Photo Finish: Round Two of Our Sub-Luxury-Liner Showdown
OK, we’re going to have to break a promise here. A while back we conducted an online elimination round for this comparison wherein we pitted Hyundai‘s Azera against Buick’s LaCrosse and Lexus‘ ES 350, and stated that the winner (the Azera by a whisker) would subsequently confront the upcoming new Toyota Avalon and Lincoln MKZ. Seemed like a smart plan. And a near-genius one after we drove the new Avalon during our recent Car of the Year festivities. Avalons of yore required knocking back multi-shot espressos before taking the wheel to recall anything afterwards. But this one wowed us — it was a car transformed. So much so that, awkward as it was, it seemed yards ahead of the also new Lexus ES 350.
Everything appeared set. Except that our request to the Lincoln Motor Company for a MKZ test example was declined. Huh? Lincoln P.R. declared the MKZ must be compared with “premium brands,” not mere hoi polloi Hyundais and Toyotas. But — how to put this politely? — doesn’t the MKZ ride on the Ford Fusion‘s equally populist foundation? That didn’t seem to impress them. So we asked for a Taurus. Ford‘s P.R. team responded that this also wouldn’t be possible. OK, then. Four hours after we subsequently rang Nissan for an appropriate Maxima, its keys were slapped on our desk. That’s confidence. Nissan’s big sedan is now long in the tooth and short on burger-fed American room, but you’ve got to love the chutzpah of having “four-door sports car” decals on its side windows.
So the trio of actors was finally cast: the Azera, our slightly nervous defending champ; the high-expectations Avalon; and last, a somewhat puzzled-why-it’s-here Maxima. Our script would have them following a carbon copy reenactment of our previous comparison’s route. (Joshuas and Logans the world over right now are texting: “Uh, dude, so what’s a carbon copy?”)
With our automotive judgment caffeine-enhanced at a freeway-close Starbucks, Benson Kong, Mike Febbo, and I swept onto the 405 heading south for a 100-mile commuter cruise to San Diego and north again on Route 15 before embarking on Phase Two, a loopy spool of a road that ascends Mount Palomar’s eastern slope.
The minute I plopped into the Avalon, my mind flashed back many decades (imagine calendar pages being blown away in black-and-white movies) to endless junior high school pep rallies spent sitting on wooden gymnasium bleachers. “These seats feel like plywood,” I walkie-talkied, while repositioning each cheek and twisting the adjustable little seat heater/cool-air ventilation knob to my liking. “Click — Yeah, they’re really terrible — click,” Febbo radioed back from his car. “What the heck is up with these seats?” I kept muttering while further twisting the knob. Hmm, might the ventilation system be stealing some vital cushioning? (They don’t pay us automotive journalist wages to not put two and two together like this.) Curious, I later stopped by Toyota‘s nearby headquarters and asked to sit in a non-ventilated Avalon seat. It was no better. Worse yet, the back seats are somehow even harder than the fronts.
Bewildering. Why build a car with an astonishing 39.2 inches of kick-back rear legroom (the Azera has 36.8 inches; the Maxima, a slim 34.6) and then install rump-numbing seat bottoms? At least the Avalon’s aft quarters are otherwise limo-like. “Big points for the long back windows contributing to the executive sedan vibe,” voiced Benson.
By comparison, the Azera’s front seats (also ventilated, with power-adjustable bottom-cushion lengths) accommodated all three of us with no major grumbles. The Maxima’s (with manual length adjustment) are almost gratuitously plump, caked with squishy cushioning that suspends you in place as if you were encased in Jell-O. I wouldn’t mind a couple of these in my living room.
