Hyundai’s press materials list the 2012 Azera’s competitors as “…traditional large sedan sales leaders such as Maxima, Lacrosse, Avalon and Taurus.” But those cars were on the minds of exactly no one at the Las Vegas launch of the 2012 Azera. Only the Lexus ES350, the market’s leading 4-wheeled sensory deprivation tank, was on the lips of the assembled journos when talking about the Azera’s competition. Hyundai didn’t give us much time with the car, but one thing was clear.
The Azera is still not a match for the Lexus ES350. To be sure, the Azera is competitive with the “Big Four” full-size sedans mentioned above. But a loaded Azera, at $36,825, is only $775 less than the base price of a Lexus ES350. Hyundai can compare this car to the Taurus and Lacrosse as much as they want, but the public at large, looking superficially at the pricing structure (base price is $32,825, including destination. The Technology package, the car’s sole option, commands a $4,000 premium), and Hyundai’s newly minted premium image, will inevitably compare this car to the big front-drive Lexus.
When they do, they are going to be disappointed. The Lexus cabin is as quiet as Yankee Stadium was when Lou Gherig gave his final address. At 80 mph, the Azera lets in a staggering amount of wind noise, and dropping down to the double nickel only remedies this slightly. The Azera’s wind noise issue left the biggest impression on me, overshadowing all of the car’s other attributes – not a good sign in a segment that privileges isolation from the road above almost everything else. The interior, while more modern looking than the Lexus, isn’t a match for the ES350’s cabin, which is a superlative experience, “rebadged Camry” comments be damned. The quality of the Azera’s materials still feels a grade below the Lexus – eyeing the slightly wonky fit of one interior panel, my driving partner noted that when it comes to the ES “this is what you don’t get with that extra few grand you spend”.
It was difficult to glean any serious driving impressions of the Azera. We drove it on the exact same pin-straight, baby-bottom-smooth Nevada highways that we did with the Genesis Coupe. And that was it. One Hyundai PR rep asked me if I was even going to write about the Azera, offering me the chance to drive a Genesis Coupe 2.0T on the way back. Hyundai CEO John Krafcik, who rode in the back seat while I drove home from the track, wouldn’t even give me a firm sales number for the car – in fact there was no quantitative number mentioned whatsoever. Apparently, allocation for the United States depends on sales of the Azera in South Korea – a market where the car has always done well – but this hardly seems like a vote of confidence for the Azera’s prospects over here. My 45 minute drive under ideal road and weather conditions was not adequate to get a real sense of the car.
In its home market of Korea, the Hyundai Grandeur (as it’s known) has traditionally been something of a status symbol, driven by politicians, business leaders and other members of Korea’s elite. In America, the car has always been something of an oddity, whether it was sold as the gaudy, baroque XG350 or the previous generation Azera, an elegant if underwhelming sedan that made a great rental car. The lack of any confidence in a public sales target, let alone any serious seat time for us journalists, suggests that Hyundai has low expectations for this car, and that it will remain an oddity that consumers overlook in favor of the cheaper Sonata or the flashier Genesis.
The Azera is a nice car, even if it’s priced a bit too close to the Lexus ES. On the other hand, it’s priced smack dab in the middle of the Maxima, Lacrosse, Avalon and Taurus, and has a number of distinct advantages over the competition; it lacks the annoying MyFordTouch system of the Taurus, is a more civilized car than the Maxima, is more engaging to drive than the Lacrosse and the Avalon and gets better fuel economy than any of them; 20/29 mpg with a combined rating of 23 mpg from its 293-horsepower 3.3L V6 engine. Positioned as the next step up from a Sonata (which can only be ordered with a 4-cylinder engine), Hyundai justifies the $32,000 starting price by claiming that the 2012 Azera comes with far more standard equipment than the outgoing model’s top trim level. The Azera has lots of content; Hyundai’s BlueLink telematics system, a 7-inch LCD screen, navigation, a rear-view camera and heated seats front and rear are all standard. The Technology package adds a full-length glass sunroof, parking sensors, a power tilt and telescoping wheel, 19” wheels and rear sunshades among other items.
While Hyundai had a media blitz for the Azera at this past weekend’s Academy Awards (and a media driving impressions embargo that lifted immediately afterwards), their sales strategy seems unusually tepid for a normally aggressive company. Initial impressions of the car seem to align with our usual take on Hyundai vehicles – a solid value choice, better than most of the field but not quite a segment leader. It’s possible that with South Korea taking much of the volume, Hyundai can move a relatively small number of Azeras Stateside without having to worry about big sales volumes – or dumping their inventory into fleets, where nearly half of full-size cars end up.