Wednesday, April 09, 2008

G. Chambers Williams III: Hyundai Azera Drives to Top

G. Chambers Williams III: Hyundai Azera drives to top

Paying $32,000 for a Hyundai sedan seems a long stretch from the company that began its U.S. sales in 1986 with a subcompact econobox whose list price was its biggest attraction -- $4,995.

But the 2008 Azera Limited that we tested this past week shows just how far this South Korean automaker has come since its humble beginnings in this country.

The Azera arrived for 2006 as an all-new entry in near-premium sedan class that also includes the Toyota Avalon, Nissan Maxima, Buick LaCrosse, Pontiac G8, Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger.

With the Azera, Hyundai created its most luxurious model yet, and the great surprise is that this car seems more on par with the entry premium sedans than the competitors above.

It's so loaded with features and so classy looking that it could well be taken for a Lexus or Acura. If Hyundai had created its own luxury brand like Toyota, Honda and Nissan have done, the Azera could very well serve as the entry model.

It's not the first near-luxury sedan from Hyundai. The first was the XG350, a very good first effort that was replaced by the Azera.

While our tester, the Limited model, comes with a base price of $28,550 and some options that ran its price to $32,095 (including freight), the base Azera begins at $24,600 (plus $695 freight), and at that price still would outclass some vehicles that cost a lot more.

Aimed mostly at the Avalon, the Azera even has more standard amenities in the base model than consumers will find in the base Avalon, which begins just more than $27,000.

2008 Hyundai Azera
The package: Full-size, four-door, front-drive, V-6 powered, five-passenger premium sedan.

Highlights: The most luxurious Hyundai sedan yet, this is a stretched version of the Sonata that replaced the XG350 model. It's roomy, comfortable and very well-equipped, with prices thousands of dollars below some of its competitors.

Negatives: Suffers from Hyundai's poor brand image, which is improving, however.

Engine: 3.3-liter V-6; 3.8-liter V-6.

Transmission: 5-speed automatic with manual-shift feature.

Power/torque: 236 HP/226 foot-pounds (3.3); 263 HP/257 foot-pounds (3.8).

Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock.

Length: 192.7 inches.

Curb weight: 3,629-3,740 pounds.

Cargo volume: 16.6 cubic feet.

Fuel capacity/type: 19.8 gallons/unleaded regular.

EPA fuel economy: 18 miles per gallon city/26 highway (3.3); 17/26 (3.8).

Major competitors: Toyota Avalon, Nissan Maxima, Buick LaCrosse, Pontiac G8, Chevrolet Impala, Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger, Ford Taurus, Mercury Sable.

Base price range: $24,600-$28,550 plus $695 freight.

Price as tested: $32,095 including freight and options (Limited model).

On the Road rating: 8.7 (of a possible 10).

Prices shown are manufacturer's suggested retail; actual selling price may vary.
The Limited model, though, seems more like a Lexus, and yet is priced about $4,000 less than a comparably equipped Avalon.

This car's styling makes it look considerably more expensive than it is. It's not exactly cutting-edge, but it's not quite as bland as the Avalon and LaCrosse. There are cars in this class with more edgy styling, such as the Maxima (which is all new for 2009), Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger.

While the Azera base model's 3.3-liter V-6 with 236 horsepower is a bit less than some of its competitors, the 263-horsepower, 3.8-liter V-6 in the Limited is among the best in the class.

This engine has 69 more horsepower than the XG350 and has more power than the base engines of the LaCrosse, Impala, Ford Taurus/Mercury Sable, Chrysler 300 and Charger.

The Avalon, which was completely redesigned for 2006, has 268 horsepower; but the new Maxima has 290. It will begin at least $3,000 more than the Azera, though.

To get more power than what the Azera, Avalon and Maxima offer, you'd have to choose the Hemi V-8 option in the 300 or Charger, or the GT (V-8) version of the new Pontiac G8.

