Friday, September 19, 2008

Azera tries to escape the shadows

With the faster, more luxurious Genesis grabbing headlines at Hyundai these days, some have openly wondered about the future of the brand's erstwhile flagship. That's a shame: The Azera delivers the sort of comfort and quality a large sedan ought to offer - and, in typical Hyundai fashion, its price is hard to beat.

Introduced two years ago to replace the XG 350, the Azera comes in GLS and Limited trims for 2008. Hyundai has discontinued the midlevel Azera SE.

Stately but forgettable, the Azera's styling may be its biggest limiter. It follows Hyundai lineage - I parked next to a newish Sonata, and the Azera seemed, appropriately enough, like a gussied-up version of its midsize sibling. I just question if that's a good thing: Hyundai's styling legacy smacks of bulbous takes on whatever Toyota and Honda are churning out. The Genesis shows signs of breaking that mold. The Azera, with its conservative 10-spoke wheels and old-school taillight bar, does not.

Conservative styling translates well in the cabin, whose mild contours and high beltline should find few detractors. The dash tries nothing new - it's the same dome-and-shelf routine that's been around since the early 1990s - but it's agreeable in a way the Toyota Avalon's airport-hangar dash isn't.

Overall quality rivals an Avalon or Buick Lucerne, which is to say it's premium but not quite at luxury-car levels. Dashboard panels fit tightly and feel soft to the touch, and most controls - save the navigation system's, which I'll get to later - click and turn with solid precision. I'm still a sucker for electroluminescent gauges, and the blue and white ones in the Limited look Lexus-sharp. (Conventional gauges go in the Azera GLS. Bah.)

The faux wood and imitation metal trim are sparing enough to provide an appropriate touch, though I'd like to see chrome door handles instead of the Azera's silver plastic ones. I'd also like to see Hyundai swap the Elantra-grade window switches for some of the well-tailored ones in the Genesis. On par with such luxury ilk is the 605-watt, 12-speaker Infinity stereo. It's optional on the Limited, and in my test car it cranked out rich, high-fidelity audio. Alas, it doesn't have an auxiliary input jack for portable MP3 players, something most cars these days have. Hyundai spokesman Miles Johnson told me the '09 Azera will offer a full USB hookup for iPods and the like.

New for 2008 is an optional navigation system supplied by electronics maker LG. It's the same one offered in the Santa Fe and Veracruz SUVs; the one in the '09 Sonata is a separate system. The LG unit doesn't feel as slick: Its buttons flex and wriggle in a way the climate controls don't, and usability is so-so. The zoom-in/zoom-out controls are physical buttons rather than onscreen ones, and there are clever functions like a route preview screen with turn-by-turn directions. I'd trade both for some other features that are lacking, such as an intersection finder that lets you input the city, more street names on the map, and a screen that's angled steeper so sunlight doesn't wash it out so easily. I can't argue with the price, however. The LG unit comes packaged with the 605-watt stereo for a very reasonable $1,750; navigation alone costs around $2,000 on the Lucerne, Avalon, and Taurus.

Leather upholstery is optional on the GLS and standard on the Limited. Its concentric stitching looks like it was designed sometime during the Dole campaign, but the cushioning does provide excellent long-haul comfort. Power front seats are standard; I found limited rearward travel, and anyone taller than 6 feet will probably sit all the way back.

The backseat's backrest sits at a snooze-inducing angle. I prefer something more upright, but if you frequently chauffeur kids or in-laws, it might be a godsend. Legroom is a few inches short of the Avalon and most Detroit competitors, but it should be more than enough for most adults. Headroom is competitive and downright roomy. Worth note: The footwells are crowded by a sizeable center hump - odd, given this is a front-wheel-drive car with no hump-requiring driveshaft.

Cabin and trunk volume are competitive with the segment, and a 60/40-split folding backseat augments cargo space. With the seat folded, the opening has some significant obstructions.

Depending on trim, the Azera gets a 3.3-liter or 3.8-liter V-6. My test car had the latter, whose whisper-silent startup belied its punch around town and on the highway. Passing power is fluid, and acceleration from low speeds can be sprightly.

