Hyundai Azera is all-new for 2012, the second generation of Hyundai's flagship luxury sedan. Larger and more luxurious than a midsize, Azera compares well with the Toyota Avalon, Nissan Maxima, Buick LaCrosse, and Ford Taurus, all large, front-wheel-drive sedans typically loaded with leather and all the bells and whistles, and it aspires to compete with the Lexus ES and Acura TL.
Our test drive of this new car revealed the 2012 Azera is comfortable for long distance cruising and economical for urban transport. Azera is smooth and quiet, it gets excellent fuel economy, and its cabin is nicely furnished with quality materials and controls that are easy to operate.
There's only one trim level, one powertrain, one price and one option, so picking the Azera you want is very easy. Priced at a highly competitive $32,000, this four-door, five-passenger sedan is powered by a remarkably efficient, 3.3-liter, 293-horsepower V6 driving the front wheels through a 6-speed automatic transaxle outfitted with the Shiftronic manual shift feature. The hardest decision will be choosing the color.
The new Azera comes standard with features often optional in this class. Heading the list is a full-featured navigation system with rearview camera and automatic, dual-zone climate control. Leather is standard as are HD Radio and XM Satellite Radio, a 10-way power driver's seat and 8-way power front passenger seat. The seats are heated, front and rear. Options include ventilating fans for the front seats, a 550-watt premium sound system, a two-pane panoramic sunroof, and a power rear sunshade complemented by manual sunshades on the rear side door windows.
EPA-estimated fuel economy is 20/29 mpg City/Highway, numbers that top the competition save for the Avalon's matching EPA City estimate. Azera also gets Hyundai's new Active ECO system that reins in throttle response and alters the transmission's shift points to eke out more miles per gallon. Hyundai's engineers say this system in the right conditions can deliver an improvement of around 7 percent.
The 2012 Azera's styling presents a less flamboyant iteration of the Fluidic Sculpture motif that debuted on the 2010 Sonata. Where the Sonata's arrays of flowing curved lines flowed strongly and consistently from grille to trunk, the Azera presents, shall we say, an interesting blend of subdued echoes of the marque's motif, with a stately front view, a sporty side view and a classy rear view. The lineage is indisputable, but the Azera's visions are unique. Not all car makers can carry this off, but Hyundai manages to do so with panache.
Interior treatment, materials and finishing are top end. It's everything that's needed, with nothing that isn't, and all where it should be. Controls are well marked and easy to operate. Instruments communicate needed information as does the 7-inch, touchscreen navigation system-cum-backup camera display. The interior is roomy, too, and ahead of the competitors in a number of measurements, not the least being all-important front seat head room and leg room.
Ride and handling are well mannered. It's not sporty, but that's not an aspiration of the new Azera. What is, is comfortable long distance cruising and economical urban transport. Automatically adjusting shock absorbers level high-mileage interstates and urban streets. Capping it off, the Azera adds to Hyundai's recent string of strikingly quiet cars, attributable in part to well placed sound deadening but also to sophisticated vibration isolating and motion counterbalancing underhood structures.
There was a time when Hyundai struggled to earn shoppers' consideration. The 2012 Azera confirms that time is long past.
Hyundai Azera ($32,000)
Our first impression of the 2012 Azera's front end is that the car's an ever so slightly larger edition of its wildly popular Sonata sibling. At first glance, the grille looks like it's taken directly from the Sonata assembly line and bolted onto the Azera. It isn't, of course, and on closer examination, its cross bars and framing are thinner and it's subtly recessed in the surrounding fascia, giving it a more stately presence. The headlight assemblies wrap farther around the front fenders and are more sharply tapered at both ends. The bumper and lower fascia are flat and edgy, with sharply outlined lower air intake and fog lights. But that grille dominates, which, depending on one's opinion of the Sonata's styling, can be good or not so good.
Side view presents a subdued iteration of the styling theme Hyundai labels fluidic sculpture. A sharp crease starts behind the trailing point of the headlight housing and then fades just forward of the B-pillar, the vertical roof support between the front and rear door windows. Another, even sharper crease begins just ahead of and then flows over the top of the rear door handle, kicking up as it rounds the rear fender to flow into a gentle lip topping the trunk lid. A lesser character line runs the full length of the Azera, from the front wheelwell to the leading edge of the taillight. All of this sounds busy, but the differing degrees of severity in the lines blend and complement nicely. The roofline is fast, arcing gracefully from just behind the front wheelwell to just aft of the taillight's leading edge, with a triangular rear quarter window emphasizing the deeply sloped backlight, or rear window. Perfectly circular wheelwells wrap snugly around low profile tires, putting the finishing touches on a fresh, sporty profile.