But with those V-8s, you'll use more fuel.

The Azera has surprisingly good fuel economy for the amount of power it offers: EPA ratings are 18 miles per gallon in the city and 26 on the highway for the 3.3-liter engine, and 17/26 for the 3.8-liter.

That's less than the 19 city/28 highway ratings of the Avalon, but Toyota recommends that only premium fuel be used in the car. The Azera is designed for unleaded regular.

Finding anything inferior about the Azera, even in direct comparison with the Avalon, is difficult. Even so, it's hard for Hyundai to command prices for the Azera that are even close to those of the Avalon, which has become the vehicle of choice among import buyers ages 55 and up.

Toyota's reputation for quality is one of the reasons, and despite Hyundai's remarkable improvement in quality and reliability during the past few years, it's going to take a while longer to convince the buying public that Hyundai vehicles are worth as much as Toyotas. That's why the Azera costs less, but it's great for consumers.

The Azera is a stretched version of the redesigned Sonata that arrived for 2005, just as the Avalon is a stretched version of the Camry. The Sonata, just updated for 2009, is a very good car that can hold its own against Camry and Accord models that cost thousands more.

But the Azera is significantly different from the Sonata, with its own unique exterior sheet metal and a much more refined interior. The floor pan also is different from the Sonata's, a necessity since the Azera is longer and roomier.

Among standard features even on the entry model are halogen projector-beam headlights, dual-zone automatic climate control, self-dimming rearview mirror, Home Link universal garage/gate opener, antilock brakes, power driver and passenger seats, power windows/mirrors/door locks with remote, engine-immobilizer security system, and wood-grain and metal interior accents.

Also included on the base model are electronic stability control; 16-inch, five-spoke aluminum-alloy wheels; traction control; six-speaker AM/FM/compact-disc audio system with MP3 playback; LED taillights; active front head restraints; and cloth seats.

Options include a power sunroof; premium 10-speaker Infinity audio system with an in-dash, six-disc CD changer; and heated front seats.

Moving up to the Limited model brings leather seats; 17-inch, 10-spoke alloy wheels; the heated front seats; an electro luminescent gauge cluster; wood trim on the steering wheel; a power rear sunshade; and the power sunroof.

XM satellite radio also is standard, and it includes free activation and three months of service.

Our test vehicle came with the Ultimate Navigation Package ($2,750), which included a great in-dash GPS nav system, along with the Infinity audio system, power tilt/telescopic steering column, power foot pedals, rain-sensing wipers, wood-grain steering wheel and door pulls, and a memory system for the driver's seat, outside mirrors and steering column. Carpeted floor mats were an additional $100.

Both models come with the same five-speed automatic transmission. As with most upscale automatics these days, it comes with a manual-shift function that lets the driver decide when to change gears, or it can be left in fully automatic mode.

Safety features abound on the Azera. Both models come with eight standard air bags, including dual front, front and rear seat-mounted side, and front and rear overhead side-curtain air bags.

The stability-control system and antilock brakes are designed to help avoid collisions, while the air bags and front headrest pretensioners are among so-called passive safety features intended to protect occupants should a collision occur.

Inside, this car looks nothing like the Hyundais of the past. Fit and finish are excellent, and materials seem to be of much better quality than we've seen in the past from South Korea.

The cabin is among the roomiest in the class, giving five adults quite comfortable seating for around-town or cross-country jaunts. The Azera has more interior space than the Avalon and several other competitors. This vehicle rides more like a luxury car than an affordable sedan, too. It's also quieter at highway speeds than most of the competition.

Among the best in the industry, the warranty includes powertrain coverage for 10 years/100,000 miles, as well as five years of 24-hour roadside assistance with no mileage limit.

The roadside service includes emergency towing, lockout service and limited coverage for trip-interruption expenses, Hyundai says. There is no deductible on any of the coverages.

G. Chambers Williams III
San Antonio Express-News

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