I say "can be" because it isn't always. Like many automatics in this class, the Azera's standard five-speed auto is lazy as all getout. The gated shifter comes with a manual-shift function, but a Sport mode with more aggressive shift patterns would be more helpful. Many automatics offer this. Left to its own devices, the Azera's transmission stubbornly resists downshifting for more power until long after you need it. It's a frustrating tendency in a number of situations, from accelerating around a bend to passing on the highway. Third gear offers potent 40-to-60 miles per hour power, but inducing such a shift takes a concerted prod on the gas. The saving grace is midrange torque - the 3.8-liter engine offers plenty - and it means there's at least adequate power even as the transmission camps out in fourth or fifth gear.

The 3.8-liter drivetrain returns 17/26 miles per gallon city/highway, which is midway between the Avalon and V-6 Impala and V-8 competitors like the 300C, V-8 Impala and V-8 Lucerne. The 3.3-liter engine earns just 1 mpg more in city driving, so apart from being paired with the cheaper Azera GLS, it doesn't give much reason not to upgrade.

Ride quality is expectedly smooth, if a bit floaty, and there is plenty of body roll in the corners. I found the cabin suitably quiet at highway speeds.

Four-wheel-disc antilock brakes are standard, but like many in this class - the Nissan Maxima is one exception - the pedal feels spongy, and hard braking induces lots of nosedive. Likewise, overall handling puts comfort ahead of sportiness. The steering wheel turns with a light touch yet avoids the over-assisted feel of the Lucerne or 300. On the highway it has a secure on-center feel, and in close quarters it returns a 37.4-foot turning circle, which bests all competitors but the Avalon.

Eight standard airbags include side-curtain and seat-mounted side-impact airbags for both rows. Despite this panoply, the Azera earned merely "acceptable" side-impact scores from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. IIHS awarded "good" scores, the highest rating possible, for head and chest protection but lower ratings for pelvis and leg protection, as well as for the car's structural integrity. Frontal-impact IIHS scores are "good."

Other standard features include antilock brakes, traction control, and an electronic stability system. All five seats employ head restraints, and the front ones are active. The outboard rear seats have latch child-seat anchors, but they're buried deep in the cushion fold and difficult to access. All three rear positions have top-tether anchors.

Without the destination charge, the Azera GLS starts at $24,600, undercutting all but the Taurus and Impala. It comes better equipped than either one's base trim, with power front seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, a six-speaker CD stereo, and 17-inch alloy wheels. Heated leather seats and a sunroof are optional. Both are standard on the Limited ($28,550), which also has the larger V-6, a power sunshade for rear-seat passengers and a 315-watt Infinity stereo. Beyond that, a slew of options emulates the stuff of genuine luxury cars - among them a power tilt/telescoping steering wheel, a navigation system, power-folding side mirrors, a 605-watt audio system, and rain-sensing wipers. Fully loaded, the Azera tops out around $31,500.

Full-size cars are in a tough spot these days. The segment has dropped some 30 percent in sales so far this year, according to J.D. Power data, as buyers flock toward cheaper midsize cars with better mileage. Caught between the Sonata and Genesis, the Azera seems in a particular bind: The prospect of low-30s mileage may send some buyers toward the Sonata, while leather-trimmed dashboards and rear-wheel-drive performance could send others toward the Genesis. It's a shame, because in between is a fine sedan that's more refined than the Sonata and more comfortable - if less engaging - than the Genesis. The Azera has a distinct flavor that makes it worth keeping in Hyundai's lineup. I just hope buyers are willing to give it a try.

2009 Hyundai Azera
EPA fuel economy 17-18 mpg city; 26 mpg highway
Engines 234-hp, 3.3-liter V-6; 263-hp, 3.8-liter V-6
Transmission 5-speed automatic with overdrive and auto-manual

New or notable
3.3-liter or 3.8-liter V-6
Available navigation system
Standard stability control
Full-size dimensions
SE trim level eliminated

What we like
Cabin quality
Acceleration with 3.8-liter V-6
Seat comfort
Highway ride
Value for the money
Turning circle

What we don't
Lazy automatic transmission
Limited opening w/folding backseat
So-so navigation interface
No MP3 jack
No parking sensors
Mediocre gas mileage

© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.
By Kelsey Mays
Cars.Com / August 31, 2008

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