Limited offered much of what we’d expect in an entry-luxury car, with a few exceptions. But, our tester was approaching $30,000, and at that price it gets harder to pass muster. On the plus side is the padded dash cap that continues onto the upper door sills, underlined by silver plastic and real wood trim. That wood is also found on the Limited’s steering wheel, door handles, and shift knob. Textured metallic trim accents the area around the gear selector. The door panels are trimmed with leatherette inserts and soft plastics, with nicely padded armrests on the doors and the center console. The seats in the Limited are wrapped in soft leather, and the pillars are covered in the same mesh material that is used for the woven cloth headliner. Radio and climate control buttons are simple and easy to understand and reach, and storage is plentiful, consisting of pop-out front door pockets, a lined pocket on the center dash, two center armrest pockets, and a total of four cupholders. All passengers are coddled with well-cushioned seats, though the center of the front seatbacks is hard, meaning that back seat riders might get banged up knees. Thankfully, the rear seat is spacious, so knee/seatback confrontations are likely to be rare. Behind that rear seat is one of the most impressive trunks we’ve ever seen. Every inch of the cargo area is lined, from the floor and sides to the lid and even the roof of the trunk – finding bare metal is a challenge back there. Even the hinges are covered in plastic sheaths. If you’re into trunks, you owe it to yourself to check this one out, and don’t miss the lockable rear seatbacks and multiple tie-down points. Nothing’s perfect, including the interior of the 2006 Hyundai Azera. Our main complaints focused on a few signs of obvious budget-cutting. Silver door handles mirror the silver trim on the dashboard – not chrome or metallic door handles, just cheap silver plastic ones with visible casting flash. For a part that gets touched so often, a better part is in order here. Next is the hard plastic surrounding the main controls in the center of the dashboard, which looks and feels cheap in stark contrast to the soft and plush material used directly in front of the driver and front passenger. Hyundai, if you’re intent on using that cheap stuff, at least try to hide it. That leaves the rear seat. We appreciate the functionality of the split folding rear seat, but each section of seatback in our test car felt rickety when folded down, as if it was moving on one working and one broken hinge. Repeated use would likely only exacerbate the problem. Finally, that brings us to the topic of the Azera’s build quality, both inside and out. Admittedly, we were driving early production models, but Hyundai reps told us they’d been gone through with a fine-toothed comb, so they should be up to snuff. Aside from that questionable folding rear seat, we noticed minor misalignments in the trunk lid and hood, headlights and taillights that didn’t sit equally flush on the right and left sides, and a larger gap on the right side of the dash versus the left. None of these were alarming, but as noted earlier, the critiquing pen uses more ink as the price increases, and even without that extra level of attention, the 2006 Hyundai Accent, also showcased at the same event, exhibited fewer build quality issues. Safety Besides the outstanding warranty, Hyundai executives are touting another primary reason for buying the company’s cars – safety. Like its competitors, this Korean manufacturer designs all of its new cars to achieve five-star ratings in all crash tests (though the Azera hasn’t been officially tested yet, so the verdict is still out). To meet this goal, the 2006 Azera features the requisite front and rear crumple zones, hood buckling creases, side impact beams, and the usual gamut of structural enhancements. However, Hyundai has added a slew of standard equipment to help ensure that the Azera’s occupants are kept as safe as possible in the event of an accident. That list starts with a standard four-wheel antilock braking system, complemented with electronic brake distribution, electronic stability control, and traction control. There are eight airbags fitted into each Azera – two in front, two front side, two rear side, and two full-length curtains. Though the rear center passenger doesn’t get an airbag, he does get a three-point seatbelt and an adjustable headrest. Riders up front get active headrests that