x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Hyundai will shed its image problem by making cars like the 2012 Azera

Road Test Forget what you thought you knew about the brand and see the new Azera for what it is – stylish and great value.

The cabin is plush. Courtesy of Hyundai
The cabin is plush. Courtesy of Hyundai

I'm sitting in what can best be described as a mini cinema, in a hotel high in the hills above Beirut, trying desperately hard to not fall asleep. It has nothing to do with the time I went to bed the previous night but everything to do with the baloney being spouted in the press conference for Hyundai's new Azera.

Apparently the Azera looks, simultaneously, like an eagle and a powerful aircraft ready for take-off, while the centre console of the car's interior has been inspired by the humble necktie and, ahem, an eagle's outstretched wings. Seriously, what utter nonsense. Thankfully, though, Hyundai's latest models have no need to be spoken of in such ludicrous tones; they're now producing some of the nicest-looking cars in the Far East and build quality is right up there, too. But Hyundai has a problem, a big one.

Like Skoda, Hyundai is still tainted with an unfortunate image. An object of ridicule the world over for producing bargain basement vehicles that tell the neighbours you couldn't afford anything better, even rap artists namecheck the brand in derision. But the tide is turning and it's thanks to cars like the Azera.

It's a long, hard battle, trying to overcome preconceived ideas and prejudices. But Hyundai is actually making a decent fist of it. It's heading in the right direction. If you've seen one of the latest Genesis Coupés glide past in the street, you'll know what I'm talking about: it's sexy, sharp and fresh - light years from previous Hyundai Coupés, all of which, and I'm being kind here, were visually challenging to say the least.

So, with the importance of first impressions high on the agenda, this South Korean outfit has been busy making its cars at least look nice. But do they feel like they've been thrown together, built to a price? I'm about to find out and, now that we've been freed from the press conference (another hour and a half of my life I won't get back), I can pick up an Azera and go pounding the mountain roads around Beirut. And any Beirut road is surely the ultimate test of any car's suspension dynamics, ride comfort, steering response and brakes. It's absolutely insane here - Hyundai must be exhibiting a certain degree of confidence in the Azera's abilities, then.

Approaching the car, it does look distinctive and, in certain areas, quite handsome. It's a slippery shape, giving the Azera an excellent drag coefficient of just 0.28 - comfortably beating its class rivals. And while we might not be too bothered about the benefits this brings to fuel economy here in the UAE, at the very least it should mean minimal amounts of wind noise on the move.

The UAE market gets a six-cylinder 3.0L, while the four-cylinder 2.4L will be available elsewhere along with the 3.0L. Both have six-speed automatic transmission. The suspension comprises MacPherson struts up front and multi-link to the rear, with (standard equipment) computer-controlled damping keeping all four wheels on terra firma. Also standard is automatic cruise control, with an option for an advanced system that maintains a safe distance from the car in front.

Open the door and the first impression is of plushness. There's a smattering of fake carbon fibre trim, which looks a bit naff but, to be fair, it's way better than fake wood panelling and the leather upholstery looks and feels inviting. An electric parking brake shows that Hyundai is serious about providing a premium experience for the driver and there's optional mood lighting, which looks pretty cool at night, too. So far, so good.

On the move, I'm astonished by just how well the Azera soaks up the hideous road surfaces I punish it with. It's refined, quiet, relaxing and really, really nice to drive. The steering is communicative and the brakes responsive without being too grabby, while the 250hp from its V6 enables rapid progress when conditions allow. The dashboard, while looking more like a Transformer's codpiece than a necktie, is at least sensibly laid out and you don't need a teenager to help you fathom what all the various buttons do. Weirdly, despite the kamikaze driving of everyone I'm sharing road space with, I feel nice and relaxed.

The damping really is excellent - in fact, it rides better than a 5 Series BMW, which is another pointer to show how the brand has changed for the better. Even the most serious craters refuse to unsettle the Azera and there's zero bump-thump when other, pricier vehicles would be shaking out your fillings. Yet this ride comfort is not here at the expense of precious roadholding duties. While I don't get the chance to really hammer it into the corners (for fear of some lunatic heading towards me in my lane), it exhibits huge levels of composure along some fairly demanding routes. Hyundai's confidence has evidently not been misplaced.

One area where the Azera struggles, however, relates to its gearbox. The engine doesn't develop quite enough torque for these steep mountain roads and, as it constantly wants to change up a gear, it feels like it's hunting all over the place for the correct ratio if you keep your foot planted. To get around the problem you have to knock the shifter over to manual, when it will actually hold onto your chosen gear. If it had a wheel-mounted paddle-shift, I wouldn't be complaining, but it's a minor drawback in an otherwise excellent car.

The Azera goes on sale in the UAE next week and, with prices starting at a very attractive Dh111,000, I think we'll be seeing plenty of them soon. Forget what you used to know about Hyundai; give the brand a chance and enjoy quality engineering, distinctive styling, luxury and genuine value for money. Amazing what these companies can do when they put their minds to it.


The Stats

Base price / as tested Dh111,000 / Dh118,000

Engine 3.0L V6

Gearbox Six-speed automatic

Power 250hp @ 6,400rpm

Torque 282Nm @ 5,000rpm

Fuel economy, combined 9.6L/100km