Soon we were traveling with the ambient traffic flow at an average speed of about 72 mph. Tickling their steering wheel angles around on-center revealed the Toyota’s relaxed, feather-light effort to be just about perfect, while the Azera’s ramps too quickly to a stiffness that gets tiring after a while. On the other hand, our highway ride measurements computed the Maxima’s to be the smoothest (0.029 average g of vertical motion) with the Avalon second at 0.034 and the Azera at 0.037. Benson thought the Azera heaved less than the Avalon, but still “feels patchy over rougher surfaces.” But that’s nothing compared with the Toyota, which now can positively crash through its suspension on patchy pavement.
This starchy new ride quality is going to startle some long-time Avalon adherents. For instance, there’s this enthusiastic guy, who recently posted at motortrend.com’s general forum: “Hi, folks, I just saw pics of [the Avalon, blah, blah, blah]. I hope they kept the car’s well-isolated interior, as well as the float-on-clouds suspension.” Sur-prise!
Interior noise measurements at these speeds found the Avalon the quietest at 27.0 sones; the Azera second, at 27.7; and the Maxima third with 29.1. Now, even though this “sone” metric is a truer measure than the lame old dBA, even it can’t inform us about the three-dimensional character of sound. For instance, in the Azera, you basically soak in a thin acoustic mist of white noise wind-hiss. The Avalon’s otherwise general quiet is often punctuated by muted, but attention-grabbing, road thumps. The sound of passing cars and motorcycles manages to penetrate the Maxima’s glazing from every direction, pulling some of your attention this way and that.
The Azera is double-take attractive in features and ride quality
Back to the driver’s seats, Benson, Mike, and I critiqued the dash designs. Mike: “Frankly, I’m finding the Maxima’s simple, old-school sculpting almost quaintly serene.” Benson: “The Azera’s presentation and layout remain my preferred choice. The materials might be a little less upscale than the Avalon’s, but that’s splitting hairs. However, the 7-inch touch-screen that appears massive on the Kia Rio seems a lot smaller in the Azera.” I think the logic of the Hyundai’s center stack has been positively pureed by styling goop. There’s a giant volume knob, but it’s paired with fingertip-tiny up/down tuning buttons. Why isn’t the similarly big knob directly below it the tuner instead of the world’s largest fan-speed control? (Every time I’d instinctively attempt to change the channel, I’d turn on the A/C full blast). And while Febbo was amused by the Avalon’s home-stereo look, what’s with its Buick homage of sun-reflecting, chrome-dipped dash trimmings? Actually, the trick to judging the functionality of these things is to evaluate them at night when you can’t see the styling at all.
Exiting the highway stint, we motored over to our favorite local lunch spot, the frozen-in-the-’50s Lazy H Ranch on Highway 76 in Pauma Valley, where we could stare out at the blue-painted pool while dining on a chef’s salad, chicken Caesar salad, and fried chicken (guess which of us doesn’t need to lose weight). What had our highway mileage been? The Maxima’s computed out to 27.7 mpg, with 29.8 for the Azera and 31.6 for the Avalon. In pocketbook terms, their cost during our 100 highway miles was $11.51 for the Toyota, $12.21 for the Hyundai, and $14 for the premium fuel-fed Nissan. Had Benson still been hungry, the money he’d have saved driving the Avalon versus the Maxima could have bought him a side order of Lazy H onion rings (now there’s a metric for you). Properly fortified, it was time to start lapping up and down the back road to Mount Palomar’s summit.
While bumps noticeably unnerve it, the Maxima is also curiously fun to corner
This is always interesting because you get to see how our test track results relate to pure pleasure driving in the real world. As it was unusually cold in Southern California — a storm had blown through the previous weekend — the shaded corners near the summit were still occasionally streaked with ice, so the stability control buttons went untouched. A glance at the spec chart confirms the Maxima to be the quickest and lightest, boasting the most torque (at the lowest revs), the best power-to-weight ratio, and highest lateral grip. On the road, it feels even quicker, torquier, and better handling than that. In this instance, its continuously variable transmission is very impressive (damn the naysayers!), offering quick, no-waiting-for-a-downshift response without ever going over the deep end into dreaded motor-boatiness. Pressed hard, it pleasantly pitches and rolls. And while bumps do noticeably unnerve it, the Maxima is also curiously fun to corner. Twist the wheel into a bend, and the chassis thinks it over before yawing toward the apex, whereupon it suddenly rotates like a released spring. It’s rather like an old American Hot Rod sedan.
