Hyundai Azera Review

Hyundai Azera ReviewDon't look now, but Hyundai just turned 20. If that doesn't set off one spark of surprise, you must not remember the 1986 Excel, a $4,995 nightmare that excelled only at breaking down. And if you don't remember an entire decade of Sonatas and Elantras that only brought such a skill to new price levels, let's just say it was all a rather troubled childhood.

But step by step, they learned to save themselves. Hyundai learned how to make an engine without Mitsubishi's training wheels. The cars started driving better, and a world-leading warranty was added to quell fears about reliability - fears that grew obsolete in the wake of sharply improved quality. New sedans kept coming, followed by their first SUV, then their second, and just last year Hyundai became the world's latest automaker to grow an all-new assembly plant on U.S. soil.

And yet in 2006, it seems like life has just begun. The latest versions of the Accent and Sonata have landed to critical applause, and here to mark the grand finale is the new Azera. Unlike the forgettable XG350, the Azera represents Hyundai's first true attack on the last step before luxury: the near-$30,000 Large Car segment inhabited by Buicks, Fords, and Toyota's Avalon. It's the swankiest and priciest Hyundai ever, and times are a changin when Hyundai stands on ground where Honda and Nissan have never walked.

What a way to kick off your third decade! Let's see how much is worth celebrating.

Road TestHyundai Azera Review
After picking up the Azera I immediately headed for the forest, figuring I'd get the stress test out of the way first. What could be more amusing than hurrying a giant front-wheel-drive sedan - most of all one with Korean engineering biases - through a challenging road? Needless to say, the drive remained on the near side of stimulating. The body swayed somewhat around every turn, the steering fed back little information about the slipping tires, and the chassis maintained the bias I've experienced in every Hyundai to date: a rear end that refuses to rotate even one inch under any circumstances. I wasn't aching to stay very long.

And yet, the tire slip wasn't excessive on this Azera Limited model, which wears P235/55VR17 Michelins that gave sufficient stick. The helm could be placed accurately, and even if you had to slow down in corners to avoid plowing the nose, the fine-sounding engine had enough grunt to quickly regain momentum afterwards. The Shiftronic automatic is smart enough to not downshift when floored (though it upshifts at redline), and finally the Sonata-sourced double-wishbone and multilink suspensions never let bumps interfere with the car's trajectory. Sure, the Azera felt kind of big, but it hardly embarrassed itself. Besides, earning a passing grade out here is obviously proof of having more moves than its owner base will ever ask for.

As with the Sonata, Hyundai expects that owner base will drop in age and rise in dynamic expectations. That would explain the company's use of words like "firmer" and "sportier" in comparison to the Avalon, and why having the largest powerplant with "more horsepower than the Ford and Buick" and "more torque than the Ford and Toyota" are stressed as selling points.

Scrutinizing the sportiness of these cars is about as fruitful as conducting a corn flake taste test, but the Azera sure has some forward motivation. Making leaps and bounds over the weak 194-horsepower 3.5-liter "Sigma" V6 in the Azera's predecessor, the new DOHC "Lambda" 3.8-liter V6's 263 horsepower (the addition of valve timing accounts for some of the increase) endows it with far stronger acceleration, while 255 pounds-feet of torque backs it up with muscular delivery. That and the lessened load of only 3,629 pounds easily explain why 0-60 times just crashed down through two floors: from the low-8s to the low-6s. From lazy and obese to fast and fit in one year? Hyundai can do it; so can you.

Speed aside, the Azera places emphasis on the qualities you'd expect to find in a Hyundai. The easy-going steering is set up for an arthritic audience, and its response time actually got slowed down from the XG350 (from a 13.5:1 ratio to 16.8:1). When not driving over a surface that amplifies the slightly noisy Michelins, the Azera cuts through the atmosphere with just a whisper. The ride motions don't seem "inbetween" as much as flat-out American-style soft. I'd always wondered why Hyundai had never tried making a whopper sedan before; the traits of their cars always seemed perfectly suited.

But some of Hyundai's traits wouldn't be missed in any car, and many of them stuck around. Other ways to describe that American-style ride are Lincoln large and Buick buoyant - it takes big leaps over some bumps - and it also elicits Honda Accord jitteriness over others and transmits nervous steering kickback on the sharpest of them. The five-speed automatic is very smooth, but the smoothness came at the expense of response, with full-throttle downshifts elongated to nearly two seconds (for lesser demands, maybe one second). Neither the brake nor throttle pedal seems perfectly linear. And finally, the new engine family doesn't get new-age fuel economy: 23 MPG even though I practically nailed it to the freeway. The Azera also has one of the more pessimistic trip computers I've met, underestimating mileage by a good 2 MPG by my calculator's count. At least the engine only wants 87 gas, unlike most V6s of such prodigious power.

The Azera's a pretty solid drive, but only after cutting these needless compromises can Hyundai lay claim to acing the Avalon.

Inside & OutHyundai Azera Review
Any Hyundai shopper that cares about image should know that our sage green Azera got more admiring glances than a car like this can normally hope for. These eyes find also it the best-looking Hyundai of the moment and maybe the best in its segment: appropriately generic without looking like a blatant carbon copy of someone else's car (et tu, Kia Amanti). The dual exhausts and LED taillights are pretty nifty, and the 0.29 Cd pretty slippery.

