Hyundai revitalized the centerpiece of its lineup when it introduced the new Sonata earlier this year, a car that shows just how quickly a company that once was the laughingstock of the industry can improve from generation to generation. Now Hyundai is replacing the bookends of its car squad with a clean-sheet renewal of the entry-level Accent and a new vehicle, the Azera, an up-to-date replacement for the dumpy XG350, the company’s first attempt at a luxury car.
With the recent run-up in gas prices, cars like the Accent are getting another look from the buying public. That same public, however, isn’t ready for a total “sackcloth and ashes” approach to economical motoring. Neither are the traditional members of this segment, those just starting out and frugal older buyers. As a result, the Accent has six standard airbags (two front, two seat-mounted, and two air-curtain style), four-channel ABS with integral Electronic Brake force Distribution (EBD), the addition of variable valve timing to the 110-hp 1.6-liter Alpha engine, greater interior volume and cargo space than its predecessor, a significantly more rigid structure, and numerous interior features as standard equipment that are typically absent or options on cars in this class.
The last item postponed the Accent’s introduction by a number of months as, says John Krafcik, v.p. of Product Development and Strategic Planning, Hyundai Motor America (HMA; Fountain Valley, CA), “the Accent was revised to better meet U.S. tastes and standards.” Interior materials were upgraded, features were added, and the exterior modified for a more upmarket look. “We spent dollars, not cents, to add a driver’s arm rest,” says Krafcik, “something no other vehicle in this segment has.” Neither do they have the combination of driver and passenger illuminated visor vanity mirrors, a 60/40 split fold-down rear seat back, a rear arm rest with dual cupholders, dual seatback storage pockets, the aforementioned airbags, and a driver’s seat that adjusts eight ways in a car that starts around $10,000. “The traditional way to do a program in this industry,” Krafcik states, “is to have cost engineers–bean counters–come through and place sticky notes on every surface that tell you what each finish and piece costs. Then management looks for examples where other automakers don’t do that, and use it as an excuse to eliminate it. We don’t do that here.” Instead Krafcik and his team put together a list of items they wanted revised or added to the U.S. Accent, and presented it to their Korean counterparts. “We have to make our case,” he says, “and we are responsible for the outcome. If we say we need these things to be competitive, we have to be right.”
Of course, the basic package has to be right as well, which in the Accent’s case means larger, roomier, and stronger. The 2006 model is 1.8-in. longer, 3.0-in. taller and 1.0-in. wider than the previous version of the car, and sits on a 2.3-in. longer wheelbase. Passenger volume is 92.2 ft3 (89.3 ft3 for the 2005 model) and cargo volume has increased to 12.4 ft3 from 11.6 ft3 previously. This makes the vehicle larger in both dimensions–by 1.3 ft3 and 0.4 ft3, respectively–than the 2006 Honda Civic sedan, a vehicle Hyundai claims is not in the Accent’s primary competitive set. Despite this increase in volume, the structure itself is much more rigid than before. Bending rigidity at 200 Kgf (x104 Kgf.m2) is up 39% to 15.7, and is helped by improved dash panel to lower A-pillar joints that increase stiffness while decreasing resonances that plagued the older car. It also gave engineers a more stable platform on which to tune the MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspensions, and from which to develop the planned three-door model. Krafcik calls the performance version of the hatchback, “the spiritual successor to the Honda Civic Si hot hatch.”
The top-of-the-line Azera is pitted against everything from the Buick Lacrosse and Lucerne to the Ford 500 to the Toyota Avalon to the Nissan Maxima. Like the Accent, the car is taller than its key competitors in order to raise the H-point of the occupants, which brings their ankles closer to their bodies and gives a feeling of greater interior spaciousness. Also, standard safety equipment and amenities are competitive with its premium competition at a price–estimated to be about $25,000 for the base car to just under $30,000 for a fully loaded version–they can’t equal.
Not surprisingly, the Azera is built on a stretched Sonata platform, and says Krafcik, “the hard points are similar to keep manufacturing costs down.” The suspension–double wishbones and coil springs up front, a multi-link design in rear–also comes from the Sonata. Even the engine, an enlarged version of the Sonata’s 3.3-liter V6, is similar, though the all-aluminum mill has been enlarged by 0.5 liters and produces 263 hp and 255 lb-ft of torque (Sonata: 235 hp and 226 lb-ft.). The five-speed automatic? It’s also shared with the Sonata V6.
Despite the car’s Sonata roots, Hyundai claims the Azera has more interior volume (123.5 ft3) than the Toyota Avalon (121.3 ft3), Mercedes S-Class (120.4 ft3), and BMW 760i (122.0 ft3). In addition, claimed body stiffness is 32% higher than that of the Lexus ES 330 with a bending rigidity at 200 Kgf (x104 Kgf.m2) of 24.5 versus 18.5 for the Lexus.
Following the trend begun with the Sonata and continued on through the Accent, the Azera has a full complement of standard equipment. This includes eight airbags (the Accent’s six, plus a pair of seat-mounted bags for rear seat passengers); ABS with EBD; a proprietary electronic stability control system designed by Bosch and supplied by Hyundai Mobis; LED rear lights (112 in the pair of taillights, 20 in the CHMSL, and the first use of this technology on a Hyundai vehicle); hydraulic assist struts on the hood and trunk; and fabric-wrapped A-, B-, and C-pillars. The Limited model adds more stuff, including a power rear sunshade that automatically retracts when reverse gear is engaged, then redeploys when Drive is selected. “It’s pretty trick,” remarks Krafcik, “but in keeping with the Azera’s image as a luxury car you don’t have to feel guilty about owning.”
“For the third year in a row, Hyundai is ranked fourth among import brands in the U.S. behind Toyota, Honda, and Nissan,” says Bob Cosmai, president and CEO, Hyundai Motor America, “and we expect sales to exceed 500,000 units in 2006 despite expectations that it will be a flat year for the industry.” Continued strong sales of the Sonata–Cosmai expects 2006 sales to surpass 150,000 units–Tucson small SUV, and the Accent and Azera are key to reaching that goal. So are plans to introduce a new Santa Fe SUV in the second quarter of 2006, a new Elantra sedan the following quarter, a facelifted Tiburon sport coupe in the final quarter, and an Explorer-size SUV in the first quarter of 2007. It’s a lot of product, but not all that originally was planned. Missing is the Entourage minivan built off Kia’s Sedona, and originally set for launch in Spring 2006. That program has been cancelled.
“The market is evolving with the merging of crossover, minivan and SUV attributes, so we felt it better to rethink our initial strategy and build something like the Portico concept we previewed at Chicago this year,” says John Krafcik, HMA’s v.p. of Product Development and Strategic Planning. When combined with the new SUV, Hyundai will have two seven-passenger vehicles in the market by the end of 2007, both driven by the needs of the U.S. market and developed on a 24-month schedule.