Driving the Hyundai Azera is more fun and rewarding than driving most of the competition, save maybe for the Mercury Milan, which is a bit smaller and quite a bit lighter. This is despite the Azera tipping the scales a few hundred pounds heavier than the mid-size cars mentioned above, and weighing in closer to the full-size Sable and Lucerne. The Azera Limited V6 equals or beats most of the mid-size competition in horsepower and torque. In overall dimensions and stance on the road, there's little difference. What differentiates the Azera is the way it feels from the driver's seat, and the signals the various mechanicals send to the driver through the car's touch points.
Response to the gas pedal is smooth, immediate and linear; Hyundai says the Azera Limited can accelerate from 0 to 60 miles per hour in less than 7 seconds, which puts it smack in the heart of its competitors' numbers. Azera's one shortcoming in raw performance data is its highway fuel economy, where by EPA estimates it trails even the hefty Sable by two miles per gallon.
The smaller, 3.3-liter GLS V6 improves fuel economy disappointingly little, with 18 city mpg vs. 17 for the Limited, and the same 26 mpg on the highway. We haven't driven an Azera with this engine, but its 234 horsepower and 226 pound-feet of torque still tops the Milan's V6, and should be enough for all but the most lead-footed drivers. Like the bigger Azera V6, the 3.3 comes with a five-speed automatic transmission, but with gearing specific to the smaller engine's horsepower and torque curves.
Transmission shifts may not be seamless, but only slightly less so than in the pricier Avalon and on a par with the Milan. The Sportronic manual-shift feature selects gears by moving the shifter forward to shift up, rearward to shift down. On the down side, while it holds a higher gear, it will shift up when the engine approaches redline. The shift lever travels through a gated slot that puts the secondary, Sportronic range on the opposite side of the gate from the driver. We'd prefer it on the driver's side.
The brake pedal feels solid, and the four-wheel discs haul the Azera down from extra-legal speeds with confidence and no noticeable fade in everyday driving.
The Azera's steering has been quickened for 2008, its suspension bushings softened, and its gas-charged shock absorbers re-valved. Steering assist is nominal, with just about the proper amount of resistance to wheel movements; unlike the Avalon, for instance, which is over-assisted for our tastes, and the Milan, which could use a bit more assist.
Handling is nicely balanced. Put another way, while the Azera doesn't beg to be driven rapidly along two-lane, winding country roads; if so called upon, neither will it embarrass a reasonably rambunctious driver. Not even in the pricier Avalon Touring were we as comfortable on such roads; in the Milan and Maxima, yes, but the former's overall quality level fell a bit short and the latter is priced up there with the Avalon.
As with its front-wheel-drive counterparts, push the Azera past the cornering limits of its tires and it understeers (where the car wants to go straight when the driver wants it to turn). However, the electronic stability control should keep all but the most irrationally exuberant driver out of trouble. Directional stability on freeways is above reproach, and there is zero hint of float over pavement heaves.
Little wind or road noise intrudes into the cabin, although we noticed more of the latter in the rear seat than in the front. No buzzes, squeaks or rattles surfaced in our couple hundred miles over virtually every type of pavement in the test car.
LG, the South Korean based consumer-electronics manufacturer, developed the optional touch-screen navigation system exclusively for Hyundai. The system includes mapping software for the continental United States, and can help you find entertainment, sh