Any lingering doubts about whether Hyundai is still producing tinny, cheap-looking automobiles should be blown away by the 2006 Hyundai Azera, a bona fide luxury liner in the sedan segment. The tested Azera Limited is a whole new ballgame, but its price remains old-school Hyundai -- starting at an almost outrageously low $26,835.

If I had been blindfolded and tossed into the driver's seat of this car, I would have estimated its sticker at $40,000 after taking it for a test drive (and removing the blindfold, of course).

The Azera is one reason why Hyundai is winning automotive awards from J.D. Power and Associates and soaring in consumer-satisfaction surveys.

Gone are the days when Hyundai carpet-bombed the U.S. marketplace with stripped-to-the-bone cars that, while attractively priced, had all the appeal of a $5 hairpiece and all the reliability of a paper surfboard. In the tested Limited, standard offerings included electronic stability control, traction control, eight standard air bags (including side curtain), 17-inch alloy wheels, leather seating surfaces, power/heated front seats, power rear sunshade, woodgrain-trimmed steering wheel/door handles, steering wheel-mounted audio controls and automatic-adjusting headlights.

Even an optional $1,500 package that included a power sunroof and an Infinity sound system with a six-disc CD changer kept the price of the tester nearly $1,700 under the $30,000 plateau.

Throw in the exceptional Hyundai warranties -- including 10 years or 100,000 miles on the powertrain -- and you might ask why anyone would pay $35,000 or more for an upscale sedan.

Why, indeed? Motorists often wish they could afford more luxury features in their vehicles. With Azera, that goal is within reach of more budgets.

Instead of a V-8, Hyundai opted for a sizable 3.8-liter V-6 under the hood. Given its performance, I'd say it was a good call.

On the tester, the 263-horsepower V-6 accelerated strongly and smoothly. The Azera was a nimble highway performer. On city streets, it steered with ease. Only at the top of steep uphill runs did it begin to groan, but not to the point of desperation.

Brakes performed well, and the suspension had the kind of stability and firmness one expects in a luxury family sedan.

Gas mileage is advertised at a so-so 19 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway, but the nearly 20-gallon fuel tank can be filled with unleaded regular, according to Hyundai.

Interior styling is downright Mercedes-Benz-like, from the illuminated climate/audio readouts to the robust, firm-feeling, woodgrain-spiced gear shifter in the center console. Back-seat room is not cavernous, but it's certainly comfortable -- even for three adults.

On the outside, the look is a mixture of understated, upscale sedan classiness and sport-sedan smoothness. It's a clean look, with no single feature so overblown to draw attention from the generally pleasing bumper-to-bumper ambience.

Downers on the Azera included some mild assaults on the ears -- a little too much road noise bubbling through the undercarriage and a roar of wind through the open sunroof. That latter complaint also has been registered by my auto-reviewing colleagues, so Hyundai engineers might need to tweak the sunroof airflow on future Azeras.

And while some of my colleagues were not happy with the fit and finish on their Azeras, I found no problems with my tester.

With the Azera, it all boils down to what you want. And that's where it gets tricky.

If you desire a taste of automotive luxury but do not want to spend $40,000 or more, it's the proverbial no-brainer. Get the Azera.

But what if you want a little more horsepower and an ample supply of luxury, comfort and convenience -- the kind of package found in a 2006 Chrysler 300C, for example? My guess is that even the Azera's considerable charms will not lure you away from paying a few thousand more to get the 300C's 340 horsepower in a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 engine.

And what if you're eyeing a top-of-the-line, reworked-for-2007 Toyota Camry XLE with a 268-horsepower V-6 and Toyota's storied reliability for only a few hundred bucks more than an Azera Limited? My call: Test drive them both to decide.

Whatever your preference, the Azera is a highly competitive player in the sedan segment. Given what it offers, with an affordable price and outstanding warranties, it can't be ignored.

Hyundai Azera at a glance Make/model: 2006 Hyundai Azera Limited Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door, front-drive, full-size sedan Base price: $26,835 (as tested, $28,335) Engine: 3.8-liter V-6 with 263 horsepower at 6,000 revolutions per minute and 255 foot-pounds of torque at 4,500 rpm EPA fuel economy: 19 miles per gallon city; 28 mpg highway (regular unleaded) Transmission: Five-speed automatic with overdrive Steering: Power-assisted rack and pinion Brakes: Power-assisted, four-wheel discs (vented on front), with anti-lock and other special features Suspension: Independent, double-wishbone on front; independent, multi-link on rear (coil springs and stabilizer bars front and rear) Fuel tank: 19.8 gallons Passenger volume: 106.9 cubic feet Trunk volume: 16.6 cubic feet Curb weight: 3,629 pounds Height: 58.7 inches Length: 192.7 inches Wheelbase: 109.4 inches Width: 72.8 inches Ground clearance: 6.4 inches Track: 62.2 inches on front; 61.6 inches on rear Towing capacity: 2,000 pounds (with specified trailering package) Tires: P235/55VR17 steel-belted radials Final assembly point: Asan, South Korea

About the writer: The Bee's Mark Glover can be reached at (916) 321-1184 or