It's been an incredible two decades for Hyundai in America. From the cheap, humble Excel econobox to the wide range of high quality offerings today, the people at Hyundai have toiled ceaselessly to improve their product. Now, the new flagship Azera goes after the luxury carmakers with its typically long feature list and affordable price.
I normally put the price at the end of the story, but let's start with it here. Classified as a Large Car by the EPA, the Azera SE starts at just $24,335. My Limited model came in at $28,335, including the Premium Package, which features a power sunroof and upgraded sound system.
That may sound like a lot to pay for a Hyundai, but this is no Accent, gentle reader. This is the finest, as well as largest, vehicle ever released by Hyundai to the American buying public. Yes, the attractive woodgrain on the dash and steering wheel is not from trees, and I found one mold mark on a door handle. However, there's room in the Azera's back seat for a pair of NBA forwards or three regular size folks. The interior and exterior styling and assembly quality, not to mention the look and feel of the materials, is startlingly good. I was originally going to call this a Korean Buick, but it's more like a Korean-built Lexus.
Moving this history-making Hyundai along is a powerful 263-horsepower 3.8-liter V6. Hyundai employs continuously variable valve timing and a variable intake system to get the most out of this engine. In a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too situation, the engine also earns Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV) status while getting 19 mpg City, 28 mpg Highway (I averaged 17.1 mpg). Its five speed automatic transmission comes with Shiftronic manual control, so you can dial up your own gear if you want to really rocket around.
The interior is Hyundai's best yet. The overall shape conveys the sense of cruising on a boat, with the dash top even with the hood, running into the doors, and the wipers tucked out of sight. The clean, flush mounted control panels have big, clearly marked buttons with a nice tactile quality. Everything inside my Steel Gray test car was light and equally low-reflective. The seats are simply rendered and kind of firm, especially in the second row, but that's just a nod to Mercedes. The black plastic stalks behind the steering wheel give just a hint of modest origins, but everything else looks like it came out of a fancier car. Even the doors slam with the authoritative chunk of an Audi.
With Hyundai, you get great gobs of standard equipment, and this Azera continues that tradition. The driver and front passenger enjoy dual automatic climate controls and power seats. The inside mirror dims automatically at night and the three-button Homelink remote control system is there for you. An Electronic Stability Control system is standard too, with its sophisticated computer interface to keep the car safely on the road. Power windows, locks, and mirrors are a given.
Spend just a few thousand bucks more for the Limited, and you get heated, leather-wrapped chairs, a partial-wood steering wheel, a power rear sunshade, and a classier set of electroluminescent gauges (think Lexus here). Your tires and wheels get bumped from 16-inchers to 17-inchers on 10-spoke alloys. The Limited gets chrome bumper moldings for extra road presence.
If anything really stands out from my week with this unusually impressive car, it's the quiet. There was virtually no sound in the cabin. I could practically hear myself breathe, even at freeway speeds. Somehow the clever Hyundai engineers isolated the passengers from road, engine, and wind noise. Even the sunroof, when open, generates no wind noise. This kind of stillness makes longer trips fell less stressful, and anything you play on the fully-equipped sound system stands out to your waiting ears.
Because it was benchmarked against the luxury leaders, the Azera tends to fit in with the other cars in the market-no big styling chances were taken. The fastback roofline tapers rakishly back, leaving a small trunk lid. The nose wears a clean, unpretentious look, with large wraparound headlamps in the modern style. The rear fenders bulge more than they do on some cars, sending a message of strength and solidity. The bright LED taillamps flash faster than conventional lamps do when you step on the brake.
Last, but hardly least, is the Hyundai Advantage warranty. The sole purpose of this generous coverage has been to promote customer willingness to take a bit of a chance on a new brand from a different place. With today's Hyundai fleet, it hardly seems necessary anymore, but you still get five years or 60,000 miles of bumper-to-bumper coverage, a 10-year/100,000 mile limited powertrain warranty, plus five years of roadside assistance. And you get to enjoy driving the amazing Azera, which competes with the luxury makes without submitting to the alphanumeric naming craze.