Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Hyundai Cooks Up Quite a Tasty Midsize Morsel

Hyundai cooks up quite a tasty midsize morsel

Question of the day is: Who makes Azera?

If you guessed Bobby Flay on the Food Network, you would be wrong.

Azera is one of the nicer midsize sedans on the market in room, comfort and quiet.

Sadly, it's also one of the best kept secrets in that segment and beyond.

Azera was created by Hyundai of South Korea as the 2006 model year successor to the XG. Remember, the Mercedes-Benz lookalike?

While Toyota and Honda have gone to great lengths to ensure Camry and Accord set the benchmark for bland, Hyundai has taken pains to make Azera fashionable, from the jewel lamps upfront to eye-catching multi-spoked wheels along the sides to curvy deck lid and upscale interior with soft-touch finishes and tight fits that say quality and luxury.

Azera, in fact, is a step up from Camry and Accord, and competes with the Toyota Avalon and Nissan Maxima, as well.

But Hyundai has to get the word out.

We tested the top-of-the-line Azera Limited, with a host of amenities printed in the standard equipment column, from leather, heated, power seats to air conditioning to power mirrors/locks/windows -- with a button in the center console that operates the rear window sunshade.

There's also automatic headlamps, cruise control, split and folding rear seat backs, an AM/FM stereo radio with in-dash CD player/MP3 player, XM satellite radio and power tilt/slide sunroof set far enough back to keep glare out of the cabin.

For the electronically gifted, a $2,750 navigation system package includes power tilt and telescoping steering column, power adjustable pedals, rain-sensing wipers, woodgrain steering wheel and door-sill scuff plates.

Why, however, does Azera offer a tilt and telescoping steering column so you can sit farther from the dash and power adjustable pedals to reach across that distance, and then limit the travel of the power driver's seat so you can't get very far back from the dash? Don't know how those 6-feet-2-inch drivers handle it.

What makes it odder still is that while leg, head, arm, and hip room are very spacious upfront, it's even better in back where you could probably do leg lifts and not strike the front seat. So there's ample room in back to allow the front seat to travel a few more inches without jamming the knees of those in steerage against their sternums.

The other gripe is the seat itself. Soft and cozy with good lateral support but an abbreviated bottom cushion. A few more inches would make for better thigh support. Can't help but feel the engineer in charge of Azera seats was nicknamed "Shorty."

The base GLS Azera is powered by a 3.3-liter, 234-horsepower V-6; the Limited we drove by a 3.8-liter, 263-h.p. V-6 teamed with a 5-speed automatic with manual mode shifting.

Azera's original V-6 needed smoother acceleration without hesitation. The 3.8 has good spirit moving from the light or down the merger lane, but it lets out a little growl if you kick the pedal hard. That is out of character with Azera's luxury image. The mileage rating is 17 m.p.g. city/26 m.p.g. highway, a couple miles per gallon short of ideal, no matter what the gas price is.

When Azera bowed, we felt it needed a few suspension tweaks to soften the ride. With the 2008 version you'll feel a bump or two more than in an Avalon or Maxima, but it's noticeably less harsh than it was.

Handling is decent with minimal lean in corners or wandering the open road. Stability control with traction control is standard, which accounts for the improved road manners. Both also kept footing steady footing when traveling on snow-packed roads. Four-wheel anti-lock brakes also are standard.

The cabin seats four adults in comfort and quiet. Very large front and side glass makes not only for great visibility, it also makes the cabin feel airy and larger than it is. The seats and cabin trim were a light beige, which adds to the feeling of spaciousness, though the light color also shows dirt more easily than dark does.

Cabin amenities include an ashtray, though to be politically correct you can call it a gum holder. There's also a small stowage hold in the lower dash for cell phone/iPod, a pair of compartments under the center armrest along with a power plug, and fuel-filler and trunk release buttons in the driver's door.

The trunk is massive and will hold luggage or golf clubs for a foursome. It looks as if, tipped sideways, it may hold one of those Smarts from Mercedes as well.

Base price of the Limited is $28,550. If you take a pass on the navi package with power pedals and door scuff plates, you can drive away for less than $30,000 -- and less than most of its better known midsize sedan rivals as well.

February 24, 2008

Read Jim Mateja Sunday in Transportation.

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