Tuesday, October 21, 2008

2009 Hyundai Azera and Genesis: Two solid luxury cars from an unlikely source

Though you may have missed it, Hyundai has been trying to sell luxury cars in the United States for eight years now. The Korean automaker best known for its low prices and long warranty started with the 2001 XG300, moved on to the 2006 Azera, and now, for 2009, offered its most ambitious product yet: the Genesis.

The XG and Azera were both front-wheel-drive large V6 family sedans, the approximate equivalent of a Toyota Avalon selling for the price of a smaller Camry. The XG offered a spacious interior and a smooth ride, and moderately upscale if generic styling, but it wasn't a particularly strong product.

The 2006 Azera was a significant upgrade over that car, and was able to offer more convincing luxury, with much more interior quality and tastefulness and superior driving dynamics that both could now rival the best large family cars.

But neither was a sales success. Nor was the Hyundai Veracruz, the midsize SUV that Motor Trend magazine compared favorably to the Lexus RX350.

After Hyundai spent years trying and failing to sell pricey vehicles, expectations were generally low when it introduced by far its most expensive product yet: the 2009 Genesis, the first Hyundai with a base price above $30,000.

But the Genesis has been a hit so far, easily outselling the far less expensive Azera in its first two months on the market.

Is it because it's a leaps-and-bounds improvement over the Azera?

In daily use, it's fairly similar. Both offer very high-quality interiors, comfortable and quiet rides, safe but unexciting handling, and plenty of space. The Azera costs nearly $5,000 less than a comparably equipped Genesis, comparing sticker prices and rebates, according to pricing site TrueDelta.com. Transaction prices are even further apart.

So why did the Genesis outsell the Azera last month more than 2-to-1?

Part of it is the styling. Not only is its look newer, but the sharper front end and the BMW 5-Series style profile is more eye-catching than the pleasantly rounded but unremarkable Azera.

Part of it is the details. Though the two are similar in most ways, the Genesis trumps the Azera incrementally in most ways but interior volume, where the other has the clear advantage.

But most of it is the difference is that the Genesis is unapologetically a luxury car. With rear-wheel-drive, an available V8, lots of high-end features like cooled front seats and a 17-speaker stereo system, and no low-priced base model, it's clearly not just a really nice mainstream car.

The less-expensive Azera could certainly pass for a nice family car, just a Camry alternative with more space, more refinement, and a more upscale interior. But many people won't notice much difference in driving the Azera versus the Genesis, despite the effort and expense Hyundai lavished on its new flagship product.

Driving the Genesis:

Hyundai likes to call the Genesis a sports sedan, which it really isn't. BMW need not worry about losing driving enthusiast customers. But it emulates the tight, controlled feel of a Mercedes-Benz E-Class at least as well as any other vehicle from an Asian automaker, with firm and responsive steering and comfortable and stable ride. This feel is unique to the Genesis among products in Hyundai's history. Hyundai is more used to achieving a comfortable ride just by softening the suspension at the expense of softer handling. Again, the Genesis isn't a sports sedan in that it doesn't seem to encourage you to drive dangerously, but it isn't a squishy luxury car that outright prevents you from doing so.

Buyers are offered one of two engines. Standard is an upgraded version of the 3.8-liter V6 used in many Hyundai products, and optional is Hyundai's new first-ever V8. V8 models are just now arriving on dealer lots, but magazine reviews of pre-production models (cars hand-built for evaluation before they become commercially available) have not given the indication the V8 is worth the extra cost -- $3,000 between comparably equipped versions. The V6 already delivers very strong power, excellent refinement, and surprisingly good gas mileage.

Inside, passengers find seats that are firmer than the Hyundai norm, also leading to a Germanic feel. But the interior maintains the Hyundai norm of strong interior packaging that's often missing from luxury cars in offering bountiful space for front and rear passengers. In the rear especially, the well-shaped bench seat is mounted high from the floor to keep occupants from sitting knees-up as they would in a Lexus GS, and still offers plenty of head room. The trunk is also very spacious by the standards of a midsize luxury car.