And despite what we've witnessed in the recent wave of Tucson, Accent, and Sonata, the Azera also proves Hyundai really can make an attractive interior. First of all, the items in the center stack actually line up for once. Low-grade plastics were kept off the order sheet and the low-shine dashboard exudes restraint and good taste. The electroluminescent gauges blend color with class, and the aluminum surrounding the shiftgate looks unique. The undefined motions of the locks, seatbelt latches, and steering wheel buttons serve as minor pockets of cheapness and the leather strikes me as medium quality, but the overall effect got called "nice" (several times) and "cool" (once) by various 20- and 30-somethings.

The plastic wood also looks good as far as that stuff goes, though it really wasn't necessary to stick it on the steering wheel of every Limited model. I fail to see how holding hands with a petrified piece of plastic makes anyone feel special; all it did for me was suck even more pleasure out of the already numb steering. How about at least making a physical negative of this steering wheel, where the fake wood's on the sides and leather covers the regions where your hands actually go?

There are a few more flaws on the ergonomic front, like the oversupply of similar flat-faced climate buttons and the omission of preset/CD track changers on the audio side of the steering wheel buttons (even lowly Daewoos and brother Kias have them; why not a top-of-the-line Hyundai?). Otherwise, everything's perfectly easy to see, reach, and operate, and there are storage pockets aplenty. The compass and trip computer were nice, and feature fetishists will delight at the dual-zone climate controls, heated seats, and power rear sunshade (which lowers itself when you shift to Reverse).

One feature that had me panting in anticipation was the 315-watt 10-speaker Infinity stereo. Sadly, my test car did without, leaving me with the 172-watt 6-speaker base system. It's easy to use, plays MP3s, and gets all the notes out, but the sonic quality of the delivery might remind the Azera's audience a little too much of their 8-track upbringing.

How you feel about the comfortable front seats depends on personal preferences. The driving position certainly isn't wanting for space or adjustments, which are both in abundance, and the padding and side bolsters are soft. Two differences you'll surely notice: the head restraints jut out forward more than usual (they're also of the "active" kind that leap forward to cushion you in crashes), and for a sedan the seats seem to be mounted high - really high. Well, at least the day has arrived when Hyundai drivers can look down on others.

Those who brag about back seats can now look down on a whole bunch of cars. 123.5 cubic feet of interior room makes the Azera one of the most spacious sedans in the world - well into Large Car territory and a foot or two up on the Avalon. The bench is comfortable, set at the right angle, has enough room to stack both of your feet in a straight line... what can I say? It doesn't get much better for five than this. Doubly amazing is that they managed to stuff it all into the shell of a mid-size car: 192.7 inches long, 72.8 across, 109.4 in wheelbase. Excellent packaging. Hyundai enthusiasts will note that the increases over the already-roomy Sonata never exceed one inch in any measurement, though.

The trunk is also a big, tall box with 16.6 cubic feet to spare, and the back seats tumble down on all models.

Other ThoughtsHyundai Azera Review
Guess what, Hyundai just entered a class without starting off as the cheapest! That's ok, cheapness is only one path to value; let's see if the Azera arrived there by other means.

First, the Azera SE's $24,995 starting price is still on the low side. That sum is already inclusive of stability control, eight airbags (that's two up on most cars: rear riders get them for both head and body), dual power seats, dual-zone climate control, trip computer, automatic headlights, and 16-inch alloy wheels. The extra $2,500 of the $27,495 Limited pays for 17-inch wheels, leather, heated front seats, electroluminescent gauges, rear sunshade, wood trim, and floor mats.

Both models share an optional Premium Package containing a power sunroof and Infinity stereo with CD changer, costing $1,500 on the Limited and $1,700 on the SE where it also adds heaters for the front (cloth) seats. Lastly, the Limited model has exclusive access to the $2,500 Ultimate Package, which supplements everything above with power pedals, power steering column, and two-position memory for the driver's seat/mirror/steering wheel. In other words, you can have it all in the Azera (except a navigation system) for five bucks short of 30 grand.

When it comes to competition, the Buick Lucerne is the easy write-off here, priced at $35K in the V8 Limited trim it needs to match the Azera's performance and features. Having driven it just weeks ago, I can tell you it drives much the same and offers next to nothing in compensation.

The Ford Five Hundred is the new blue-light special, starting just under $23K and ending up at $29K when loaded up like our theoretical $30K Azera. The Azera's much faster and has the better interior; the Five Hundred's Volvo-bred chassis is more refined in ride and handling. Tough call.

Hyundai was obviously aiming for the benchmark here, Toyota's do-no-wrong Avalon. It can't be debated that the Avalon has the best powertrain: the smoothest, strongest engine with the best fuel economy and a smarty of a transmission. It shares the Five Hundred's chassis superiority, and it's the only one here that tops off its enormous back seat with a flat floor. But by beginning at $27,355 and coming out to $31,805 in XLS Trim, we're talking about two grand saved by driving Hyundai's way. [source :]


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