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Hyundai upgrades its flagship sedan with Azera

November 11, 2005|by MALCOLM GUNN / Wheelbase Communications

Replacing last year's XG350 as the Hyundai's flagship model, the Azera represents a clean stab at creating a premium-class automobile minus the accompanying premium sticker price.

The Azera is but one of more than a half-dozen new Hyundai models either recently introduced or already in the pipeline. Included in this group is the '06 Sonata as well as a completely redesigned entry-level Accent sedan that arrives this fall at the same time as the Azera.

The freshman-effort XG350 and the XG300 before it certainly delivered all the goodies one might expect in a premium-oriented car, but both lacked the required sense of upper-crust style and panache. Apparently Hyundai's product planners received this message loud and clear and this time around have injected enough understated regal goodness into the Azera's sheetmetal to do a Lexus, Infiniti or Acura proud.

However, rather than comparing the Azera to those brands, it's best to look at the car's strategic importance in the Hyundai lineup. Simply put, the Azera helps retain Sonata, Tiburon and Santa Fe buyers when it comes to trade-in time. With Hyundai offering a well-turned out and roomy top-end family car, buyers are less likely to defect to other brands. Current Hyundai customers don't need to be sold on the company's value quotient - they're already believers - so moving up the line at trade time is a no-brainer . . . provided there's a bigger and better car to move into, one that rivals offerings from Honda, Nissan and Toyota. Enter the Azera

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At Hyundai, style plays an increasing importance in the overall equation as buyers in this league expect more sophistication.

The Azera's lines include just the right amount of fender bulge that neatly contrast the curvaceous hood and roofline. Out back, the protruding trunk lid, with its integrated spoiler, adds a neat finishing touch reminiscent of BMW' s more recent product launches.

Compared to the outgoing XG 350, the Azera is sized within an inch or two in all key exterior dimensions and is, according to Hyundai, larger inside than many of its competitors.

As expected, the spacious cabin is a pleasant and serene enough place, although not quite as upscale looking as other more experienced entry-luxury sedans.

What is up to snuff is the Azera's standard poweplant, a 3.8-liter DOHC V-6 that generates 263 horsepower. That's 69 more than the old XG and within a whisper of the 265-horse 3.5-liter Nissan Maxima, one of the vehicles Hyundai targeted as a performance benchmark.

Mated to the 3.8 is a five-speed automatic transmission with manual shift control.

Of late, Hyundai has placed considerable focus on cabin protection and the Azera comes standard with eight air bags, including front, side-impact for both rows of seats plus side-curtain air bags. Also standard are anti-lock brakes, stability and traction control. Safety content is the one area that has vaulted Hyundai into a leadership role and has other manufacturers playing catch-up.

The Azera has also been fitted with a long list of standard features typical of the near luxury/entry-luxury class. The base SE gets climate control, power-adjustable front seats, tilt/telescopic steering column plus the usual power windows/doors/heated outside mirror group.

True luxury, however, really begins when you move up to the Azera Limited, where 17-inch wheels, leather seats (heated in front), a power rear-window sun shade, electronically illuminated instruments, chromed outside trim and a fancier faux wood interior package are included.

Azera buyers can also select from a lengthy list of options such as a power sunroof, adjustable foot pedals, rain-sensing wipers and an upgraded audio system.

At a sticker price that's expected to closely mirror the XG350's $25,000 starting point, the Azera should garner plenty of buyer interest. It likely won't pose a direct challenge to the Lexus/Infiniti/BMW crowd, but that's not the point. The Azera will find favor among its current crop of customers as well as out-of-brand shoppers with keen eyes for style, safety features, value and an impressive five-year/60,000-mile basic warranty

Whatever the motivation, the Azera is one Hyundai that can't miss.

Copyright 2005, Wheelbase Communications

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