Luxury used to be so simple in this country. Life was demarcated by a series of vehicular gradations from Chevrolet to Oldsmobile, Oldsmobile to Buick and finally, when one had clambered up every last rung of the socioeconomic ladder, Buick to Cadillac. But that was generations ago, a time before German automakers like BMW and Mercedes-Benz quietly brushed aside makes like Lincoln and Cadillac to establish themselves as the pinnacle of luxury. It was before names like Acura, Infiniti and Lexus elbowed their way up to the luxury buffet as well.
These days, buyers with an eye toward a comfortable, well-equipped vehicle have more options than nearly any other customer thanks to the careful segmentation of the luxury market. Hyundai has long positioned itself as an automaker that knows how to give buyers heaps of content for their dollar, and vehicles like the Genesis and Equus have proven the Korean company can play on the luxury field with the rest of the rear-wheel-drive bruisers out there.
For 2012, the company has sharpened its nearly forgotten Azera to give front-wheel-drive luxury buyers something else to chew on. With its new exterior, gorgeous cabin, V6 power and a host of standard equipment, the sedan is a natural alternative to hardware like the Toyota Avalon, Buick LaCrosse and Ford Taurus.
Hyundai is on a new-product war path. The company's plan to unveil seven new or significantly redesigned vehicles in just 24 months has officially come to fruition with the introduction of the 2012 Azera. This model is the last in that ambitious push, and as such, it wears plenty of design elements borrowed from those that came before it. It would be difficult to miss the similarities between the sweeping chrome grille and wrapped headlights of the Azera and those found on company's Sonata. The design is somewhat more toned down in the new application, and the front fascia actually manages to look more menacing than melted.
Details like LED trim work in the headlights and prominent fog lamps also help give the 2012 Azera additional presence up front. Move to the vehicle's side, and it's clear the sedan's contour lines wander less than those found on the Sonata. The rear quarter wears pronounced haunches, and while the chrome strip along the hood line is a bit odd, it doesn't look out of place on the exterior. The sculpted, wing-like side mirrors are a nice touch as well, as are the standard 18-inch wheels. Buyers may also opt for 19-inch rollers if they so desire.
Around back, the Azera has borrowed a page from the Dodge playbook with an LED taillamp display that stretches across the full width of the vehicle. Otherwise, the Azera boasts a fairly subdued rump, though a pair of integrated chrome-bezel exhaust outlets poke through rear valance to help add a bit of substance.
Combined, the exterior is a huge improvement over the frankly dated lines of the 2011 model, and the interior keeps up the pace. The dash features a multi-layer design that's attractive and engaging without sacrificing functionality. A standard seven-inch navigation touchscreen dominates the center stack, and brushed accent trim provides a nice contrast to the soft touch cover and gloss trim spread elsewhere across the dash. The driver is treated to a contoured, leather-wrapped steering wheel complete with all of the buttons necessary to control the vehicle's various systems. Attractive gauges have also supplanted the ancient dials found on the 2011 model, and a useful center-mounted LCD screen between the speedometer and tachometer conveys a variety of information, as well.
Hyundai has focused on keeping the Azera as light as possible, and the rakish four-door weighs in at 3,605 pounds. For perspective, bruisers like the Buick LaCrosse and Ford Taurus tip the scales at an extra 200 and 400 pounds, respectively. Typically, that translates into a smaller cabin, and while it's true the Azera is a good deal shorter than both of the American four-doors, engineers have managed to retain an impressive level of interior volume. Despite being over three inches shorter stem-to-stern than the 2012 LaCrosse, the 2012 Azera bests the Buick and the Ford in front leg room by 3.8 and 3.6 inches, respectively. Hyundai even beats out the Toyota Avalon by 4.2 inches in front leg room.
Rear passengers will find the Azera a bit more cramped than other alternatives in the segment, however. The Korean sedan delivers 36.8 inches of rear leg room, which is easily bested by the competitors mentioned above. That's despite the fact that the vehicle's 107 cubic feet of passenger volume is larger than the Lacrosse, Taurus and Avalon. Blame the aggressive, four-door coupe like shape for pushing the rear seats forward.
While the 2012 Azera comes loaded with a pile of standard equipment, including a cooled glove box, auto-dimming rearview mirrors, navigation and rearview camera, buyers may also choose a few interesting options. A power sun shade for the rear glass is available, and manual shades can also be had for both rear windows. Of course, our favorite option is the perfectly huge panoramic sunroof. Check it out in the Short Cut below.
Hyundai has graced the 2012 Azera with more horsepower and better fuel economy than the vehicle's predecessor, and it has done so with a smaller-displacement V6 engine. While the 2011 Azera made use of a 3.8-liter V6, the 2012 model gets along with just 3.3 liters. The addition of a direct-injection fuel system helps bump final output to 293 horsepower at 6,400 rpm and 255 pound-feet of torque at 5,200 rpm thanks to a higher compression ratio of 11.5:1. The old mill did account for more torque, though we think drivers will hardly miss it. When it comes to power, the 3.3-liter engine is a dynamo, putting out more horsepower per liter than the V6 options found in everything from the Nissan Maxima to the Acura TL. In fact, only the 3.6-liter V6 found in the Buick Lacrosse boasts more grunt with 303 ponies.
The engine is bolted to a six-speed automatic transmission that funnels power to the front wheels and helps account for the Environmental Protection Agency fuel economy rating of 20 mpg city, 29 mpg highway and 23 mpg combined. Those numbers mark improvements of 1 mpg city and two mpg highway over the previous generation.
We typically turn shy any time an automaker begins putting impressive horsepower to the front wheels, but Hyundai has managed to keep torque steer drama at bay in the 2012 Azera. That's partly thanks to clever gearing. Go for broke with the accelerator and the vehicle simply pulls forward confidently, dispatching slower traffic with glee. As impressive as the acceleration can be, the six-speed automatic is the real star of the driveline. Shifts are imperceptibly smooth and well timed. The gearbox is perfect for a vehicle designed to lure older, more affluent buyers out of their Lexus and onto the Hyundai floor.
We found the steering a bit numb and overly light, though this isn't a segment particularly renowned for its driver engagement. The 2012 Azera is blessed with a confident enough brake pedal, however, and a ride that's soft enough to be comfortable without straying too far into marshmallow territory.
If you're getting the impression that we like the Azera, you haven't been led astray. The car feels good to drive, looks stylish enough to hold its head high among some of the segment's more anonymous contenders and delivers an attractive interior loaded with content. It will also set you back $32,000 plus an $875 destination and handling fee. That's an ambitious markup over the outgoing Azera, which started at around $25,500, but this is a whole lot more car.
That pricing, lest one forget, is also a good spot higher than the $25,555 Ford asks for the Taurus and the $30,170 Buick commands for the LaCrosse, but below the $33,195 MSRP on the aging Toyota Avalon. If we're honest, the 2012 Azera easily outclasses those vehicles in terms of interior quality, putting it squarely in contention with the likes of the questionably styled 2012 Acura TL at $35,605, not to mention the $36,725 Lexus ES.
Had someone challenged us to name 10 mid-sized luxury or near-luxury sedans two months ago, we can't say the Azera would have been at the forefront of our minds. The previous generation found itself saddled with bland styling and an also-ran interior that simply didn't dovetail with the rest of the now-impressive Hyundai product portfolio (especially the less costly Sonata, which had improved to the point that it was a better, more accommodating car). The 2012 Azera has changed all that. With a powerful and fuel-efficient direct-injection V6 engine, smooth-shifting six-speed automatic transmission and a beautiful interior, the Azera is nothing short of well-executed.