Monday, May 05, 2008

Azera Stuns with Finesse

Usually when someone comments on the car I'm driving, it's a high-end luxury car or some kind of sporty roadster. But last week, the guy who was helping me out with my groceries said: "You have a nice car, ma'am."

I was driving a Hyundai Azera.

He was stunned it was a Hyundai, I was stunned he called me ma'am. Really? Me? Ma'am? Hmmm. But I digress.

Whenever I mentioned the "H" word during the test week, the stunned reaction was common. People would take a second look at the Hyundai badging with a perplexed expression, then they would turn to me and ask: "When did that happen?"

My answer: While no one was paying attention.

If you haven't looked at Hyundai lately, now would be a good time. With a luxurious crossover like the Veracruz and a nice midsize sedan like the Sonata, Hyundai is a brand on the move with incredibly affordable pricing.

The Azera was new for the 2006 model year, and, in fact, much of Hyundai's lineup was refreshed that same year. The design got a little sleeker. Fit-and-finish has been a constant improvement. Not to mention "America's Best Warranty" that comes with every vehicle. And while no one was looking, Hyundai became a contender.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the 2008 Azera. Standard features include power adjustable front seats, 17-inch alloy wheels, electronic stability control, side-curtain airbags, automatic climate controls and a 3.3-liter V-6 engine that delivers 234 horsepower. This large, elegant sedan that looks like it should compete in the BMW 5-Series, Lexus ES, Audi A6 range has a base price of ...wait for it ... $25,295.

The test vehicle was a Limited model with standard leather seats, XM Satellite Radio, premium Infinity sound system, sun roof, heated front seats and an up-level 3.8-liter V-6 engine that delivers 263 horsepower. Without looking at the sticker sheet, I would have placed it in the $40K range including options like navigation, adjustable foot pedals and rain sensing wipers. I was stunned (there's that word again) that the base price of the test vehicle was a mere $29,245. With the Ultimate Navigation Package ($2,750) and carpeted floor mats ($100), the final MSRP was $32,095. Absolutely, well, stunning.

Really, look at a photo that includes the grille on the Azera. Take your pinky and cover up the circle H emblem. Now, imagine a circle L in its place. It's not a huge stretch.

The outside of the Azera speaks for itself. With long lean lines, a dual exhaust and sparkling taillights, the exterior has a high-end look and feel that gives people pause when they see the word Hyundai.

The interior of the Limited test vehicle was just as nice. I liked the buff-colored leather seats that were soft but not squishy. The wood accents were rich, and the touch points within the Azera were solid. The test vehicle had the optional navigation system, which was well integrated within the center stack. If you have the extra money to spend for this option, I'd definitely recommend it as the system works well, and I'm not a fan of the base level audio and HVAC controls.

Even though this is a large sedan with a length of 192.7 inches, I felt very comfortable in the driver's seat. With the tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and the power adjustable seats, I was able to find a great driving position that afforded an excellent view of the road. I didn't even need to use the adjustable pedals that came with the Ultimate Navigation Package.

Front legroom is a generous 43.7 inches, and rear legroom is 38.2 inches. So, behind my driving position an NBA player could probably fit in the back seat comfortably. Behind an average adult, you're looking at a couple of average-sized adults in the backseat.

The ride and handling of the test vehicle was more luxurious and less sporty. It was a soft and comfortable ride that didn't jar too much over the Chicago potholes. The 263 horsepower in the Limited test vehicle was quite nice with great bursts of speed in passing mode and quick off-the-start acceleration when leaving a stop. I thought the Azera moved very well through traffic, and it was highly maneuverable in traffic. The Azera was easy to parallel park and easy to back into my parking space.

Because of the luxurious ride, the handling in the Azera tended to be a bit soft. So, when I hit the sweeping curve of the Ohio feeder ramp, rather than hunkering down and biting into the carousel, the Azera felt a bit heavy.

I had a few skeptical passengers during the test week because of the very fact that the Azera was in the Hyundai family. However, after a ride in the test vehicle, they were won over by the style and the price.

Through perseverance and a plethora of standard features, Hyundai plods along steadily, moving up the automaker food chain and becoming a brand to be reckoned with. I haven't driven a Hyundai I didn't like, and I'm looking forward to the Genesis and Genesis Coupe on the horizon. In the meantime, if you want a lux car with out the lux price, Azera should be on your list to test drive.

May 1, 2008
BY JILL CIMINILLO SearchChicago - Autos Editor

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