- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2008

When thinking large car, Hyundai probably doesn’t leap to mind. Hearing the name, Hyundai, you are more likely to associate terms such as “starter car,” “entry level,” “first-time buyer,” and “compact.” If that is indeed the case, it probably means you haven’t taken a close look at Hyundai.

Oh sure, the Accent and Elantra are part of its stable and they certainly deserve their entry-level or economy-class designations. However, there is much more going on at this Korean brand.

The Sonata is a topnotch midsize sedan and one heck of a value. The Santa Fe can go toe to toe with just about any entry in the midsize crossover arena and is a better value than most. And then there is Hyundai’s flagship, the Azera a full-size sedan that is packed with standard features, has plenty of pep and, when dressed in its Limited trim, can even be considered a luxury sedan.

This year Azera is offered in two, rather than last year”s three trim levels. The more moderately priced $25,295 GLS uses a 234-horsepower 3.3-liter V6 for its forward thrust. It has 17-inch alloy wheels, dual-zone automatic climate control, power front seats, cruise control, a tilt-telescoping steering wheel, and a six-speaker audio system with a CD player and satellite radio.

Both Azera versions also have antilock disc brakes on all four corners with stability control, traction control and emergency braking assist. Other safety features on both Azeras include side-impact airbags for both front- and rear-seat occupants, as well as head airbags for both rows of seats.

Both trim levels use a five-speed driver-shiftable automatic transmission to transfer engine production to the front wheels. In the case of the $29,245 Limited, that production comes from a 263-horsepower 3.8-liter V-6.

Hyundai provided a Limited for this evaluation. Weighing in at just over 3,600 pounds, the Azera isn’t too much for this V-6 to pull around. It darts away from traffic lights with gusto as the five-speed transmission makes smooth, but pronounced shifts. It is every bit as comfortable cruising along the open highway as it is jitterbugging through congested city streets.

Fuel economy is decent for a large car, posting an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 17 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway.

The cabin is roomy and well appointed. Beyond the soft leather seats and simulated-wood accents, all of the materials appear high end and the workmanship is first class.

The interior styling is simple, yet elegant. All of the gauges and controls are handy and uncomplicated. The extra cash that the Limited fetches over the GLS not only includes a more powerful engine, but a 10-speaker Infinity-infused audio system with a six-disk CD changer, power-adjustable pedals and power-folding outboard mirrors with integrated turn signal lights. Plunking down another $2,750 for the Ultimate Navigation Package adds an LG DVD-based touchscreen navigation system, power adjustable tilt/telescoping steering wheel, rain-sensing wipers, and an Infinity 12-speaker Logic7 surround-sound system.

The front seats are firm and comfortable. The 60/40 split rear seat is rather flat and bench-like, but not unpleasant.

Rear-seat passengers will find adequate leg, hip and headroom. The trunk opens like the mouth of a cave and can swallow up to 16.6 cubic feet of cargo. No problem getting the foursome and its gear to the club for 18 holes.

Tuned more for ride comfort than hard maneuvering, the four-wheel independent suspension artfully defends against most pavement imperfections. Even with a pliant ride, body roll is kept to a minimum. Cornering is free of drama and the steering feels spot on. If what you really want is a sporty driving experience, check out the Tiburon; but for touring around town or across country in relative luxury, the Azera is a remarkably capable performer.

No one is going to abandon a Mercedes E-Class or BMW 5 Series for the Azera; however, for someone shopping larger, well-appointed sedans, who is not terribly concerned with brand image or sporty performance, the Azera is an excellent choice. It won”t leave the country club set oohing and aahing as you motor away from the valet stand, but revealing the Azera’s modest price tag might.

As Hyundai has slowly and deliberately brought its product line market, it has not lost sight of what brought buyers to its showrooms initially: value.

Although the thought of this brand bringing a near-luxury sedan to market would have seemed ludicrous 20 years ago, not so much today. When you look closely at the Azera, trying to spot where the corners have been cut to keep the price so modest, there just doesn’t appear to be a weakness. It crash tested well in both government and the insurance industry tests; it has a super-strong warranty; and, it’s packed with more features than triple movie night at the drive-in. What”s your definition of value?

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