2012 Hyundai Azera: Hyundai’s new sedan makes it even harder for buyers to make a choice

Lobster or filet mignon? Merlot or cabernet? Paris or London? When you’re faced with tough choices, it takes a lot of consideration to figure out which will make you happiest. Anyone can choose between lobster and a hot dog; that’s easy. The more things are equal, the more difficult the decision. Which brings us to the 2012 Hyundai Azera sedan.

The 2012 Azera is the second-generation of this large sedan, and fits between the Sonata and the Genesis sedan in Hyundai’s lineup that starts with Accent and ends with Equus. There truly is something in Hyundai’s stable to please anyone looking for four-door transportation.

There’s no question Azera has tough competition. Buyers who take it for a spin also will be researching the Ford Taurus, Chrysler 300, Buick LaCrosse, Nissan Maxima, and Toyota Avalon. All these full-size people movers have laundry lists of features, top-notch quality, and impressive performance specifications. So what does Azera have that might push it to the top of that list?

Let’s start with the most important feature to buyers: styling. We know how polarizing design can be, and Hyundai understands the importance of creating a vehicle that looks good. The Azera follows the same styling elements of Hyundai’s family of sedans. It’s what Hyundai calls fluidic sculpture, where the lines run smoothly from front to rear. Hyundai designers did such a good job at making the exterior panels flow that the Azera achieved the lowest coefficient of drag in the segment at 0.28, which means improved fuel economy as well as a quieter interior cabin due to reduced airflow around the vehicle.

Up front, a standard chrome grille, foglamps, and wraparound headlights with LED accent lights create a modern façade that is quite pleasing. A subtle crease in the side that grows more prominent in the rear haunches and taillights that run from one side to the other create a smooth blend of elegance and aggressiveness for the Azera.

Our only concern is that, with this being the fifth vehicle in Hyundai’s lineup to feature fluidic sculpture, it may be too much of a good thing. What we mean is the sedans, with their close design resemblance, are starting to look too similar; differentiating the models from one another is getting difficult. While we love the design, and think it has legs, we hope the designers will keep an eye on this and give each model enough demarcation to help them maintain their unique personalities.

Inside, the Azera is all class. Besides offering the most interior volume in the segment, the fit and finish, quality of materials, and ergonomics are impressive. Drivers will appreciate the cockpit-oriented design, where all controls are within easy reach and visibility to instruments is quick and direct. The center console spreads out into a Y shape from side to side, imparting a balanced feel to the dash panels.

The list of standard features is impressive, but typical for Hyundai vehicles; that’s what it does best: provide more standard content for less money that the competition, which is a strategy that’s helped Hyundai become the 6th best-selling automotive brand in the U.S.

Some of these standard features include a proximity key and pushbutton start, backup camera, heated front and rear leather seats, touch-screen navigation, cooled glovebox, and more. Opt for the Technology Package and that adds a power tilt/telescoping steering wheel, power rear window sunshade, manual rear side window shades, Integrated Memory System (seats, outside mirrors, wheel tilt/telescope), ambient lighting, front seat cushion extension, vented front seats, premium audio, and panoramic sunroof.

While many buyers place a premium on design and interior features, others place a priority on performance. For Azera buyers, that news is just as good. Under the hood of this roomy sedan is Hyundai’s only engine choice for the 2012 Azera: the Lambda II 3.3-liter direct-injection V6 powerplant that delivers 293 horsepower and 255 lb-ft of torque, mated to a 6-speed Shiftronic automatic transmission. These numbers best those from many standard engines of the competition, and deliver a respectable 20 mpg city and 29 mpg highway.

The previous Azera offered two engines: a 3.3-liter or 3.8-liter V6. For 2012, the 3.8-liter has been eliminated, but the upgrades to the second-gen Lambda 3.3-liter are more than enough to compensate for the loss. The sole engine has 10 horsepower more than the previous 3.8 and just slightly less torque. But a higher compression ratio (11.5 versus 10.4) combined with direct injection and dual continuous variable valve timing have given the 3.3-liter the distinction of best-in-class specific output of over 88 hp per liter from the smallest-displacement V6 in the segment.

Despite all the numbers, the proof is in the pedal, and when you touch the throttle, the Azera responds effortlessly. Power is smooth and progressive, and shifts are all but imperceptible. The powerband is broad, and the 6-speed’s gear spacing is almost perfectly matched to the engine. For those who care more about saving fuel than saving time, there’s an Active Eco mode that changes shift points and engine output to deliver a reported 5- to 7-percent bump in fuel economy, while slightly limiting performance.

Although our driving experience was limited to smooth roads with sweeping turns, we expect the Azera will perform admirably when pushed harder. How are we comfortable making this claim? The Azera is equipped with a MacPherson strut front suspension and a multi-link rear setup. Besides adjusting the spring rates to improve side load handling, the suspension incorporates Sachs selective dampers, which provide a good balance between a comfortable ride and firm handling response. On the highway, the suspension felt controlled and exhibited minimal body roll. We also thought the steering was nicely weighted and responsive, helping to deliver a quality feel that owners will appreciate.

The Azera comes standard with 18-inch alloy wheels and tires, again another advantage over its primary competition, with 19s an upgrade as part of the Technology Package. Even with the relatively low-profile tires, one of the shining points of the Azera is how quiet the cabin is even at higher speeds. Minimal wind and tire noise plus a quiet engine add up to another reason why the Azera rightfully belongs on the shopping list with the likes of Maxima, Taurus, and the others.

Okay, you’ve been patiently reading about all the elements that make up the 2012 Azera sedan, waiting for the other shoe to drop. And that shoe is the price. At $32,000 base, and $36,000 with the Technology Package, the Azera is a great bargain in a segment that tends to bait you with a low price, but puts the shock in sticker shock by the time you add in all the features you really want. Putting the loaded Azera up against the luxury champ the Lexus GS350, feature for feature, the Azera comes in about $9,000 less with more standard features, more horsepower, better fuel economy, and a longer warranty.

So what would we pick? Lobster, merlot, and Paris; as far as Azera, that decision is way too close to call.