The Azera and Avalon are, dynamically, much closer akin. The Hyundai shovels greater power, but it’s heavier, and consequently it transitions with greater sense of weight. Push it too hard, and the car’s predictability becomes a little too blurry. And despite the Azera’s numerically highest horsepower, Febbo thought its engine lacked torque, “needing to be revved to about 4500 rpm before it came alive.” Of the Toyota, Benson observed, “Few people would ever expect to see paddle shifters and a Sport mode on an Avalon.” And he added its normally vanilla steering “progressively becomes more entertaining as it settles into a groove, with enough accuracy to easily place the car.” For me, the best surprise was how much the Azera’s steering seems to have improved. While I still dislike its video game-like force feedback, many of the notchy steering feel artifacts that plagued our previous test example are gone.
Last time we followed this particular driving loop, we headed straight home. But Julian’s proximity and reputation for apple pies (Mom’s Pie House, in particular) caused our internal compasses to go a bit haywire, and soon we were forking through slices of French Crumb Top. Thomas Edison, I’ve read, used to eat an apple pie every day, so we had a good excuse because it was going to take some Edison brainpower to decide this test’s winner.
Easy part first: The Maxima, lovely-driving car though it is, simply can’t make up with road pleasures what it lacks in interior space, trunk room, and modern interior expectations. A likeable, third-place finish, then.
The chin-rubbing began as we chose between the Avalon and Azera.
Why build a car with an astonishing amount of rear legroom and install rump-numbing seat bottoms?
I can’t remember a closer choice between two cars. You can go down a checklist of details and barely fit a feeler gauge between most of their differences. During our Car of the Year proceedings, we happily sent the Avalon to the finalist round while sending the Azera home. But here, their gap is almost gone. Why?
Many — but not all — of the Hyundai’s steering gremlins have vanished since our previous Azera drives. Meanwhile, this focused, long-distance excursion on an enormous diversity of roads revealed some ride quality problems and impact noise issues we just don’t remember from our COTY Avalon. And the Toyota has other warts: those hard seats, the absence of folding rear seats (there’s only a pass-through), and the car’s premium pricing. Frankly, we’d immediately whack our Avalon’s $42,919 as-tested tally down to $40,670 by nixing its Tech Package, wireless phone charger, and glass breakage sensor (a sensitive microphone that detects a thief attempting to shatter a window). Intellichoice (a sister brand of ours) did some calculations for us that found our Avalon’s $5629 as-tested price premium over the Azera shrinking to $2814 after 5 years of ownership (accounting for depreciation, fuel costs, maintenance, etc). Putting that in terms of the real currency of American drivers — Starbucks coffee — it’s like having either the Avalon or the Azera, with a free tall-size cup in its cupholder. Every day for 5 years.
So why the Avalon, then? Despite the Toyota’s problems, the Avalon’s silkier steering and 2 percent better perception of build quality and materials manage to place one more feather on its side of the balance. And we wouldn’t be surprised if Hyundai weren’t inhaling right now, getting ready to blow it away.
3rd Place: Nissan Maxima 3.5 SV
While slightly antiquated and seriously lacking in interior room, the mighty Maxima is still a heck of a romp on back roads.
2nd Place: Hyundai Azera
It’s double-take attractive in features and ride quality. What’s missing is first-class steering.
