Remarkable for both its ambition and its achievement, Azera is Hyundai's entry into the full-size, near-luxury segment. Azera is a worthy alternative to the Toyota Avalon and Nissan Maxima. Introduced just last year as a 2006 model, Azera has already out-scored the highly regarded Toyota Avalon to earn second place in the segment in J.D. Power and Associate's 2006 Initial Quality Study. It was also rated the Most Appealing Large Car in J.D. Power's Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study, and has received the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety's (IIHS) top crash test rating for frontal offset impacts. That's an impressive combination of accolades.
In design and styling, in creature comforts, powertrain and in safety features, Azera offers as much or more than anything else in the class, and at a lower price.
Azera's powertrain is the 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, competitive features with Lexus, Infiniti and Acura. While there's nothing especially striking in Azera's design or styling, take off the Hyundai badge, and it could pass as family among any of the top-rated Japanese 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 of the faux leather feels more like vinyl than bovine. But the overall presentation is 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 available.
Changes for 2007 are minimal. Steering wheel audio controls with seek up/down are now standard on all models. Azera Limited models now come with an enhanced electroluminescent instrument cluster. Sideview mirrors with integral turn-signal indicators are now included in the Ultimate Package. And black leather interiors are now accented with light gray stitching.
Hyundai's stylists may have started out copying more than creating, but they're ever so persistently breaking out of that mode. While there may be nothing strikingly new nor original about the Azera's looks, there's nevertheless a completeness, a proportional flow that both catches and pleases the eye.
The front styling of the Azera resembles that of the smaller Sonata but with the comfortable filling out that can come with healthy aging; not quite stately, but definitely wiser. The headlights are familiar, as is the shape of the grille, although the latter is textured on the Azera with fine horizontal lines, rather than the Sonata's single bold slash. Similarly, Azera's lower air intake is gently split horizontally, and its bumper subtly detailed with thin, bright-finish bump strips at each corner.
The side view reaches for elegance, with gracefully arced, micro-bulged fenders and a glasshouse that rises softly from the bonnet, flows smoothly over an elongated cabin and falls gently into the boot. The rear overhang extends a bit farther than the shorter front overhang, but wide doors and spacious windows temper this relatively minor discord. The trunk lid seems to sit atop the rear fenders, inviting unfortunate comparison with the awkward back end of the current BMW 7 Series, but some designers are saying that's a necessary aerodynamic solution, and we're seeing the same sort of thing on the newest models from Lexus and Acura.
The Azera's back end is equally reminiscent of the Sonata, again albeit fuller, more mature. Sonata-like shapes outline the lighting arrangements and license plate. A unique reflector strip reaching across the trunk lid doubles as a background for the only external display of the name, Azera. A bright strip along the top of the bumper finishes the loop started at the front and carried along the side. Widely spaced dual exhaust tips add a sporty touch.
The Hyundai Azera is comfortable and offers near-elegant transport. The upholstery, the dash covering, the carpet, are all top notch. Even the fabric headliner is a cut above the standard mouse fur. Gaps between the bits and pieces of plastic and other materials are impressively tight, earning high marks for fit and finish. The glove box and storage cubbies are of good quality. All hinged fixtures, from glove box door to roof-mounted grab handles, are damped for smooth, quiet operation.
The dash sweeps gracefully across the car, beginning and ending in sectioned caps molded into the front door panels, and beneath an odd, table-edge-like flat rim that circles the entire interior from the outboard edges of the rear seats. Vent registers are symmetrically positioned near the doors and on each side of the audio and climate control panels centered above a large storage bin. Intuitively proportioned tachometer, speedometer, fuel level and engine coolant gauges peer out from a hooded pod through the top half of the steering wheel. Large, friendly knobs, buttons and switches return a pleasant tactile feel.
The center console is trimmed in natural-looking woodgrain and brushed aluminum. Up front, almost tucked up underneath the dash overhang, is a covered ashtray with lighter. Aft of this is a small cubby, with controls for the seat heaters. Driver and front passenger have access to a pair of cup holders that hide beneath a hinged cover at the forward end of the console. The top of the bi-level console and storage bin is padded.
The shift lever travels through a gated slot that puts the secondary, Sportronic gear selector slot on the opposite side of the gate from the driver. We prefer it on the driver's side.
Map pockets in each door are provided, part of which flip out to expand. The backsides of the front seats wear magazine pouches. Back seat passengers get a fold-down center armrest with two cup holders and, overhead, reading lights.
The seats, front and rear, are comfortable and supportive. Front seat bases are fully enclosed so hardware isn't exposed. The driver's seat power lumbar covers an impressive range. Front seats give more and better thigh support than the rears, but the copious rear seat leg room more than compensates, helped by the rear doors' remarkably wide openings.
Visibility is good all around, with special credit to the view out the back. The adjustable rear head restraints are the shingle type, which are formed to fit down over the top of the seatback when retracted. The electro-chromatic rearview mirror comes with an off switch, for the compass, too, and when that's turned off, the window in which it appears fades into the mirror. And shift into reverse with the Limited's rear sunshade deployed, and it automatically retracts.
The Azera is roomy. Dimension-for-dimension against the competition, Hyundai Azera generally prevails, besting the 2007 Nissan Maxima, Buick LaCrosse and Mercury Milan in nearly all measures (Maxima has a quarter-inch more leg room in front); and even the larger Buick Lucerne and Mercury Montego in all but rear leg room. Toyota Avalon offers more hip room, front and rear, and more rear seat legroom than Azera; but then Azera surpasses Avalon in front-seat legroom and in front and rear headroom.
In trunk space, the Hyundai Azera is near the head of this class. Only the Buick Lucerne and Mercury Montego have more trunk space. The Azera beats the Avalon by two cubic feet. The Azera's trunk is fully finished, and enclosed gooseneck hinges and a hydraulic strut lift the lid.
Driving the Hyundai Azera is more fun and rewarding than driving most 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 the mid-size cars mentioned above, and weighing in closer to the full-size Montego and Lucerne. 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 can accelerate from 0 to 60 miles per hour in less than 7 seconds, which puts it smack in the heart of its competitors' numbers.
Azera's 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.
Transmission shifts may not be seamless, but only slightly less so than in the pricier Avalon and on a par with the Milan. The Sportronic manual-shift feature selects gears by moving the shifter 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, push the Azera past the cornering limits of its tires and it understeers (where the car wants to go straight when the driver wants it to turn). However, the electronic stability control 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 or road noise intrudes into 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 2007 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 in retail numbers. 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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