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The 2006 Hyundai Azera is an all-new, full-size sedan and it is a remarkable car. The powertrain is state of the art. The 3.8-liter V6 engine features variable valve timing for low emissions and a broad power curve, while the five-speed automatic gives the driver the option of shifting semi-manually, all very competitive with Lexus, Infiniti and Acura. While there's nothing especially striking in design or styling, take off the Hyundai badge, and it'll pass as family to any one of those Pacific Rim nameplates.
Inside, fit and finish set a new standard for the marque, with quality materials and assembly. There's a quiet elegance in the simplicity of the instruments, usability of the controls and sleekness of design. What isn't readily visible received the same attention as what is, with hardware studiously hidden away and storage bins fully finished. All is not perfection. Some faux leather feels more like vinyl than bovine. But the overall presentation is quite upscale.
At a more practical level, the Azera equals or betters the competition in standard equipment, with special emphasis on safety. Eight airbags are standard, as are electronic stability control, traction control, antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and active front seat head restraints. Rain-sensing windshield wipers, more commonly found only on high-end cars, are optional.
In design and styling, creature comforts, powertrain and those all-important safety features, the Azera offers as much or more than anything else in the class, and at a lower price.
Azera marks a new venture for the South Korea-based carmaker. It's a move upmarket, to compete with the likes of the Toyota Avalon, the Nissan Maxima, the Buick LaCrosse, and the Mercury Milan. Rumors abound that it's the proverbial toe in the water as Hyundai contemplates joining Honda, Nissan and Toyota in creating a stand-alone luxury brand, along the lines of Acura, Infiniti and Lexus. If the Azera is what Hyundai can do with an entry-level luxury car, imagine what it could do with a car costing half again as much.
Driving the Hyundai Azera is more fun and rewarding than driving any of the competition, save maybe for the Mercury Milan, which is a bit smaller and quite a bit lighter. This is despite the Azera tipping the scales at around 140 pounds heavier than any of the rest. Power-wise, it gives up only a few horsepower to the competition and equals or beats them in torque. In overall dimensions and stance on the road, there's little difference. What differentiates the Azera is the way it feels from the driver's seat, and the signals the various mechanicals send to the driver through the car's touch points.
Response to the gas pedal is smooth, immediate and linear; Hyundai says the Azera will get to 60 miles per hour from a dead stop in well under 7 seconds, which puts it smack in the heart of its competitors' numbers, although the claimed 146 mph top speed moves it close to the head of the class in that regard. Its one shortcoming in raw performance data is its fuel economy, as the EPA estimates it trails the others by as much as two or three miles per gallon in city and highway driving, respectively.
Transmission shifts may not be invisible, but only slightly less so than in the pricier Avalon and on a par with the Milan. The Sportronic selects gears in the proper direction, forward to shift up, rearward to shift down. On the down side, while it holds a higher gear, it will shift up when the engine approaches redline.
The brake pedal feels solid, and the four-wheel discs haul the Azera down from extra-legal speeds with confidence and no noticeable fade in everyday driving. Steering assist is nominal, with just about the proper amount of resistance to wheel movements, unlike the Avalon, for instance, which is over-assisted for our tastes, and the Milan, which could use a bit more assist.
Response to steering inputs, while not razor sharp, is sure and precise. Handling is nicely balanced. Put another way, while the Azera doesn't beg to be driven rapidly along two-lane, winding country roads, if so called upon, neither will it embarrass a reasonably rambunctious driver. Not even in the pricier Avalon Touring were we as comfortable on such roads; in the Milan and Maxima, yes, but the former's overall quality level fell a bit short and the latter is priced up there with the Avalon.
As with its front wheel-drive counterparts, beware of the Azera's understeer (where the car wants to go straight when the driver wants it to turn) when it's pushed too hard in tight and high-speed turns; even so, the standard electronic stability control system should keep all but the most irrationally exuberant driver out of trouble. Directional stability on freeways is above reproach, and there is zero hint of float over pavement heaves.
Little wind and road noise intrudes on the cabin, although we noticed more of the latter in the rear seat than in the front. No buzzes, squeaks or rattles surfaced in our couple hundred miles over virtually every type of pavement in the test car.
The Hyundai Azera is an amazing accomplishment from the same car maker that made its U.S. debut almost two decades ago with the disposable Excel. As a matter of fact, it's a pretty impressive car regardless, what with all the standard creature comfort and safety features. Then there's its price, giving it an advantage of between $1500 and $3000. Like its smaller, less expensive sibling, the Sonata, the Azera could well set a new standard in performance, price and value.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from La Jolla, California.
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