"Koreans are never satisfied," said Shi Hong Choe. "We are always working, always improving. If I see something out of place, I cannot rest until it's corrected."
It's employees like Mr. Choe, Hyundai's senior vice president of vehicle test and development, who are enabling the Korean automaker to challenge the Japanese Big Three — Toyota, Honda and Nissan — one carefully engineered new model at a time.
Hot on the heels of the successful redesign of the midsize Sonata is Hyundai's new flagship sedan, the 2006 Hyundai Azera. Replacing the outgoing Hyundai XG350, the Azera is a modern sedan that should allow Mr. Choe to rest easier. A polished new look, luxurious interior, and a lengthy list of standard safety equipment provide the Azera with the right hardware to take on Toyota's popular full-size Avalon sedan.
Quickest Hyundai Ever Under the big Hyundai's hood lies a new ultralow emissions (ULEV) DOHC 3.8-liter, V6 engine with continuously variable valve timing (CVVT). Rated at 263 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque, this refined V6 is big brother to the Sonata's smooth 3.3-liter V6. A well-timed five-speed automatic transmission with a gated shifter comes standard with the single-engine offering. The shifter allows you to shift gears manually, but the engine is so strong and the transmission so responsive, it isn't necessary.
Hyundai says the front-wheel-drive Azera is the quickest Hyundai ever built, with a manufacturer reported 0-60 time of 6.5 seconds. If that's true, it'll be quicker than the last Avalon we tested, which hit 60 mph in 6.9 seconds. We haven't put the Azera through our own instrumented tests yet, but it does feel quick out on the open road.
Down below, the Azera's all-new platform is a stretched version of the Sonata's and it has 68-percent greater body stiffness than the XG350. A healthy dose of unique Azera bits combine with similar Sonata attachment points to help keep the cost down. Sixteen-inch wheels secure the Azera SE's four corners, while the Limited gets 17-inch wheels with P235/55VR17 Michelin tires.
Its dynamics were tuned in Korea as well as at Hyundai's super-secret test facility in the Mojave Desert. Although its steering is a touch light, the four-wheel disc brakes are strong and pedal feel is above average. At 3,629 pounds, this large, heavy sedan still needs to be guided instead of flung through tight turns, but the Azera is much more athletic than its spongy predecessor. Mr. Choe must smile when he feels the Azera's firm grip at speed. We did.
Safety First Determined to become an industry leader in the standard application of safety technologies, Hyundai is spreading airbags and Electronic Stability Control (ESC) across its lineup and the Azera is no exception. The luxury sedan receives two additional airbags to Hyundai's typical six-count for a total of eight, plus standard traction control. Standard antilock brakes with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD) help bring the Azera to a safe stop.
Hyundai claims that the Azera is projected to receive the highest crash test ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
Lex-dai or Hyun-us
Hyundai admits to setting its sights on the Toyota Avalon, but the Azera is so luxurious inside, challenging the Lexus ES 330 isn't out of the question. The Azera's center stack is clean and elegant with wood and aluminum trim galore, and there's no cheap plastic to be found. Instead, quality touches like a thick headliner, fabric-wrapped door pillars and triple door seals help the Azera envelope passengers in quiet comfort. Contrast stitching along the soft leather seat covers help to increase the Azera's style quotient.
With nearly 44 inches of legroom in the front and over 38 inches for rear-seat passengers, the Azera offers a roomy ride with exceptionally comfortable seats that provide solid support underneath their softly padded exterior. Efficient packaging has maximized total passenger volume, allowing an increase of 7 cubic feet over the XG350.
But if the classy, comfortable interior doesn't make you think Lexus, the lengthy feature list will. An SE gets a leather-wrapped steering wheel, power front seats, a 60/40-split rear seat to increase cargo capacity to 16.6 cubic feet, dual automatic climate control, and a CD/MP3 player.
The Limited adds larger wheels, heated leather seats in a choice of three colors, a wood grain steering wheel, a power rear sunshade, and an electroluminescent instrument cluster. Add the Premium Package and you'll get a power sunroof and a 300-watt in-dash six-disc Infinity sound system. An Ultimate Package (remember, we're still under $30,000) adds a power-adjustable tilt-and-telescopic steering column and adjustable pedals, rain-sensing wipers and folding side mirrors.
All for the Low, Low Price With similar horsepower and torque ratings from their V6 power plants and comparable interior features, the major distinction between the Azera and the Avalon is the price. Although the Azera's pricing hasn't been fixed and won't be until the sedan hits Hyundai showrooms in November, preliminary pricing suggests it'll have a clear advantage.
The base model Azera SE is expected to enter the market around $25,000, with top-of-the-line Limited trim starting near $27,000. Even better, Hyundai officials claim a fully loaded Azera Limited will remain under $30,000. By comparison, the entry-level Avalon XL starts at $27,165 and climbs to $34,355 for the Limited sedan. Combine the low price with Hyundai's acclaimed 10-year/100,000-mile warranty, and the Azera presents a pretty compelling package.
Winning Package Hyundai's only concern should be luring consumers in for a test-drive. Although the company is playing to win with the 2006 Hyundai Azera, it might take some time to drag consumers out of their Japanese-car safety zone and ask them to risk a Korean alternative.
Hopefully incentives like the world's best warranty; a low, low price; and an increasing track record for reliability will drive the Azera toward a place in the spotlight. And allow Mr. Choe to take a well-earned vacation.