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Full Test: 2006 Hyundai Azera

Hyundai builds a real luxury carBy Erin Riches Email

He stared at our 2006 Hyundai Azera Limited a little too long and he knew it.

When we met his glance, he laughed in disbelief and embarrassment. "That's the best Hyundai I've ever seen," he said, almost choking right there in the Best Buy parking lot.

We understood. Other Hyundais are unassuming cars, priced low, packed with features, backed by long warranties. Performance is usually average. Styling is usually a little off. Buying one makes you feel smart, never spoiled.

But the Azera is different. Hyundai's new flagship has all the expected Hyundai virtues, yet it looks, feels and drives like a premium Japanese car. Its XG350 predecessor was faux luxury, but the Azera is the real thing. Peel off the funky "H" badges and you might mistake its spacious, upscale interior for that of a Toyota Avalon.

Until you see the price, that is. Just $30,000 for a loaded Azera Limited like ours. To get an Avalon equipped like that, you'd have to spend over $3,000 more.

Looks surprisingly good
It doesn't matter if you're distrustful of Hyundais. You're going to fall for the Azera just like the guy at Best Buy did.

This almost full-size sedan looks approachable, normal, likable and, from the front, not unlike an '04 Acura RL. Hyundai's designers used plenty of chrome but stayed within the taste barrier.

Inside, the Azera pours on the hospitality with surprising artistry. A crisp character line runs from the dash through to the door panels, encircling the driver and front passenger. It's an elegant ribbon of textured vinyl, really good faux wood and metallic piping. Just a subtle design cue, but along with the cabin's tight construction, it's enough to make this Hyundai feel like a full-on luxury sedan.

Although we weren't as impressed by the plastic used for the window buttons and control stalks, overall materials quality hits a high standard. The leather upholstery is soft and double-stitched. And it's almost impossible to distinguish between the soft vinyl and harder plastic surfaces on the dash, because everything is so smooth and low in gloss.

Mismatched interior lighting is another minor complaint. There's yellow-green illumination for the center stack controls; red, white and blue for the electroluminescent gauges; and orange for the trip computer. It doesn't look horrible, but a single color scheme would better suit the Azera's ambience.

Ergonomics are a mixed bag. The controls are well organized, but many of the buttons are of like shape, size and texture, so using them isn't terribly intuitive. The interior trunk release is also a problem. Although conveniently mounted on the driver door rather than the floor, it's not illuminated at night, so we often popped the fuel door instead of the trunk lid.

Rides and handles surprisingly well
As impressed as we were by the Hyundai Azera's classy digs, the driving experience was even more of a revelation. Granted, this isn't an athletic car like the Nissan Maxima or Chrysler 300. But the Azera is every bit as capable and refined as the Avalon.

You can feel that refinement as soon as you touch the steering wheel. Feedback is minimal, but the Azera's steering has a slick, accurate feel. It's perfect for parking lot maneuvers and reassuring through high-speed turns.

On the highway, the Azera's fully independent double-wishbone front, multilink rear suspension provides a relaxing yet controlled ride. We initially noted slight harshness over expansion joints, but it turned out that our test car's 225/55R17 Michelin Energy tires were significantly overinflated. Resetting them to the correct psi solved the problem.

The Azera's interior is also very quiet at higher speeds. At 70 mph, noise levels are about the same as they are in the Avalon.

On a twisty road, the Azera exhibits moderate body roll but predictable motions, gently transitioning to understeer when pushed beyond its comfort zone. We got a respectable 62 mph out of it through the slalom, which is faster than the Avalon.

Strong engine, strong brakes
This front-wheel-drive Hyundai is also plenty quick. Equipped with variable intake valve timing, the Azera's all-aluminum, DOHC, 3.8-liter V6 provides 263 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 255 pound-feet of torque at 4,500 rpm. This translates to more than enough thrust for passing and merging maneuvers, and the five-speed automatic transmission upshifts smoothly under full throttle. Downshifts are prompt, too, though there's slight hesitation if you jump on the accelerator abruptly in traffic.

Our test car posted a swift 7.2-second 0-60-mph time and a 15.5-second quarter-mile, right in line with the numbers we've gotten out of the Avalon, which has a 268-hp, 3.5-liter V6. Interestingly, the Azera is also a half-second quicker to 60 than a V8-equipped Buick Lucerne, which we tested the same day.

In addition, the Azera's brakes are excellent. Pedal feel is progressive during normal driving. Although effort levels increase markedly during full ABS stops and the car's front end droops, it's hard to argue with the results: 60 to zero in 118 feet.

Mediocre fuel economy is the only real shortcoming of the Hyundai's performance. The car's 19 mpg city, 28 mpg highway rating is certainly respectable, but our 17.7-mpg average wasn't encouraging.

Most of the features you'll want
Rest assured that the Azera's fine furnishings and polished driving dynamics don't come at the expense of the generous features list expected on a Hyundai. All Azeras come with stability control, a complete menu of side airbags, dual-zone automatic climate control, a power driver seat and a tilt-telescoping steering wheel.

