2006 Hyundai Azera

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A $24,000 full-size luxury car sounds almost too good to be true — or at the very least, a bit of an exaggeration. After all, $24k is pretty much what you’d pay for a typical mid-sized, middle-of-the-roader — something in the Camry/Accord/Passat range.

Nice cars, yes — but “luxury” is stretching things a bit.

Nonetheless, Hyundai has put together a no-kidding, full-size luxury sedan for about the going rate of a typical mid-size, nothing-special family car.

This is the ’06 Azera — Hyundai’s largest, most powerful sedan to date — and the first Hyundai to challenge high-prestige cars from big bucks nameplates by offering much of what they do for a lot less cash.

Base price is $24,335 for the SE — and that gets you a powerful (263-hp) V-6 with variable valve timing, 5-speed automatic with manual/automatic shift modes, traction and stability control, side impact and curtain airbags (all rows), active front seat head restraints, leather trim, auto climate control, projector-type headlights, tilt/telescoping steering wheel — plus all the “basic” stuff you’d expect to get in any luxury car worthy of the description (power one-touch windows and locks, keyless entry, cruise control, intermittent wipers and a good stereo system with CD player and MP3 capability, etc.).

A bit more — $26,835 — will get you into a top-of-the-line Azera Limited with all the features in the SE plus 17-inch rims, full leather interior with heated front seats, an attractive wood-trimmed steering wheel, matching wood dash inserts and door panel accents — as well as a swanky-looking electroluminescent dash display and a power rear privacy screen.

You could add rain-sensing wipers, power tilt/telescoping wheel, sunroof, power adjustable pedals, an upgrade 315-watt stereo with 10 speakers and barely crest $30k — still thousands less than the entry price point of traditional/established “luxury” brand cars from Lexus, Acura, BMW, Benz and the rest.

And — the big selling point — the Azera has more interior space than just about anything even remotely close to it in price. In fact, it has more passenger stretchin’ out room inside than a Mercedes-Benz S-Class or BMW 760i.

Its cabin offers 43.7 inches of front seat legroom and 38.2 inches of backseat legroom. Compare that with the scrunched-up 41.3 inches of front seat legroom in the BMW 760i — or the not-so-livin’-large 41.9 inches in the Mercedes-Benz S500. (You do get a bit more rear-seat legroom in the S500 — 42.3 inches; but the Beemer’s back seats take second place to the Hyundai’s, with a meager 37.2 inches of legroom available.)

The Azera’s also got ’em dead to rights when it comes to head room — with 40.2 inches for front seat occupants and 38.2 inches for backseat riders, vs. 39.2 up front for the Beemer and 37.8 for the Benz. (Backseat headroom is pretty much a draw — with the BMW and Benz each offering 38.5 inches, just slightly better than the Hyundai’s 38.2 inches.)

As far as trunk/cargo capacity, the Hyundai beats the Benz (16.6 cubic feet vs. 16.3 cubic feet) and is only barely outdone in this category by the slightly more capacious 18 cubic feet available in the 7-Series.

The cherry on top? Azera also comes standard with a better warranty than just about anyone else, too — certainly better than either the Benz and BMW, which can only muster five year/50,000 mile basic and powertrain warranties vs. the five year/60,000 mile basic and 10-year/100,000 mile powertrain coverage Hyundai provides.

Sure, it’s a bit cheeky to compare the Azera to six-figure titans like the BMW 7-Series and Mercedes S-Class — both of which offer massively powerful V-8 and even 12-cylinder engines and some of the most elaborate and expensive technology you can get on four wheels.

Then again, what is “luxury”? Is it price? Ostentatiousness?

Or is it simply something that’s a cut above — in terms of things like ride quality and comfort, convenience features, acceleration/driving dynamics and spaciousness — irrespective of price?

If that’s the working definition of luxury, the Azera rises to the bar.

You can’t fault it on value — and it’s hard not to be impressed by its roomy, comfortable cabin and strong V-6 engine — which delivers the easy power to pull away from the masses that is one of the defining characteristics of a luxury car. Some critics have faulted the Azera’s suspension for being “soft” — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing if what you’re looking for is a smooth, quiet ride — as opposed to a muscled-up sport sedan. (No one considers the Lexus ES330 a barnstormer, either — but that hasn’t prevented it from becoming one of Lexus’ best-selling models ever.)

The car’s only objective weak points are the absence of a navigation system (given these things are now available in $20k Hondas and Mazdas — and pretty much expected in the luxury car segment nowadays — this is a major omission) and the lack of prestige associated with the Hyundai nameplate.

Still, both issues are readily fixable. And it’s worth remembering that as recently as 15 or so years ago, no one thought too much of either Lexus or Acura, either. But the brilliance of the cars themselves — combined with killer pricing that was hard to resist — rapidly overcame any qualms about the worthiness of the new kids on the block.

Given Hyundai’s focused determination and the ever-better offerings it brings to the table every year, it’s a safe bet history is going to repeat itself. And the smart money always gets in on the deal before the word gets out.

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