As for the rear perspective, were it not for the trademark Hyundai flying H perched proudly above the reflector band tying together the high tech LED taillights, one might for a moment, while squinting with one eye, think Aston Martin. The dual exhaust tips integrated into the lower bumper contribute to the illusion. But opening that eye reveals a much taller body than on that megabuck Brit, although in all truth just as pleasing a collection of arches and cut lines.
From the comfortable, evenly supportive, 10-way power driver's seat to the 8-way power front passenger seat (which includes a height adjustment, often a rarity even among pricier sedans) to the dual-zone, automatic climate control to the navigation system with its 7-inch screen, Azera's cabin coddles its occupants.
The standard leather upholstery is supple without being soft. The Technology Package includes a most welcome extendable section on the driver's seat for thigh support, and the front seats have remarkably effective ventilating fans, the combination of which made the long stretches between refueling stops quite bearable.
The instrument cluster glows soft, blue and white lighting that's easy on the eyes. Primary controls for personalized settings and audio and climate systems are conveniently and clearly mounted on the center stack, which flows smoothly up from the center console with its properly positioned shift lever and seat heater buttons.
Dash styling is a bit swoopy but is integrated nicely with the interior door panels, which along with the passenger dash are graced with thin strips of blue ambient lighting when the Technology Package is added. The uplevel sound system delivered wonderfully full and robust sounds; even satellite sports talk radio sounded almost conversational.
Storage is plentiful, with front-door map pockets apportioned, proportioned and molded to hold real maps and water bottles, always capped, of course. Twin cupholders fill the front center console next to the shift lever. The rear seat gets twin cupholders in a fold-down center armrest and magazine pouches on front seat backs contoured to provide added knee room.
Front-seat occupants of the Azera will enjoy more head and leg room than drivers in the Taurus, Avalon, Maxima or LaCrosse, although the Azera's hip room gives up a smidgen to all but the Maxima. Rear-seat passengers won't notice any difference in headroom among these sedans but those in the Azera and Maxima will give up a couple inches in leg room to those in the other cars. Azera families also will have at least two more square-feet of trunk space for luggage and weekend gardening supplies than the Avalon, Maxima and LaCrosse, while the Taurus trunk will hold almost four more foot-square boxes than the Azera's.
If there's any finding fault with the Azera's interior it's with such minor issues as having to use your foot instead of your hand to set the parking brake and what to some might seem an overabundance of steering wheel-mounted buttons. One suggests a policy of insulating the driver, the other of encouraging, almost demanding involvement. Over a half-day/half-night, 600-mile trip, however, such seeming inconsistencies faded to trivialities.
Our experience in other Hyundai cars had us looking forward to our time in the new Azera, and we weren't disappointed. That 600-mile trek, almost all of it on interstates and including crossing from Nevada into California's Central Valley over the Golden State's Tehachapi range, returned a solid 29 miles per gallon with the speedometer needle positioned almost constantly north of 70 mph. California's State Highway 99, which serves as the primary north/south truck route for hauling the State's abundant produce to market and is, therefore, somewhat well worn, presented little challenge for the Azera's new, self-adjusting suspension. Road noise and buffeting from passing 18-wheelers was minimal. And did we mention the heavenly ventilated seats?
The Azera was just as accommodating, easy to drive and fuel conscientious around town on daily commutes and runs to the grocery store and to local eateries. A couple of hundred miles around town pulled the gas mileage down to 24.5 mpg, in large part a consequence of delightful, foot-to-the-floor merges onto local urban freeways. It's not a car that likes to be driven hard on winding two-lanes, taking a bit longer than hoped for to settle onto the suspension when entering a turn and equally casual when pushed quickly through a series of lefts and rights. On those types of roads, we'd probably opt for the Taurus. But as a family car and commuter, it's in its element and easily competitive with, if not the better of, the bunch.
Not the least of its winning ways is the almost complete absence of noise, vibration and harshness. It's close to totally silent when idling at a stop light and though it's not quite as silent underway as some of the other cars in this class, it's close. What tire noise there was seemed more related to the optional low profile rubber on 19-inch wheels than anything fundamental or structural with the car. Tolerances were properly tight between body panels and interior bits and pieces, with nary a hint of a squeak or rattle, including in the somewhat complex, dual-pane, panoramic sunroof, which rear seat passengers flat out loved.
Brakes never squealed or delivered anything but solid, controlled, confident stops.
The 2012 Hyundai Azera is a winner. It's sharp looking, roomy, quiet and gets excellent fuel economy.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Sacramento, California.