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.
Hyundai Azera SE ($24,335); Azera Limited ($26,835)
The front end of the Hyundai Azera could be that of the smaller Sonata with the comfortable filling out that can come with healthy aging; not quite stately, but definitely wiser. The grille shape is familiar, as are the headlights and the slim, borderline overly wide, bifurcated gap beneath the bumper, itself adorned 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 the relatively minor discord. A trunk lid that 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 it's a necessary design 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, 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-finish 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 that lightens up the rear aspect.
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 standard in the Limited and optional in the SE. Driver and front passenger have access to a pair of cup holders beneath a hinged cover forward of the padded cover over the bi-level center console storage bin.
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 but 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. Against the competition in interior measurements, the Azera generally prevails, besting the 2006 Nissan Maxima, the 2006 Buick LaCrosse and the 2006 Mercury Milan in all measures and losing only to the 2006 Toyota Avalon in front and rear seat hiproom and rear seat legroom.
In trunk space, the Azera tops them all, the Avalon by more than two cubic feet, the LaCrosse by just over half a cubic foot. The Azera's trunk is fully finished, and enclosed gooseneck hinges and a hydraulic strut lift the lid.
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.