Much has been said about Hyundai's rise from being a pusher of Point-A-to-Point-B transportation to the purveyor of high value, safe and stylish vehicles. Nearly its entire lineup is full of ready for primetime hardware, save the Tiburon that idles into 2007 with merely a refresh of its aging design. The Azera debuted as a 2006 model to replace the XG350, a Korean import that filled a hole in the company's lineup but whose claws weren't sharp enough to play in the tiger pit that is the large car market in North America.
Like all the new models Hyundai has marched out in the past few years, the Azera looks great on paper and stacks up extremely well against other large cars in its class, like the Toyota Avalon, Ford Five-Hundred, Buick Lucerne and Chrysler 300. It starts with a low base price and piles on a big V6, lots of standard safety equipment and a sheetmetal suit that fits just right. But does the Azera have that something special that makes a contender into a champion, or do the sum of its parts equal no more than just the sum of its parts?
Our 2006 Hyundai Azera Limited tester wore its Venetian Blue paint like an Armani three-button suit fitted to perfection. Hyundai design has come such a long way, and where the new Sonata is sharp and crisp, the Azera is fluid and organic with swollen fenders that add nice curves above each wheel. While the front fascia doesn't break any new design ground, the Azera's face is perfectly proportioned with a grille sporting traditional horizontal lines and topped by a chrome accent bar. The headlights project a neutral stare and look expensive sporting halogen projection-like lamps.
The Azera's designers paid particular attention to the car's proportions, which makes the large sedan look smaller than it really is. The C-pillar, for instance, extends deep into the rear deck lid, thereby giving the rear window a steep rake. The shorter rear decklid, in turn, belies the large 16.6 cubic foot capacity of the trunk. The overall effect is a tush that's tidier than other competitors like the Ford Five-Hundred, which seems to revel in its ample rear. The dual exhausts out back also hint that the Azera won't lie down like a luxurious lap dog when called upon to scoot.
Finally, the 17-inch. 10-spoke wheels are attractive and fill their wells nicely. While other large sedans in this segment offer bigger 18-inch wheels, the Azera has a proportioned wheel-to-car ratio that doesn't make the rolling stock appear overwhelmed by the visual bulk of the car. Behind those wheels are four-wheel anti-lock brakes (11.9-inch discs up front, 11.2-inch in the rear) that are backed by Electronic Brake Distribution to keep panic stops under control. The Azera also comes standard with Electronic Stability Control and a Traction Control System, which illustrates nicely the brand's winning strategy of offering more safety content standard than its competitors.
If one never enters the Azera, the platitudes could go on interrupted. Once the door is opened, however, we face one of Hyundai's biggest obstacles to becoming a major player in the U.S. auto industry: interiors. If this auto show season has proven anything to the Autoblog crew, is that the battle for sales success is largely being fought by interiors, and this is one area where the "new" Hyundai hasn't particularly excelled.
Upon entering the Azera, one comes to rest in an overpadded front seat that's as comfortable as your La-Z-Boy, but ill-suited as the captain's chair for an automobile. The Azera obviously doesn't corner flat, so when the roll sets in it's up to the driver's seat to keep the pilot in place. The Azera's front seats let go at the slightest sign of inertia, which means they're best suited to long road trips in a straight line. While most will find these seats very comfortable and suited to the tasks of everyday driving, many competitors of the Azera manage to offer front seats that are just as comfortable but also offer adequate support for spirited driving (the front seats in the Ford Five-Hundred come to mind).
Once buckled up in the Azera (always buckle up), we're greeted with a dash that's organized but lacks personality. It seems the interior was less designed than assembled from pieces provided by various suppliers. How else would you explain the three different digital displays and their various colors? We like the rich-looking light blue of the electroluminescent gauges, but our aesthetic sensibilities are offended by the orange information display and the HVAC and radio displays inspired by a Timex Indiglo.
Our main complaint with the Azera's interior is that it's bland, like Camry-level bland. Who knows how many beige plastic cows were sacrificed to cover that wide expanse of dash, but the plastic PETA people would not be pleased. The wood trim, on the other hand, looks real and rich, but it's just not enough to offset the general sense of ennui the Azera's interior inspires.
Functionally speaking, the Azera's dash also gets dinged for being placed too far back. In order to reach the stereo, we needed our right arm completely stretched out. Unfortunately, the seat cannot be moved far enough forward to correct this while maintaining a comfortable driving position. Furthermore, Hyundai has to be one of the few automakers left that doesn't offer a satellite navigation system for any of its vehicles. If the Azera is truly meant to be a competitor in the near-luxury segment, it needs a screen staring back at the driver.
We'll cut the Azera some slack though for coddling its passengers, specifically those riding in the back who enjoy a deep footwell and a bench that's just as cushy as the bucket seats up front. Our tester was also equipped with a power rear sunshade that goes up and down on command, a feature we last saw in the Bentley Continential Flying Spur we reviewed.
For those considering the Azera who might be turned off by its interior, a pleasant surprise awaits them with a turn of the key. The Azera's 3.8L V6 is a good motor with a meaty torque curve and power to spare. Rated at 263 hp and 257 ft-lbs. of torque, the 3.8L also has variable valve timing to eek the most out of its six cylinders. Its power delivery is smooth and throttle tip-in is equally damped to ensure there's no herk and jerk when accelerating from a standstill. The EPA lists the Azera's fuel economy at 19 MPG city/28 MPG highway, and our real world observations were about 2 MPG shy of those figures, which is understandable considering how heavy our right foot is.
Whether you're choosing the base Azera SE or the Azera Limited like our tester, the 3.8L V6 is your only engine choice, and it's mated to a 5-speed automatic with "SHIFTRONIC', Hyundai's generic buzz-speak for the ability to manually shift its auto. Hyundai's 5-speed is well suited to this engine, as its operation is largely transparent. There were times we wished for faster shifts, but in all but the most sudden bursts of acceleration, the engine's pool of torque is deep enough to adequately accelerate without dropping a cog.
As we said earlier, the Azera doesn't corner flat and demands you scrub off some speed before taking tight turns. We expect as much from a large sedan, and the trade-off is comfortable cruising on the highway. While the four-wheel independent suspension doesn't carve corners, the Azera's handling is at least controlled. On public roads the car never feels like it's wallowing or unable to handle its weight transferring from side to side. Only when speeds reach extra-legal limits will the Azera suspension begin to really protest.
Despite our criticisms of the Azera, Hyundai's ace in the hole is its price. The Azera SE starts at just $24,535, while our Azera Limited begins at only $26,835. Our tester included the Ultimate Package, a $2,500 option that includes a sunroof, the high-end Infinity audio system, a power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, adjustable foot pedals, a memory system for personal settings, rain sensing wipers and power folding mirrors. All told, the final tally came to $29,415. In the eyes of car shoppers, a loaded large sedan for under $30,000 is a rare sight and likely earns the Azera a spot on many comparison lists. If Hyundai ever decides to offer a navigation system, however, the upper limit for the Azera will surely crest $30k by at least a thousand dollars, maybe two.
Hyundai's maturing process has produced another above-average vehicle in the Azera, but it lacks a few key components that keep universal praise at bay. And while Hyundai has succeeded at selling many more Azeras than it did XG350s, only 2,479 Azera's were sold in December of last year, its best sales month for the year. Meanwhile, Ford sold 6,689 Five-Hundred sedans last month, while Toyota sold 7,955 Avalons. Clearly Hyundai still has some catching up to, do.
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