2012 Hyundai Azera: First Drive

February 27, 2012
While cruising at 70 mph in the 2012 Hyundai Azera, it's what we didn't have to do that's especially telling.

My co-driver and I didn't have to raise our voices above normal, quiet conversation level to carry on a conversation in front—and the same held true in speaking with our two passengers in the back seat. We all were able to simply chat, without shouting.

In the Azera, passengers in the back seat not only have enough legroom and headroom, but the cabin is quiet enough so that you can carry on a conversation in a normal tone of voice—and you can catch the nuance. For all four of the adults on board, there were no knees mashed against seatbacks, no heads pushing headliners; in those supportive seats, all of us could have been comfortable all day, I'd venture to say. And as a passenger in a low, long luxury sedan, like the Azera, you feel less side-to-side movements than in taller crossovers.

All the more impressive is that the Azera doesn't rely on active noise cancellation, a fancy active suspension, or other such technologies to achieve it; it's simply a good design, with the right damping and blanketing applied where it's needed.

Dressed to impress

The Azera is a car for double dates, or for carrying professional clients (or the mother-in-law). And yes, it now looks the part, too.

Taking a step back, the new Azera is no longer just a platform for interior space, comfort and lots of features for the money. It now performs better; and more notably, unlike the previous version, it's not just an innocuous lump; it's now impressive inside and out, and makes a design statement.

That's deliberate; Hyundai has positioned the 2012 Azera toward 'design-minded consumers,' and based on what we see outside and in, the Azera definitely hits an aesthetic high water mark for the class. From its evolved take on the 'fluidic sculpture' theme that we've seen in the recently redesigned Elantra and Sonata especially, to the fashionable interior, with its cockpit-style layout, double-tier design, and Volvo-like storage behind the center stack, it's now the sort of model that might catch your eye from across the dealer lot. Crisp airdam detailing, deeply styled wheels, nicely sculpted LED taillamps, side mirrors with build-in turn-signal indicators, and HID xenon headlamps all add up to the sort of detail you might not expect to find in a vehicle that doesn't attempt to be a sport sedan or all-out luxury sedan.

The Azera's coefficient of drag, by the way, is a class-leading 0.28—shared only with the Toyota Avalon, and a key to that quiet interior, as well as its 29-mpg highway rating.

If you only consider the powertrain, the Azera's new engine and transmission do a pretty good job delivering just enough performance and top-notch refinement. While the larger, rear-wheel-drive Genesis only offers larger V-6 and V-8 engines, and the slightly smaller Sonata offers an all-four-cylinder lineup, the 2012 Hyundai Azera gets one powertrain: a 3.3-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic transmission.

More power, smoother, on regular gas

The new 'Lambda' engine—now with gasoline direct injection—makes 293 horsepower, as well as 255 pound feet—on regular gasoline—and has a roller timing chain for durability and lower maintenance cost. And it has a dual personality of sorts. It's a high-revver—with a higher specific output than other engines in this class—and makes its peak power at 6,400 rpm, just short of redline, but it also feels considerably more torquey at lower rpm compared to Hyundai's past V-6 efforts. According to the automaker's power and torque chart, it's already making about 200 pound-feet at just 1,500 rpm.

Altogether, it's smooth and responsive, thanks in part to the six-speed automatic transmission, which includes a Shiftronic manual mode. The transmission has a wide range of gear ratios to allow quick takeoffs, strong passing ability, and relaxed cruising.

While the Azera has a strong, responsive powertrain, its ride and handling still give off plenty of hints that comfort is the priority. The electric power steering system in the Azera felt much better-tuned than that of the Sonata, or other recent Hyundai front-wheel drive products. It has a good sense of center, with weighting that builds predictably, and should be everything that comfort-oriented buyers expect. And while there's much better body control, thanks in part to Sachs amplitude-selective dampers, there's nothing all that crisp or sharp about the arrangement (in all fairness, our drive route, near Las Vegas, didn't afford any chances to push the Azera hard around any corners).

The Azera is a couple of inches longer than the ES 350, or somewhat shorter than the Buick LaCrosse or Ford Taurus. But going by interior space, the story is quite different; the Azera has more interior volume than any of those other models, as well as more cargo space than all but the Taurus. Front seats are adjustable to a wide range of sizes, and we like how Hyundai has assembled the power-seat controls, Mercedes-Benz style, along the upper door trim—although from just a short drive, we could tell that the seats' side bolsters, which look aggressive, really aren't that. Tech Package models, in addition to heated seats, include heated-and-cooled ventilated functions.

And back to the back seats, there's lots of sprawl-out legroom, as well as just enough headroom for adults—just enough, thanks to two carved-out headliner recesses. Getting in and out of the back seat isn't nearly as easy as you might expect it to be—especially for taller folks. You'll have to lean forward, and duck your head under the curved-down roofline—the price of the fashionable exterior styling. Ride quality is superb, with only the most jarring bumps heard heard and felt in the cabin.

Prices up; but now feels like a luxury-car

There's already been a bit of controversy over the way Hyundai's priced the 2012 Azera. The base model for 2012 is a whopping $6,605 above that of the base 2011 Azera GLS. But, it turns out, the equipment list of the 2012 Azera is comparable to—if not better than—that of the 2011 Azera Limited, which started about $2,000 less than the 2012 Azera (which costs $32,875, including destination). So there's definitely a price hike; it's just not a serious as some early reports let it on to be—and Hyundai is likely going to boost its residual values by getting rid of the base model.

That said, equipment on the 2012 Azera is luxury-car impressive. It includes the navigation system and backup camera system, push-button start, proximity-key entry, Bluetooth connectivity, power front seats, full leather upholstery, dual-zone automatic climate control, heated side mirrors, and heated front and rear seats—plus HD Radio, 450-watt audio, and all the connectivity you need. Add the Technology Package (for a bottom line of $36,875), and you add HID headlamps, larger 19-inch wheels, a big panoramic sunroof, a power rear sunshade, manual rear side sunshades, ventilated front seats, 550-watt Infinity premium Logic 7 sound with subwoofer, power steering-wheel adjustment, interior ambient lighting, and a keyfob-integrated memory system for settings.

Even given the price increase, it's still a lot of value for the money. Many of the items in the Azera—like the navigation system, or the ventilated seats—remain optional in some or all of rival models. Our only note is that if Hyundai is dipping its feet a little further into the true luxury-brand market, there's a lack of exciting high-tech options like active parking, blind-spot systems, a head-up display, or active cruise control.

All considered, the Azera now has a comprehensive package to impress and cosset. We can see the Azera becoming a popular car for realtors and anyone whose job involves just a bit of wooing clients—without having those clients get to thinking that they're too loaded, or too extravagant.

After spending a few hours with the new Azera sedan, it impresses as the quintessential executive car—as well as one that you'll enjoy driving, being seen with, and transporting companions in style.

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