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2012 Hyundai Azera: An uncommon touch

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American politicians should study the success of Hyundai Motor Co. since its 1986 entry into the U.S. car market. Our less-than-productive supposed leaders could learn several important lessons:

One, Hyundai learned quickly from its mistakes, did not waste a crisis, wasted absolutely no time in finger-pointing and kept its vow to do better. Hyundai frankly acknowledged that its first U.S. entry, the Excel subcompact, was cheap in every sense of the word — essentially non-competitive. The company then did what it had to do to develop and maintain quality. It took big marketing gambles by offering much more for less, with “less” having nothing to do with a reduction in product content or quality.

Two, Hyundai never forgot the middle and working classes. In the dark days of the Great Recession of 2008, the South Korean car company did what too many U.S. politicians and corporations failed to do. While our government was handing out bank-bailout money sans meaningful prosecutions for wrongdoing, and companies nationwide were delivering pink slips to their employees, Hyundai was giving middle- and working-class people in this country a break — assuring them that if they lost income through no fault of their own after purchasing a new Hyundai, the company would allow them to return the vehicle and back out of the deal with no blemish on their credit rating.

More than that, Hyundai promised to welcome back those once financially troubled buyers with excellent products and new-vehicle financing once they were restored to solvency. That combination of compassion, innovation and now-world-competitive product quality has helped Hyundai — which began producing cars in 1967, decades after its major rivals — become the fourth-largest automaker in the world in terms of sales. That’s fourth based on 2010 sales numbers, after Toyota, General Motors, and Volkswagen.

For the past two years, Hyundai, formerly the laughingstock of the global automotive industry, has been the world’s fastest-growing car company in terms of sales. A concrete example of how Hyundai achieved that success is the vehicle of today’s conversation, the completely redesigned 2012 Hyundai Azera “common luxury” sedan.

I use the term “common luxury” to codify Hyundai’s theory that those willing to spend $32,000 for a large family sedan should get a heck of a lot more than prestige for the money. They should get world-class safety, fit and finish, world-competitive exterior and interior design, and world-class performance (ride, acceleration, braking and handling).

The 2012 Azera offers all those things at a base price of $32,000, easily price-and-content competitive with models such as the 2012 Acura ILX (with technology package), BMW 328i, Buick Regal and Lucerne, and Lexus ES350.

I suspect, based on conversations with Hyundai officials and others in the auto industry, that labor costs have much to do with Hyundai’s pricing advantage. Hyundai has some of the lowest employee-compensation packages in the car industry. But if its assembly workers in Asia and at the U.S. Hyundai plant in Montgomery, Ala., are upset over their pay, their discontent so far isn’t showing up in Hyundai’s product quality.

The Azera, built in Ulsan, South Korea, is a case in point. With its patented “fluidic sculpture,” in which lines and curves move into and out of one another in the manner of water blown by a gentle wind, the car visually stands out from everything in its class. It quite literally is mobile sculpture, in this case done for the masses. Interior design is tight and ergonomically comfortable, augmented at night by cabin mood lighting. The seats have been specially designed to reduce back injuries and whiplash neck damage in rear-end collisions. There is, unfortunately, an abundance of hard plastic on the dashboard, one place where Hyundai apparently cut costs.

But there is compensation for that error in materials quality, in the form of the new Azera’s generous allocation of space. Tall, short, wide and narrow people can feel comfortable behind the wheel of this one. The driver’s seat is power-adjustable to keep long-legged types from feeling as if they’re sitting on the edge of a high bed. Back-seat room can comfortably accommodate three normal-size adult bodies on a long trip.

The Azera comes loaded with electronic infotainment amenities and aides, including a high-resolution backup camera and Bluetooth phone and USB connections — and, again, at a price many buyers can afford.

What about road performance? I change my mind about that every time I get stopped by an Arlington County traffic enforcement officer or Virginia state trooper. Excessive power and speed just aren’t worth the cost in today’s highly regulated and photographed driving environments.

The 2012 Azera, so wonderfully improved over earlier models, including its XG350 predecessor, comes with a gasoline-direct-injection 3.3-liter V-6 engine (293 horsepower, 255 foot-pounds of torque). That’s enough power to get you a date in traffic court, or carry you to a voting booth.

You won’t feel cheated going to either place in an Azera, slotted between the mid-size Sonata and the super-upscale Genesis in Hyundai’s lineup. Based on a now-thorough examination of its U.S. offerings, it seems to me that Hyundai respects its buyers too much to cheat or “play” them. Nowadays, I’m finding that difficult to say about any politician in any party.

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