I've driven a lot of Hyundais over the past few years and have spent far more time thinking about them, evaluating them, and writing about them than I ever could have imagined a decade ago, when Hyundai was still at the bottom of the automotive heap. One Hyundai that had completely slipped my mind in recent years, though, was the large Azera sedan, and I believe I'm to be forgiven for that, because it was a completely forgettable car. It debuted in December 2005 as a 2006 model and, in its best-ever year, sold a respectable 27,000 units, but in recent years other Hyundai models took center stage and the Azera receded from view. At least it did in my mind, especially after the large, luxurious, rear-wheel-drive Genesis sedan came on the scene. Hyundai stopped producing the Azera in November 2010, sending only about two thousand 2011 models out to dealers.
Last November, when Hyundai took the wraps off its all-new Azera at the 2011 Los Angeles Auto Show, we provided all the pertinent details here at automobilemag.com. All that was left was for Hyundai to announce pricing and for us to get behind the wheel. Which is what I did, briefly, last week in Las Vegas.
With visions of the bland and uninspiring 2006 Azera still dancing in my head, I walked over to a row of gleaming Hyundais at Spring Mountain Motorsports Park in Pahrump, Nevada, and climbed behind the wheel of a Venetian red pearl Azera. Whereas the old Azera's interior was a sea of boring beige reminiscent of a hospital corridor, this interior was all drama and elegance, with modern materials, gleaming gauges, and harmonious lines. My brain was having a hard time processing the notion that I was in an Azera and not an Acura or Lexus, but I shouldn't have been surprised: every new Hyundai model in recent years has been a quantum leap over its direct predecessor in terms of design, styling, engineering, and perceived quality, and the Azera is no exception.
Heading out onto wide, flat Nevada Highway 160 east out of Pahrump back toward Las Vegas, I immediately realized that the new Azera is way better to drive than the old car, too. The steering is direct, if still a little artificial in feel. The 3.3-liter, direct-injection Lambda II V-6 engine delivers its 293 hp and 255 lb-ft of torque eagerly through the standard six-speed automatic transmission. (It should be noted, though, that the newly face-lifted Genesis coupe has an eight-speed automatic.) Torque steer (that tug of the steering wheel that you sometimes feel in a powerful front-wheel-drive car when you accelerate hard) isn't an issue, and acceleration from 50 to 90 mph is strong, sure, and sweet, and the engine even sounds good, never strained. The brake pedal was nicely modulated, and the ride quality was well controlled, marking a big step up from old-time Hyundai chassis tuning.
As I crossed the open valley and then ascended into the Spring Mountains, admittedly a very windy area, there was quite a bit of wind noise at the Azera's A-pillars and side-view mirrors. Those mirrors have no blind-spot indicators in them, but overall visibility is good, especially through the windshield, and the A-pillars don't overly impinge on your view.
Aside from its big dose of high style, the cabin offers lots of room. Adjusting the driver's seat for my five-foot, eleven-inch frame and then sitting in the rear seat directly behind, I was surprised by the plentiful foot, knee, and leg room. Rear-seat outboard passengers also get a good-size window to gaze out of. The Azera has the most passenger volume in its class, Hyundai points out, with 107 cubic feet. The trunk, which holds a generous 16.3 cubic feet, is deep and wide but has a fairly high liftover height that older buyers might not appreciate.
Back up in the driver's seat, you'll find clear gauges and a seven-inch display screen for the standard navigation and back-up camera. My test car was equipped with the optional 550-watt, twelve-speaker Infinity stereo via which my co-driver gave me a brief tour of his favorite twentieth-century jazz recordings: The Logic 7 system and its eight-inch subwoofer made the most of the rich details of "Lush Life" by Johnny Coltrane and John Hartman. Gotta love the huge, rotating volume-control knob that sits prominently in the center stack.
These driving impressions are just that, impressions, as I was behind the wheel of the Azera for only about 35 miles, and on Nevada's smooth pavement. We'll wait until we drive an Azera at our editorial offices in Ann Arbor, Michigan, before we render a more complete verdict, but initial impressions of the Azera lead me to think that the Ford Taurus, Nissan Maxima, Buick LaCrosse, and even the Acura TL and Lexus ES350 have a new, tough competitor.
As for pricing, the Azera starts at $32,875, including destination. My fully loaded test car included the $4000 Technology Package, which includes a panoramic moon roof, Xenon headlights, nineteen-inch wheels, and the Infinity stereo, among other equipment.
With the Azera, Hyundai has a complete lineup of modern, competitive sedans: compact Elantra, mid-size Sonata, large front-wheel-drive Azera, large rear-wheel-drive Genesis, and full-size luxury Equus. Memorable models all, from a manufacturer that used to make nothing but forgettable cars.
2012 Hyundai AzeraOn sale: April 2012
Base price/price as tested: $32,875/$36,875
Engine: 3.3L V-6, 293 hp, 255 lb-ft
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: Front -wheel
Fuel economy: 20/29/23 city/highway/combined