If you're also surprised to see excellent build quality inside, don't be. Fit and finish was one of the first things Hyundai managed to excel at, as it found early on that it was much easier to give a car a nice interior than to make a competitive engine or suspension system. The rest of the engineering has caught up, but Hyundai hasn't forgotten how to build a good interior. The company's tastefulness has also improved in recent years, as current Hyundais lack the garish tones of false wood trim slathered throughout the cabin. The Genesis has its helping of the wood-like plastic, but its use is attractive.

Other Hyundai strong points that have carried over into the Genesis -- and which are often absent from luxury cars -- are the basic ergonomics of a simple control layout and excellent outward visibility. Both are often compromised in the interest of style in luxury products, and many automakers have also run into trouble making a luxury car's many gadgets easy to use. Hyundai avoided problems in both areas, without making the Genesis boring to look at inside or out.

But while the Genesis is highly capable, nothing about it is likely to blow away someone used to a Mercedes-Benz E350 or Audi A6. It matches those cars in most areas at a much lower price, and it's easier to tune the radio, but those don't tend to be the qualities the average Mercedes buyer is looking for.

So don't think of the Genesis as a "the same for less" product like most competing Hyundais are. Think of it as a large family sedan that competes against the likes of the Buick Lucerne, Nissan Maxima, or Toyota Avalon in offering more for the same: the feeling of a European luxury car for the price of a mainstream one. In that sense, it's a Hyundai selling without a price advantage, but it's a car that doesn't need one.

Driving the Azera:

If the Genesis is to be considered a large family car, where does that leave the Azera? As a competitor to another Hyundai?

It can and should be. The two cars are about the same size and both try and succeed to deliver a premium feel. Hyundai originally considered the scenario (which has not panned out) that the Genesis would draw people into Hyundai showrooms but that they would leave with the less-expensive Azera.

If the Azera were more noticeable and better-advertised, perhaps they would. Some might even prefer it to the Genesis for its roomier interior -- made possible by the greater space-efficiency of front-wheel-drive -- and softer, plusher seats. And although it delivers a different sort of luxury feel than the Genesis, that of a nicer Toyota Camry rather than a cheaper Mercedes-Benz, many people do love the feel of a Camry, and both offer the feel of an expensive car.

Hyundai certainly didn't do a bad job making the Azera feel nice inside. The leather is high-quality, the interior design is attractive, and no moving parts feel clunky. The use of false wood trim is even more restrained than in the Genesis. The crisp gauges are modeled after Lexuses, and look no less slick than in those pricier cars. A myriad of features keeps the Azera from losing the luxury gadget war; it offers rain-sensing wipers, an in-dash navigation system, and a retractable rear sunshade, among others. And taillights made up of hundreds of LEDs give its rear end a sharp look at night.

But there is less sophistication in its drive than in the Genesis, with lighter, looser steering and a bit less ride control. And though it's hardly slow by any reasonable standard, its acceleration isn't as strong as in the Genesis either. The Azera holds its own against like-priced competitors and some that cost a bit more, but it doesn't follow the Genesis in matching big-name luxury in those areas. But it has no trouble in its quietness; the Azera stifles unwanted noise very well to provide a hushed driving experience.

There are a few other incremental differences between the Genesis and the Azera. The Genesis's crash test results have, so far, been outstanding; the Azera's merely very good. The V6 Genesis gets slightly better gas mileage than the Azera, up one mile per gallon in the city and on the highway, thanks to refinements made to the engine and an extra speed in the transmission. And the Azera is missing a few of the Genesis's available features, like cooled front seats and a "proximity key" hands-free entry and starting system.

If you're shopping for a luxury car or luxurious family car and aren't afraid to be seen stopping by your local Hyundai dealer, give both of these cars a try. They do slightly different things -- the Azera being a bit more of a very nice family car -- but they do them very well. Don't forget to shop the competition, of course, particularly for the pricey Genesis, but both of these Hyundais are leaders at their price point for comfort-focused luxury cars.

Vehicles tested: 2009 Hyundai Azera Limited / 2009 Hyundai Genesis 3.8
Vehicle base prices: $24,770 / $32,250
Vehicle prices as tested: $30,420 / $33,000
Test vehicles provided by: College Park Hyundai of College Park, Md. (Home of the lifetime warranty!)

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