1st Place: Toyota Avalon Limited
They don’t win ’em by slimmer margins than this. The Avalon’s overall excellence was nearly undone by firm seats and a stiff ride.
|Hyundai Azera||Nissan Maxima 3.5 SV||Toyota Avalon Limited|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front engine, FWD||Front engine, FWD||Front engine, FWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||60-deg V-6, aluminum block/heads||60-deg V-6, aluminum block/heads||90-deg V-6, aluminum block/heads|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||204.0 cu in/3342 cc||213.5 cu in/3498 cc||210.9 cu in/3456 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||293 hp @ 6400 rpm||290 hp @ 6400 rpm||268 hp @ 6200 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||255 lb-ft @ 5200 rpm||261 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm||248 lb-ft @ 4700 rpm|
|REDLINE||6750 rpm||6600 rpm||6250 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||12.9 lb/hp||12.2 lb/hp||13.2 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed automatic||Cont. variable auto||6-speed automatic|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F;R||12.6-in vented disc; 11.2-in disc, ABS||12.6-in vented disc; 12.1-in vented disc, ABS||11.7-in vented disc; 11.1-in disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||8.0 x 19.0-in, cast aluminum||8.0 x 18-in, cast aluminum||7.5 x 18-in, cast aluminum|
|TIRES||245/40R19 94V M+S Hankook Optimo H426||245/45R18 96V M+S Goodyear Eagle RS-A||225/45R18 91V M+S Michelin Primacy MXM4|
|WHEELBASE||112.0 in||109.3 in||111.0 in|
|TRACK, F/R||63.1/63.1 in||62.4/62.4 in||62.6/62.2 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||193.3 x 73.2 x 57.9 in||190.6 x 73.2 x 57.8 in||195.3 x 72.2 x 57.5 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||36.5 ft||37.4 ft||37.4 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||3792 lb||3528 lb||3540 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||59/41%||62/38%||61/39%|
|HEADROOM, F/R||38.3/37.3 in||38.5/36.4 in||37.6/37.9 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||45.5/36.8 in||43.8/34.6 in||42.1/39.2 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||58.3/56.4 in||56.3/55.1 in||58.2/56.9 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||16.3 cu ft||14.2 cu ft||16.0 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.4 sec||2.4 sec||2.3 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||3.3||2.6||3.0|
|QUARTER MILE||14.9 sec @ 95.6 mph||14.3 sec @ 97.7 mph||14.6 sec @ 97.3 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||118 ft||125 ft||121 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.81 g (avg)||0.85 g (avg)||0.82 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||27.1 sec @ 0.59 g (avg)||26.8 sec @ 0.60 g (avg)||27.2 sec @ 0.65 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1800 rpm||1850 rpm||1700 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$37,290||$40,885||$42,919|
|INTELLICHOICE 5-YEAR COO*||$46,067||$52,977||$48,882|
|INTELLICHOICE VALUE RATING||Above Average||Poor||Above Average|
|AIRBAGS||Dual front, f/r side, f/r curtain, driver knee||Dual front, front side, f/r curtain||Dual front, f/r side, f/r curtain, front knee|
|BASIC WARRANTY||5 yrs/60,000 mi||3 yrs/36,000 mi||3 yrs/36,000 mi|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||10 yrs/100,000 mi||5 yrs/60,000 mi||5 yrs/60,000 mi|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||5 yrs/unlimited||3 yrs/36,000 mi||2 yrs/25,000 mi|
|FUEL CAPACITY||18.5 gal||20.0 gal||17.0 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY ECON||20/29 mpg||19/26 mpg||21/31 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||169/116 kW-hrs/100 mi||177/130 kW-hrs/100 mi||160/109 kW-hrs/100 mi|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||0.83 lb/mi||0.90 lb/mi||0.79 lb/mi|
|MT FUEL ECONOMY||23.5 mpg||23.7 mpg||26.2 mpg|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded regular||Unleaded premium||Unleaded regular|
|MT FUEL ECONOMY||23.5 mpg||23.7 mpg||26.2 mpg|
|*Cost of ownership; includes projected as-tested depreciation plus fuel, insurance, and maintenance costs|