Review: Hyundai Azera perfectly parked in large sedan segment

In a quiet, forgotten corner of the automotive landscape there is a segment of vehicle called the large sedan. These cars tilt toward luxury but have a foot firmly planted in practicality and economics.

They are for cheap hedonists. Or penny-pinching gourmands. They are for people who fly coach but upgrade to the exit row, favor Macaroni Grill over Olive Garden or see movies only when they hit video on demand but then spring for the HD version.

After several years of neglect, Hyundai is now paying this segment some attention with its 2012 Azera. Slotting above the company's everyman Sonata but below the European-hunting Genesis sedan, the relaunch of the $32,875 Azera foretells of a battle in the large sedan segment.

Both Chevrolet and Toyota brands used the recent New York auto show to introduce heavily redesigned and rethought versions of their large sedans, the Impala and Avalon, respectively. Those models arrive in 2013 and look to shake up current competitors such as Buick's stout LaCrosse, Ford's improving Taurus and Nissan's sporty-but-aging Maxima.

Thus, Hyundai's new Azera is tasked with a challenge; beat the cars available now at their own game while anticipating what's ahead.

The Azera, which was last made in 2010, has all the trademarks of the large sedan class. It has a V-6 engine routing power to the front wheels via an automatic transmission. The 3.3-liter engine is direct-injected for efficiency and has 293 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque.

The engine is also one of the highlights of the Azera; power is smoothly modulated and is more than enough for a car this size, with zero to 60 mph coming in 6.6 seconds, according to Motor Trend.

The engine is quiet under nearly every circumstance, but like that shy kid in the back of chorus, it really sings when encouraged. Meanwhile, the six-speed transmission does its job ably, though slipping it into manual mode reveals some hesitancy to shift gears.

Fuel economy on the Azera is rated at 20 miles per gallon in the city and 29 on the highway. Over 300 miles of testing in slightly more city driving than on the highway, it revealed an average of 19 mpg.

The rest of the driving experience is pleasantly subdued. The suspension is comfortable yet firm; the body rolls around corners in an expected yet not alarming manner, and wind and road noise are nicely hushed.

The Azera's biggest drawback for drivers is the car's electric power steering. This isn't the first time Hyundai has brought to market a new model with a steering system that feels unnecessarily synthetic and removed from what the front wheels are really doing. A similar fault plagued the recent Hyundai Veloster; and it haunts this Azera, especially in tight, last-second maneuvers when you want all the control the car can possibly muster.

Given that Hyundai relentlessly tweaks even the minutiae of its cars' engineering, this repeated oversight is surprising.

But what Hyundai has taken the time to engineer is an interior and exterior worth showing off.

The Azera's body challenges the engine for title of this car's best feature. Even the harshest critics of Hyundai's "fluidic sculpture" design theme should admit that this is arguably the best-looking vehicle in the automaker's showroom.

It takes that design language and applies it in a mature, complete manner. The flowing style is confident without resorting to superfluous embellishments to get attention.

This car should have no trouble standing out from the rest of the large sedan crowd, both now and when those 2013 models roll into the ring. The sleek rear of the Azera and its horizontally oriented taillights are oddly similar to that of the 2013 Toyota Avalon, but with a flourish of style conspicuously absent from the Toyota.

The interior doesn't match the panache of the exterior, though not for lack of trying. The cabin wins plaudits for its excellent construction. Quality materials abound, and they're held together with tolerances usually reserved for a higher class of vehicle. That upscale feel is supplemented by the standard touch-screen navigation system that is still one of the easiest to use in the industry.

Buyers who find solace in a warm interior replete with (usually fake) wood trim should note that Azera's take on budget luxury errs on the more modernist side and uses faux carbon fiber and faux brushed metal trim instead.  

While everything is held together nicely, the layout of the buttons is a bit discombobulated, with symmetry and aesthetics favored over logic. This sends the driver in search of a button that isn't where reason says it should be, and this can be a frustrating distraction.

Additional consternation may result as well from the lack of a dedicated display screen for the climate control. You can call it up on the navigation screen, but if you're using that display for something like directions or for the stereo, you have no idea how and where the climate control is functioning.

But interior gripes end there, as the Azera stays true to its large sedan coterie with an abundance of passenger and cargo space. Passengers 6 feet and up can easily sit behind an equally tall driver; heck, cross your legs if you'd like and enjoy the standard heated leather seats throughout.

Other standard features include a backup camera; dual climate control; stereo system with iPod, Bluetooth and XM Satellite radio; and push-button start. Safety comes in the form of nine air bags, ABS, stability and traction control and a tire-pressure monitoring system.

My test car added the $4,000 Technology package, which includes 19-inch alloy wheels, a panoramic sunroof, Xenon headlights, an excellent Infinity audio system, ventilated front seats and a power rear sunshade. Total damage at the dealership: $36,875.

Although that price tag is a bit spendy compared with the older Azera, it still keeps the 2012 model fiercely competitive for its segment. Thus, value joins a commendable list of reasons this Hyundai is in an excellent position to challenge both current and future rivals.