IT'S CERTAINLY amusing that at the time of my test drive of the Hyundai Azera, the global automotive community was abuzz with news of the newly launched Tata Nano, a $2,500 Indian-made mini car that guarantees to clog Jakarta streets beyond hopelessness. While driving the Azera - which is essentially the fourth-generation Grandeur - it occurred to me that there is a portion of the car industry that has made it an urgent mission to put every single human being on the planet behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. Heaven have mercy on the ozone layer.
Now if there are automakers too desperate to sell cars to as many people as possible - affiliates Nissan and Renault are studying the possibility of a bantam car for less than $3,000 - Hyundai is trying to make luxury available to as many car owners as possible. Which is exactly why I just spent some seat time in the cockpit of the P1.758-million Azera, whose features would shame those of its more expensive Japanese rivals.
Right now, as I write this piece, the Azera is the flagship model in Hyundai's sedan lineup. That shall remain true until the Korean automaker releases the BMW-imitating and Equus-replacing Genesis luxury sedan later this year. Technically speaking, the Azera is wishfully positioned by its maker "above" the Toyota Camry since it is a notch higher than the Sonata - which is the better match for the Camry in terms of size and features. But when you see the Azera in the metal, you somehow get the sense that it's even smaller than the Camry.
In reality, the Azera is indeed bigger in every respect: length (4,895mm versus the Toyota's 4,805mm), width (1,865mm versus 1,821mm), height (1,490mm versus 1,460mm), and wheelbase (2,780mm versus 2,776mm). Thanks to the clever use of sleek lines and curves - the Azera looking like a slightly beefed-up version of the slender fourth-generation Camry when viewed from the front - this sedan creates the optical illusion that it is small. But it's not. Get into the back seat and you will find a legroom that rivals that of the BMW 7-Series. Open the trunk and you'll marvel at the cavernous space for several golf bags. If a car can impress someone as king-size as Dinzo with its roominess, you know it's special.
Styling-wise, the Azera is very sedate-looking. Elegant but on the bland side. Although if you ask me, I'd rather that an executive sedan err on the side of sobriety than gaudiness. The rear portion livens things up a bit, with the top edge of the trunk being an obvious nod to the current 7-Series. Turns out Chris Bangle has many fans among car designers. I would have much preferred a set of 18-inch alloy wheels, but 17-inchers come standard. They're wrapped in 235/55 Hankook tires, which illustrates that Korean companies patronize Korean products. (No wonder their car industry has grown at such a phenomenal rate.) HID headlamps and rain-sensing wipers are also standard.
The engine that powers the only Azera variant available here is the same engine that labors under the hood of the top-grade Sonata - the 232-horsepower 3.3-liter V6. This engine is adequate for Metro Manila traffic. It has enough muscle and feels polished. Once the horses hit their stride, you can expect some spirited driving on an open road. Paired with a satisfactory five-speed manumatic transmission, the 304Nm powerplant understandably chugs on a tank of gasoline considerably faster than your standard-fare Hyundai sedan. The multi-info display sandwiched between the Optitron tachometer and speedometer indicated that, while in my possession, the Azera averaged 22 liters of fuel for every 100 kilometers. That's 4.5km/L. Which means if you're even thinking of buying this car, gas money should be no object to you.
The ride is so refined, you will be hard-pressed to tell an Azera from an Accord or a Camry if you just sit in the back and close your eyes. Never mind the evident lack of steering feedback - in all likelihood, you will hire a chauffeur if you do get this car.
The first thing that strikes you when you get inside is that you're surrounded by so much light-beige material. I challenge you to drive this car for a week without smudging the dashboard. I guess that if you own this car, you're not allowed to bring in a soda can or a kid who has a knack for covering his fingers with black soot.
After making a mental note of the many things you shouldn't do inside this car to avoid smearing the pristine cabin, you notice the many surprising creature comforts. For one, there's the 10-way power driver's seat and the four-way power front passenger seat. There's also the power-adjusted tilting and telescopic steering wheel. The power driver's seat and the electric steering column combine with a two-setting memory system to ensure that the cockpit fits you to perfection every time you take the wheel - complete with side mirrors adjusted to your specification. Throw in a power sunroof and a dual-zone air-conditioning system, and you have the very definition of motoring opulence.
Of course, what's a nice, cozy cabin without a decent audio setup? The Azera addresses this with an eight-speaker Infinity stereo system. It features a six-disc in-dash CD changer. It's probably also the last audio unit you will find on a luxury sedan these days that comes equipped with a cassette player. Yes, a cassette player in this day and age of MP3 players (no iPod connectivity but head unit plays MP3 files). Still, I could finally listen again to that mix tape (Our Silly Love Songs) I had made for the one that got away.
Ten airbags (two up front, four at the sides and another four as curtains), antilock brakes and traction control have earned the Azera a positive rating in safety tests abroad. The Azera is a proper luxury sedan, and it is even more so in the area of safety.
With a class-leading five-year warranty and a price tag that's about P200,000 cheaper than Japanese executive sedans with less impressive spec sheets, the Azera makes luxury accessible to a lot more car buyers. Minus India-style traffic jams.