Upgrading to an Azera Limited gives you leather upholstery and front-seat heaters, and our tester also had the Ultimate Package, which provides a 10-speaker Infinity sound system with an in-dash CD changer, a sunroof, driver memory, a power tilt-telescoping steering wheel, adjustable pedals and rain-sensing wipers. Our total bill was $29,995.

It's a very livable setup, so long as you're not one of those people who fiends for the latest technology. If you must have a navigation system, Bluetooth or adaptive cruise control, you'll have to get the Toyota.

Full-size comfort
Although the Azera's wheelbase is a couple inches shorter than the Avalon's, carrying five people in Hyundai's flagship is still a humane proposition.

Four out of five editors found the driving position too high, but the front seats themselves are nicely shaped and cushioned. Active front head restraints promise additional protection in a rear-end crash, yet are plush enough to cradle your head during a long commute.

Based on the specs, the Azera has the highest measured front legroom in the class, but one 6-foot-2 driver said he needed more seat-track travel.

There's also plenty of legroom in back, and the liberally cushioned seat-bottom and back cushions are perfectly angled to support adult occupants. The Limited's standard power rear sunshade is another plus, but the Azera does give up about an inch of shoulder room and hiproom to the Avalon. Besides that, the Toyota's near flat rear floor makes it a slightly more practical choice for carpoolers.

Around back you'll find the trunk opening a little high for hoisting overstuffed luggage, but the cargo hold measures a spacious 16.6 cubic feet. Plus, the rear seats fold down in 60/40 sections. For smaller items, the Azera's sturdy, pop-out front door bins proved handy.

A treat, not a trade-off
Unlike its XG350 predecessor, the Azera is more than a bundle of features with a low price. This full-size sedan is a complete package. It feels like a luxury car on the inside and delivers on that promise when you actually drive it.

Given the choice between a 2006 Hyundai Azera Limited and a Toyota Avalon XLS, we'd take the Azera. And not just because we're the cheapskates who grabbed the discounted floor-model TV from Best Buy.

Stereo Evaluation
System Score: 8.0

Components: Our 2006 Hyundai Azera Limited came equipped with the optional Ultimate Package, which adds a 10-speaker, 315-watt Infinity sound system. The optional stereo also has a six-disc CD changer, steering-wheel-mounted controls, a subwoofer, speed-sensitive volume and, check this out, a cassette player. Turns out those old Styx tapes are still of some use. Satellite radio is not currently available, but Hyundai says you'll be able to get XM in the fourth quarter of 2006.

The Ultimate Package costs $2,500 but includes a lot more than just an upgraded stereo. Features like a power tilt-telescoping steering wheel, memory seats, power pedals and rain-sensing wipers are also part of the deal.

Performance: This is a Hyundai? This premium Infinity audio system sounds very good and is much better than anything we've heard in any Hyundai before. In fact, our criticisms with this system have nothing to do with the way it sounds.

Bass is reproduced very well. It's like the middle of the ocean — deep and clean. A little more kick would be nice but that's a minor complaint at best. The highs are brilliant and can occasionally sound squeaky or shrill, but for the most part they add detail to all types of music. Separation is also noticeably clean, which helps the midrange by giving it a nice, well-rounded quality. Too often in other car stereos, the midrange has to be turned down to keep the music from sounding confusing or overwhelming.

There are various equalizer settings and they work well for the most part, but we found we got the best sound quality by simply manually adjusting the tone settings. Also, there's a setting called "Pops." We think they mean "Pop" since there's already a "Classic" setting.

But that just hints at our main complaint with this system, which is the funky interface. The stereo's head unit has a sort of jumbled look, with lots of buttons. The disc-up and disc-down controls are oddly placed and seem like an afterthought. Also, since the stereo plays MP3s, we wanted a larger display screen to make navigating the folders easier. We like the steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, but you can only adjust the volume and switch between audio sources — there's no seek button to change radio stations or navigate among CD or MP3 tracks. Most cars with steering-wheel-mounted controls have this feature. Fortunately, it's possible to navigate MP3 folders with either a rotating knob or a "Directory" button, but you still have to reach over to the head unit.

Also, there are a few features that don't make sense at first due to unusual labeling. For example, to adjust the fade to the center position you have to move the round knob until the screen reads "F=R." It took us a few minutes to figure that out. Balance is the same: Center position is "L=R." It makes sense when you think about it but it isn't instantly obvious. The fact that the "R" looks more like an "A" didn't help. Accessing those features is done by pressing a button marked "A.Mode" when a simple "Audio" or "Tone" would probably be better.

Individually, these complaints are minor but taken as a whole make for a clunky-looking head unit that seems to have too many words on it ("MP3" appears twice in a short space) and is less than intuitive to use.

Best Feature: Excellent sound quality.

Worst Feature: No CD track up or down on steering wheel and some odd controls.

Conclusion: Based on sound quality alone, this Infinity sound system is great. It offers premium sound for a less than premium price. The interface is less than perfect but once you get around that, you're left with a very enjoyable sound system. — Brian Moody

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