feature a groovy adjustment feature, allowing for not only vertical movement but also three forward settings. Driving Impressions Along the scenic route between San Diego and southern California’s wine country near Temecula, we had a chance to get a sense of how the 2006 Hyundai Azera behaves in city and highway driving, and a few twisty segments uncovered what this large sedan has, or doesn’t have, to offer driving enthusiasts. Walking away from the experience left us with mixed feelings. There’s lots to love about driving the Azera, including its comfortable driving position aided by the power seat, power adjustable pedals, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, and excellent visibility (those large mirrors and small windows in the rear pillars really help). And that 263-horsepower V6 provides plenty of punch for any situation; even at full revs it sounds thoroughly refined, serving to keep the cabin, with its triple-sealed doors, extremely quiet. The five-setting front seat heaters work quickly, and the radio and climate controls are all within an easy reach. The suspension absorbs road irregularities with nary a mention to the car’s occupants. Add in well-modulated, capable brakes, and you’ve got the recipe for a great cruiser. And if the 2006 Hyundai Azera is anything, it’s a cruiser – great for comfortable, stress-free jaunts around town or cross-country treks. But for someone who enjoys driving, the Azera is a snooze…consider it the Korean Buick Roadmaster. The five-speed automatic transmission operates fine under normal driving conditions, but when looking for immediate passing power on the straight-aways, there was a noticeable delay before the tranny kicked down a few gears to offer up the necessary gusto. The Shiftronic feature is a nice touch, though transitioning through the gears requires holding the shifter forward or back for a second or two rather the simple tapping motion found on competitors. Steering is light and never truly communicative, there’s a good dose of body roll in even the most gradual sweeping curves, and the total lack of side seat bolsters doesn’t help in tighter corners. During our drive, the word uttered most often was “floaty.” For those people who seldom find themselves on twisty roads and enjoy setting the cruise control at 65 mph on long stretches of straight asphalt, the Hyundai Azera is sure to impress. However, if “hairpin” and “decreasing radius” are terms associated with your weekend plans, this is not the ride for you. FAQ Will the 2006 Azera be built in Hyundai’s new Alabama assembly plant? The 2006 Hyundai Azera will be built in Korea, and according to company officials there is no plan to move assembly to the U.S. What is most impressive about the 2006 Hyundai Azera? While the 263-horsepower V6 and exterior styling are praiseworthy, it was the interior of our Azera Limited that we found to be most impressive. From the soft, high-quality leather upholstery to the extremely quiet and smooth ride, this car makes a new, more upscale statement for Hyundai, as it should for close to $30,000. What is least impressive about the 2006 Hyundai Azera? There is nothing glaringly wrong with the Hyundai Azera, though we think some drivers may long for a more sporting nature. The suspension is smooth but floaty like a typical Buick, the seats lack side bolstering, and the steering is light. None of these are necessarily bad traits, but they may turn off buyers looking for an alternative to more athletic models like the Honda Accord, Nissan Maxima, or Volkswagen Passat. Specifications Test Vehicle: 2006 Hyundai Azera Limited MSRP: Estimated to be about $27,000; the destination charge is $495 Engine Size and Type: 3.8-liter V6 Engine Horsepower: 263 at 6,000 rpm Engine Torque: 255 lb.-ft. at 4,500 rpm Transmission: Five-speed automatic Curb Weight, lbs.: 3,629EPA Fuel Economy (city/highway): 18/27 mpg Length: 192.7 inchesWidth: 72.8 inches Wheelbase: 109.4 inches Height: 58.7 inches Legroom (front/rear): 43.7/38.2 inches Headroom (front/rear): 40.2/38.2 inches Max. Seating Capacity: 5 Max. Cargo Volume: 16.6 cu. ft. Competitors: Buick LaCrosse CXS, Buick Lucerne, Chevrolet Impala LTZ, Chrysler 300 Limited, Ford Five Hundred Limited, Honda Accord EXL V6, Honda Accord Hybrid, Lincoln Zephyr, Mercury Montego Premier, Nissan Maxima SL, Subaru Legacy 2.5 GT Limited, Toyota Avalon Limited, Volkswagen Passat 3.6L Source:

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