2012 Hyundai Azera

Azera is aces in luxury, quiet, comfort

 If you are among the folks who thought Hyundai would never make it in the U.S. car market, well, get over it.

I’ve driven quite a few Hyundai models of late and the new Azera is the finest yet. This is a large front-drive sedan to challenge Toyota’s Avalon and entry-level sedans from Lexus, Infiniti, Acura and the like.

Granted the Azera looks much like a Lexus and, similar to that make, it tends more toward luxury than sport. The emphasis here is on smooth, starting with its gentle curving roofline and profile to the car’s stylish soothing leather interior.

“Made you look!,” could be Hyundai designer’s motto. Indeed I encountered a lot of gawkers while driving this car. Folks appeared surprised and would do double-takes as they drove by on the highway. But getting noticed is just the price of entry in the entry-level luxury market.

Azera performs well in every aspect, starting with its silky 3.3-liter direct-injection V6 that features dual continuously variable valve timing and creates 293 horsepower. That sounds like a lot, and indeed Azera is easy to punch up to highway speeds. But this doesn’t feel like a rocket. It feels like a gentle giant, a large car with graceful manners and a seamless 6-speed automatic to coddle you as you power up to 55 mph or beyond.

Hyundai offers Shiftronic on the tranny too, so you can shift at will. That boosts the performance feel, but I felt so comfortable with the automatic that I rarely shifted manually.

Ride is equally controlled and luxurious. The four-wheel independent suspension and 112-inch wheelbase tamed our crumbling cement roads. Railroad crossings were but a blip as the Azera eased over them. Horrid northwest side Milwaukee streets hardly caused a stir among passengers where usually they cry for a slower pace or different route.

Steering feel remains artificially heavy in Azera, as with many Hyundai models, and there is slight play in the wheel. Handling though is fine. This is a large car, but offers only slight body lean in tight turns and is a delight on the freeway. If you make long commutes or put a lot of miles on annually, this car will make your life easier.

Braking is good from the four-wheel discs with ABS, traction control and stability control. And while 18-inch tires are standard, the test car added 19-inchers and fancy alloy wheels as part of a $4,000 technology option package.

To a person, all my passengers praised the car’s comfort and commented on its quiet interior. This is where even the driver least interested in outward style will appreciate Azera’s comfort and well thought out displays and button arrangements.

The smoke gray metallic test car featured a black leather interior with an attractive fake carbon fiber trim on the doors and small parts of the dash. Gauges and the center stack and console feature a brushed metal look, as does the steering wheel’s hub. There are blue rings in the main gauge pods, which make them easy to read at night and the leather here is soft, feeling as if its surface has been brushed for a more luxurious feel.

Azera’s seats are relatively flat, and exceedingly comfortable. That’s aided by power adjustments for the front, along with three-speed heated and cooled seats, the later being much appreciated on several scorching 95- to 100-degree days. The driver’s seat also includes two memory settings and both front seats feature handy seat-shaped controls on the door. These are outlined at night by white lighting so easy to find, and are extremely intuitive.

Head and legroom are excellent front and rear and the massive trunk offers 17.0 cubic feet of cargo room. Plus, unlike many luxury models, Azera offers split rear seats that will fold down to increase cargo room. Also unlike many European luxury makes, the Hyundai dishes up  a center stack and console that are not overly cluttered. There’s a large 5-inch navigation screen atop the stack, but with six easy to see and use buttons around it, a giant volume knob and a touchscreen for channel selection.

There’s a separate button to press beside the other controls to see the current outside temperature, and a digital clock reading. Climate controls consist of 8 buttons, again large enough to see and press, even if wearing gloves in the winter. The dash includes trunk and fuel-release buttons, too so you don’t have to search on the floor or lower door.

At the bottom of the stack is a covered cubby for electronic goodies, with iPod, USB and auxiliary hookups inside. Two cup holders are covered on the console and the huge arm rest/storage box has a soft padded leather top for extra elbow comfort.

Overhead is a giant panoramic sunroof that retracts from the center, opening to fresh air above the driver’s seat and exposing the glass sunroof over the rear seat. Slick! A Blue Link telematics system is overhead too, like a combo of OnStar and HomeLink.  In back is a power sunshade for the rear window and manual shades on the two side rear windows.

The test car added a technology package that included high-density headlights, rear park assist, a fancy Infinity stereo, that sunroof and sun shade, ambient interior lighting, a power tilt/telescope steering wheel that powers up when the ignition is turned off, and a power driver’s seat extension that could be helpful to longer-legged drivers.

My only bugaboos were the car’s giant A pillar and side mirror combo that partially obstructs side views at intersections. I also do not like the annoying little jingle the car plays every time you turn the ignition on or off. Can it!

On the plus side is gas mileage. I got 24.3 mpg, quite good for a large car. The EPA estimates you’ll get 20 mpg city and 29 highway. I rarely used the Active Eco button on the dash that changes shift points to boost gas mileage and Azera also prefers just regular unleaded.

The final bit of good news? Starting price is $32,000 for Azera, and no other trim levels are offered. Add in the $875 delivery charge and this is a bargain in the entry-luxury sedan market. With its tech package, the test car checked in at $36,875, eating into the bargain price.

One final thought. Many friends were surprised that this is not Hyundai’s top-level sedan, because it certainly well could be. But Hyundai now offers another large car, the Equus, with a 421-horse 5.0-liter V8. It starts at $59,250.

Can’t wait to give it a spin and see if the Europeans and full-on luxury makes should start guarding their lunches a bit more carefully.

Fast Stats: 2012 Hyundai Azera

Made in: Asan, So. Korea

Engine: 3.3-liter DI DCVVT V6, 293 hp

Transmission: 6-speed automatic w/Shiftronic

Weight: 3,605 lbs.

Wheelbase: 112.0 in.

Cargo: 17.0 cu.ft.

MPG: 20/29

Base Price: $32,000

Dealer’s Price: $29,864

Major Options:

Tech package (19-inch hyper-silver alloy wheels/tires, panoramic sunroof, HID Xenon headlights, rear park assist sensors, Infinity premium audio system w/subwoofer & amplifier, driver’s seat cushion extension, power rear sunshade & manual side window shades, power tilt/telescope steering wheel, memory driver’s seat, ambient interior lighting), $4,000

Delivery: $875

Test Vehicle: $36,875

Sources: Hyundai, www.autos.yahoo.com

Photos: Courtesy of Hyundai

Hits: Ultra-quiet interior, smooth power and shifts with excellent ride. Handsome exterior and stylish interior with comfy leather seats, great power seat controls, trim and well laid out center stack, panoramic sunroof, tilt/telescope wheel that powers up and away for easy exits and heated/cooled seats. Massive trunk too.

Misses: Giant A pillar/mirror combo obstructs side view and annoying little tune plays every time you start or turn off the ignition. Can the noise!

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