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March 21, 2012

News & Features

Auto review: Azera is another sign of Hyundai's dominance

New York Times News Service

HYUNDAI_AZERA_front_604.jpg

The new Azera follows Hyundai's model of good style at a fair price. (Hyundai)

Tacking $6,600 onto the price of any new car — let alone a Korean family sedan — doesn't usually enhance its prospects. But a move to the $33,000 neighborhood seems to suit the Hyundai Azera just fine.

If the Azera name doesn't ring a bell, there's a reason: First offered in 2006, the original Azera was a limp and indifferently styled Lexus pretender. Hyundai ceased production of this slow-selling model in late 2010; an unceremonious burial for the Azera had seemed likely.

Hyundai, of course, has grown up to conquer the United States. And if the previous Azera was the last vestige of the brand's awkward adolescence, the idea of a deluxe Hyundai sedan seems perfectly rational today —¬†especially with the brand offering even more expensive four-doors like the $40,000 Genesis and $60,000 Equus.

The redesigned 2012 Azera moves into a segment that's as thin and tricky as spring ice. These big sedans cannot quite be described as luxury cruisers, but they are roomier and more lavish than, say, the midsize Sonata. If the automaker gets the positioning wrong, it ends up with something like a Nissan Maxima, a front-drive car whose price seems dubious when viewed from above or below. It is barely cheaper than the superior rear-drive Infiniti G37 sport sedan but hardly seems worth its premium over the trusty Altima.

The new Hyundai is vastly more successful. The Azera, in fact, is my instant-favorite Hyundai sedan — in part because it's a winning car but also because it follows the brand's template so faithfully: generous features, modern style and practicality at a fair price.

Unlike the more expensive rear-drive Equus or even the Genesis, the Azera has no pretensions. This Hyundai isn't trying to be a Mercedes stand-in or a BMW fighter. Its $32,875 base price keeps it well outside the country-club gates.

Yet for people who'd like an extra-large Sonata with more spice and toppings, the Azera delivers, and quickly, with a 293-horsepower V-6. With nearly 50 percent more power than the Sonata's 198-horse four-cylinder, the direct-injection 3.3-liter engine moves the car from a stop to 60 mph in a discreet 6.7 seconds, according to InsideLine.com.

The silky, unobtrusive V-6 resides in an elegant cruiser for relaxing commutes and road trips. Hyundai says that the Azera has more interior space than any car in its class, including the Buick LaCrosse and the Toyota Avalon.

Compared with the Sonata and Elantra hatchback, the Azera's body is more grown-up, with fewer swoops and curlicues. The angry-bird headlamps recall BMW, and the rear deck's gentle swell and finely drawn lip are pure Lexus. Rich-looking taillamps, which seem an ode to Jaguar, really pop at night.

Overall, the Hyundai carries itself with an appealing stateliness. Yet unlike the Avalon, it looks fresh and not at all stodgy.

The inviting cabin shows Hyundai's continual commitment to raising its design game. Leather seats are handsomely shaped and bolstered, if a bit squishy, with standard heated chairs in front and rear, a feature missing from a $60,000 BMW 5 Series that I recently drove.

The center armrest, smartly wrapped in leather, is wide enough for two elbows. There is generous storage up front, with a deep console box and a binnacle in front of the shifter with Hyundai's familiar, easy-access USB, iPod and auxiliary ports.

The Hyundai mimics the door-mounted seat controls of Mercedes-Benz, with knobs that correspond to the shape of a seat — one each for the cushion, backrest and headrest. I deducted points after flicking the Azera's ostensible headrest control, finding instead a fixed button, useless and entirely for show. I added points back when I saw the optional power control that lengthens the driver's cushion for added thigh support, another feature typically limited to top-rank luxury cars.

The front seats offer a class-best 45.5 inches of legroom, and the rear seat easily accommodates adults taller than 6 feet. A 16.3 cubic-foot trunk showed itself to advantage when a stray bolt flattened a tire on an Orange County freeway. After hoisting the huge 19-incher into the trunk, I still had enough room for my luggage.

Also standard, Hyundai's touch-screen navigation system is among the industry's easiest to use, with quick destination programming, solid graphics and easy-to-follow maps. An optional 550-watt, 12-speaker Infinity audio system is clear and robust, notably so for a car in this price bracket.

That audio system is part of the sole option available: a $4,000 technology package that adds the 19-inch alloy wheels, xenon headlamps, power tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, ventilated front seats with memory, power rear sunshade and manual rear side shades, and rear parking sensors. That package also includes an enormous panoramic sunroof that stretches over the back seat, with dual powered shades that part like elevator doors.

While the design and materials are of high quality — easily on par with the stylish LaCrosse — the rubberized interior door handles had all the feel of a Playtex glove. And there are perhaps too many shiny bits. Faux carbon fiber on the doors and console looks slick, but Hyundai overdid the piano-black plastic on the shift knob and other surfaces.

On a run from Laguna Beach to Riverside, the Azera showed its easy-fit tailoring but with just enough shape and control to avoid feeling saggy.

The front-drive Azera cruises quietly, if not with the dead quiet of the Buick, and takes the edge off virtually any road surface. The body leans over in faster corners but not excessively. All-season tires are the soft-serve variety, with little grip, but the rear multilink suspension and Sachs shock absorbers nicely avoid bobble and float.

The six-speed transmission feels as creamy and unobtrusive as a Lexus unit. Shifts are on the lazy side, although popping the shifter into its manual setting delivers surprisingly crisp reactions. The mileage rating is 20 mpg in town and 29 on the highway.

But the car did betray a continuing deficiency of Hyundai, one for which the brand has sometimes received a free pass: its steering feel.

Several Hyundais, this Azera included, transmit a weird, artificially stiff or springy sensation through the wheel. It's as though a ghostly hand is clamping onto the steering rack. On-center tracking is equally lacking. With the Azera pointed dead ahead on flat roads, I often had to apply resistance in one direction or the other to keep the car on the straight and narrow.

For a company that is doing everything else so well, I'd like to see Hyundai tear down and study every last BMW, Audi — and, in its own price range, Mazdas and Volkswagens — to glean their secret formulas for sophisticated steering and handling.

I should add that many people drive and love newer Hyundais without noticing anything untoward. And it's true that as the miles pile up, I tend to tune out the odder steering sensations.

Given the old Azera's starting price of barely $26,000, a new model that can reach $36,875 may raise eyebrows. Shoppers may notice that the base fare of the sportier rear-drive Genesis 3.8 sedan, with a 333-horsepower V-6, is just $2,200 more than the basic Azera.

But with the Sonata sold exclusively in four-cylinder guise, there's probably enough wiggle room in Hyundai's lineup for a roomier, more luxurious family sedan with a powerful V-6.

Big Barcalounger sedans from Toyota, Chrysler and Buick have made the mid-$30,000 neighborhood their own. The 2012 Azera is just the latest Hyundai that's enough of a threat to draw the neighborhood watch.

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