LA JOLLA, CA – In the late 1980s and for most of the 1990s, Hyundai Motor America was known for building small and not-always-reliable cars.

But those cars, such as the subcompact Accent, helped the South Korean auto maker get a foothold in the U.S. at a time when the Big Three were focused on maximizing profits from their popular fullsize pickups and SUVs.

Now, with gasoline prices still pinching U.S. consumers, Hyundai is readying the next-generation Accent, while at the top end of its model range it is adding an all-new flagship, the Azera, to replace the XG 350.

Hyundai Accent

The Accent, although a nice car for the money (expected to base around $12,000), steadfastly remains an entry-level car. Pricing will be announced closer to the December on-sale date.

Don't get us wrong. Hyundai has done a fine development job on the new Accent, particularly when it came to differentiating it from its Kia Motors Corp. cousin, the Rio.

The Accent is indeed more “refined” and the Rio more “sporty,” as both brands have said their vehicles will be from now on.

But when driving the new Accent and fullsize Azera sedan back-to-back, one is reminded just how far Hyundai has come.

The Accent has a wheezy, 1.6L 4-cyl. making 110 hp. The Azera boasts a 3.8L DOHC V-6 that is quiet and smooth. The Azera seems to symbolize the Hyundai brand's migration to larger, more powerful, more refined vehicles.

But, fuel prices being what they are, Hyundai is expecting no less than 40,000 takers for the Accent, which only is offered as a 4-door sedan for the '06 model year. A 3-door hatchback is set for a spring launch as an '07 model.

The Accent hits a field suddenly teeming with new players, as each of the Japanese Big Three auto makers is ready with their own B-segment entrants: Honda Fit, Nissan Versa and Toyota Yaris.

Compared with the unassuming Accent, it is likely the Honda, Nissan and Toyota subcompacts will be palpably more refined, but also meaningfully more expensive in a segment where $500 can make or break a sale.

If the Accent fails to reach its sales goals, it won't be for lack of trying on Hyundai's part. Discounting the underwhelming engine, Hyundai has stepped up its game with features and styling.

The Accent will boast what Hyundai says is “class leading” safety equipment: six standard airbags and standard antilock brakes with electronic brake force distribution.

Handling is better than one expects from the class, although the straight-line stability seemed lacking.

The 1.6L's 110 hp makes it the most powerful in its class, yet it struggles to pull the Accent up the San Diego hills here.

It also is persistently noisy at highway speeds, despite Hyundai's assertion it improved the dash panel and lower A-pillar's structural and isolation characteristics to dampen engine sound.

The vehicle comes standard with a 5-speed manual transmission, although the 4-speed automatic is the only one available for testing here.

Interior fit and finish is decent, one exception being an inordinate amount of flashing around the ignition switch. Seat fabric is a pleasing, woven mesh that looks Volkswagen-esque. Beige and gray 2-tone interiors are available, further emphasizing the VW influence.

Interior volume is above average for a car in this class, as the Accent has more interior space for cargo and people than the new '06 Civic: 104.6 cu.-ft. (3 cu.-m) vs. 102.9 cu.-ft. (2.9 cu.-m).

Hyundai jokes it has “cupholder leadership” with the Accent, as there are six in total to serve its maximum of five occupants, plus a variety of storage cubbies.

Its exterior look is clean but a bit quirky, as the front end is slightly reminiscent of a stingray's underside.

Only one trim, GLS, is offered, with six possible configurations.

Hyundai Azera

The Azera is another fish altogether.

Representing the high end of Hyundai's U.S. lineup – until the U.S. launch of the rear-wheel-drive Equus in the 2007-2008 timeframe – the auto maker likely will succeed in its continuing quest to dent Honda Accord and Toyota Camry sales.

Although the Accord and Camry are stalwarts of the midsize sedan segment, the appointments and features of the Azera, combined with pricing expected in the $25,000-$30,000 range, should snag more than a few considering V-6 Accords and Camrys.

But Hyundai has more audacious, up-market targets in mind: Toyota's new Avalon, as well as the Nissan Maxima.

The Maxima is more sporty, as is the Nissan brand as a whole, compared with the Azera, so it is unlikely many of those buyers will be wooed.

But Avalon buyers would be wise to test-drive the Azera before they sign on the dotted line, as it does offer more standard features for the money.

These include eight airbags, electronic stability control, ABS with electronic brake force distribution, active front head restraints, dual front climate control, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter and rear seat ventilation.

The upscale Limited trim, expected to begin around $27,000, comes standard with a power rear sunshade featuring a nifty auto-retract function when reverse is engaged.

Also standard on the Limited is a memory system that will keep track of driver's seat; outside mirror and steering wheel positions; rain-sensing wipers; power adjustable foot pedals; heated front seats; leather seating; and a power tilt and telescoping steering column.

An Infinity audio system with in-dash 6-disc CD changer is an option on both trims, while a black leather interior is available on the Azera Limited.

The Azera's 3.5L DOHC V-6, while not the most powerful in its class (that honor goes to the Avalon at 268 hp), is more than enough, rated at 263 hp at 6,000 rpm and 255 lb.-ft. (346 Nm) of torque at 4,500 rpm. It purrs confidently in passing maneuvers and never gets loud or raucous.

Its steering is precise, and there is noticeable road feel, which is a good thing considering the new Avalon tends to make you forget you're driving and not sailing.

The only available transmission for the Azera is a 5-speed automatic with Shiftronic. An overdrive lockup torque converter improves highway fuel economy, although Azera's fuel economy figures are not yet available.

The interior is classy, with attractive stitching detail on the seats and door panels. Fit and finish is on par with the Avalon, as are materials, although the Azera lacks the Avalon's snazzy backlit buttons.

One weak point is the Azera's exterior styling. The front and rear views are tasteful, with light-emitting diode taillights and halogen projector headlights adding some interest. But the side view is dull and disjointed, with the vehicle's short rear out of proportion with its long, slim nose.

Hyundai anticipates the Azera doubling XG 350 sales of 15,000-20,000 units annually. It should not be difficult, as the Azera is packed with big features for comparatively small money.

cschweinsberg@primediabusiness.com