First Drive – 2012 Hyundai Azera

To say a person has “made the leap” means they’ve moved from performing at a lower level to a higher one. The phrase is constantly used in the sports world for those that’ve gone from rookies to all-stars, or from performing well in college and then doing just as well in the big leagues. It seems an automaker is capable of making the leap as well.

Hyundai started by hustling its wares as rolling examples of affordability. Now, the automaker offers a suite of products that are stylish, well made, and achieve excellent fuel economy ratings. Additionally, new car shoppers are flocking to Hyundai vehicles so quickly that supply can’t keep up with demand. Hyundai, it seems, has made the leap.

Car shoppers can also make the leap. Naturally, automakers prefer that said leap happens within the the brand portfolio. For Hyundai, that means they want folks to graduate from an Elantra to a Sonata, while aspiring to someday own a Genesis or even an Equus. There’s a problem though, because that’s a mighty big leap to make. Now, however, there’s a new kid on the block that provides the appropriate landing space for Sonata owners looking to live just a little bit larger. Only it’s so much more than a simple stopgap. It’s the 2012 Hyundai Azera… and it’s excellent.

It’s in a Las Vegas conference room where Michael O’Brien, Hyundai Vice President of Product and Corporate Planning, describes the 2012 Azera as “an aspirational move-up” for Sonata buyers. O’Brien goes on to talk about how the Azera is a comfort-focused, premium full-size sedan, and was created to occupy the space between the Sonata and the Genesis. Once you begin to look at how the three vehicles break down on paper, that perfectly engineered division snaps into focus.

The Sonata is only available with a four-cylinder engine, while the Azera is only offered with a V6. Above those two, you can get the Genesis with a V6 or a V8. Add the cost equation into the picture, and you’ll find that the $32,000 Azera is again slotted right in between the top-tier $28,000 Sonata Limited, and the base $34,000 Genesis 3.8-liter V6. 

Not everyone will be shopping from within the Hyundai brand, however, and the automaker has decided to tackle some interesting competition. You’ve got the standard contenders, such as the Toyota Avalon, Ford Taurus, and the Buick LaCrosse. You’ve also got vehicles like the Acura TL and Lexus ES 350, which served as design targets for Hyundai’s engineers. Is the Azera ready to take on competition like that?

Quite.

During our time in Las Vegas, Hyundai personnel kept harping on about the Azera boasting an interior with a “modern premium” design. They’re right though, the cabin space isn’t full-blown luxury, but it’s exceedingly comfortable, features a long list of standard equipment, and feels like a graduated environment fit to wear the “premium” moniker. Hyundai has filled the space with heated and ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, a seven-inch touchscreen navigation system, and an optional Infinity sound system that competes with the Mark Levinson unit available on the Lexus ES 350.

None of that is surprising though, because Hyundai throws in more interior amenities with every model it puts out. What is surprising , however, is just how comfortable it is to ride and drive in the Azera. We left the Equus product planner a bit red in the face when we asked why the front buckets from the Azera were not being used in the luxurious $60,000 Hyundai halo vehicle. The Equus has terrible front seats, whereas the Azera units offer up the highly desirable combination of support and comfort. In the back, the comfort continues thanks to the available legroom. At 6’3″, your author views the back seat of most cars as a cruel joke played out by short engineers who are sick of hearing the midget jokes. In the Azera, kicking back and relaxing required no Cirque du Soleil-grade contortionism on our part.

 

Thankfully, the Azera isn’t just a premium interior wrapped in a softened Sonata shell. Mounted under hood is a 3.3-liter V6 GDI engine, which produces 293 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque. Paired with a six-speed automatic gearbox, this front-wheel-driven four door is good for an estimated 29 miles per gallon the highway, and 20 miles per gallon around town. More surprisingly, the  Azera rides rather smoothly across the asphalt. Granted, we were skating across the glassy surface of the surrounding Nevada highway system, but the transmission shifted gears nigh on imperceptibly.

Still, 293 horsepower is nothing to glance over. In fact, the Azera has plenty of energy in reserve should you desire to push the fun pedal to its stopping point. By comparison, the non-SHO Taurus squeezes out 263 horsepower, the super-boring Avalon is good for 268, and the more expensive V6 LaCrosse pushes past the Azera with 303 ponies (plus slightly worse fuel economy and a higher starting price tag).

This 2012 Azera isn’t just an interior and an engine. The sedan served as our chariot out to the Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch race track where we got to test drive the 2013 Genesis Coupe. We’re not working with a sports car, and we didn’t expect anything of the sort. Still, we weren’t treated to a dull drive, either. The handling was a hair sharper than traditional Hyundai antics felt from behind the wheel, and the ride quality was top notch. The 2012 Azera is a car that we know is comfortable on 1 to 2 hour drives, yet also seems as it would still be comfortable on jaunts stretching for far longer time periods.

When you’re not driving on extended road trips, you’re going to have to look at it, and that’s something that seems to should keep current Sonata shoppers happy. According to Hyundai, 89 percent of Sonata buyer were motivated by exterior styling. If they’re looking to graduate to a more mature vehicle, they’re sure to be happy when they glance upon the exterior lines of the Azera. It’s essentially a Sonata that went to finishing school. The fluidic sculpture lines are certainly there… but they’re softened. Yet they’re not gone, and that should keep fans of the brand quite happy. The look works, and the Azera stands out rather stylishly in its arranged slot between Hyundai subtly styled upper-class good looks and middle-class brashness.

We’re not dealing with an inexpensive vehicle here. The starting sticker price is over $32,000, and that’s a ton of coin. For badge whores, it may be too much coin. That’s fine though, because those type of people are never going to make the leap.

Hyundai made the leap… and the rookie 2012 Azera is ready to do the same. 

Images: Copyright 2012 Hooniverse/Jeff Glucker

Disclosure: Hyundai wanted us to drive the 2012 Azera, as well as the Equus 5.0 and updated Genesis Coupe, so they put us on a plane to Vegas. Once there, a Mercedes R-Class drove us over to a wonderful hotel that was delightfully devoid of a casino. We say that because it allowed us to focus on the cars, food, and free hooch. Our scheckles were saved from the clutches of smoke-tainted felt, shifty-eyed “professional” poker players named after cities, and robotic blackjack dealers with coal-powered hearts.

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