By Michael Taylor
We all know there are far too many cars out there. At least three dozen auto brands vie for your dollar – or, in these parlous times, your $30,000, the average price of a new car in the U.S. There are hundreds of models, and the people who design cars, or figure out how to market them, are slotting so many of them into the lineup that sometimes you think, hey, just make it simple, give me one or two choices. Well, if today’s example is any indication, you’re not going to get that choice anytime soon, and in there is a point to be made.
Hyundai, the Korean manufacturer whose first attempts to sell cars on these shores, the 1980s-era Excel (aka the Execrable), ended in ignominious failure, has zoomed up the ladder here. Hyundai now sells an array of modern, well-made sedans, SUVs, and sports cars that, frankly, are giving the veteran Japanese auto makers fits, just as the Japanese gave the Americans fits more than 30 years ago with their own incursion. Hyundai’s darling-of-the-auto-press these days is the Sonata, a four-cylinder sedan that competes favorably with Honda’s venerable Accord and Toyota’s ubiquitous Camry. These cars – the bread-and-butter sedan of America –all start in the low $20,000 range and range up to a shade over $30,000. The Sonata has gotten rave reviews and is clearly making a dent (so to speak) on the car buyer’s consciousness.
In the world of Hyundai, there’s the Sonata in that popular range and then, when your ship arrives, you trade up to the Genesis, a rear-wheel-drive sedan in the wannabe-luxo area (roughly $34,000 to $46,000).
In between is the Azera(where do they get these names?), the car that, more than almost any car out there, screams anonymity – or, at least, a tendency to stay firmly in the middle; it’s a centrist, a political hothouse flower that isn’t ready to make a commitment to anything. Maybe we’re getting carried away here, but when several friends asked me recently what I was driving and I brightly said, “a Hyundai Azera!,” the reaction was a mixture of “huh?” or “hmmm, a what?” and so on.
Okay, okay. It’s not as bad as all that. What we do have here is a car with a remarkable array of features, goodies we really shouldn’t take for granted, wrapped up in a package that has a base price of $32,000. Its competitors are the Toyota Avalon, Acura TL, Nissan Maxima, Buick LaCrosse and Lexus ES350, among a few others. (The Lexus, equipped like the $36,875 Azera I tested, will run you nearly $10,000 more, by the way. But you do pay for that Lexus name. It’s the star factor.)
The Azera is powered by a 3.3-liter, 293-horsepower V6 and glides down the road with the help of a six-speed automatic gearbox (with the requisite manumatic shifter so you can play Boy Racer at will) and gets about the average gas mileage you’d expect in a car like this (20 mpg city, 29 mpg highway.) The design is in that currently voguish look of high beltline, fairly short window glass and, as Hyundai puts it, the car is a product of “fluidic sculpture.” I liked the style touch of the exhaust tips that blend into the rear bumper (viz. Lexus LS460). My first visual impression of the silver Azera I tested, with its dark glass roof, was that it looked kind of like a Mercedes-Benz CL series (I can hear the howls in Stuttgart) and maybe that was Hyundai’s intention. The car had the $4,000 technology package whose greatest feature, frankly, has little to do with technology – it’s a panoramic double sunroof, in which a huge piece of glass over the front seats slides back over another big piece of glass on the back half of the roof. You can also drive with the glass closed up, but the two, yes two, sliding roof curtains fold into the roof’s interior. You also get the 550-watt “Infinity” audio system, 19-inch (instead of 18) wheels, rear window sunshade and other doodads, such as ventilated front seats (chilled air as well as heat), and a “driver’s seat cushion extension.” (The 2012 Azera we tested is identical to the 2013 model, Hyundai says.)
On the road, the Azera is quiet, nimble, and quick to react in the usual panic stops that inevitably happen in freeway driving. I did feel that the electrically-aided power steering was a bit numb – you didn’t get much road feel coming back through that steering column – but this is clearly not the end of the world and you don’t have to take the car back to the dealer and demand your money back.
A few nits: the front seat adjustment buttons, mimicking the sideview outline of a seat cushion and its backrest (looks a lot likes the ones in a Mercedes), are mounted high up at the front of the doors and are a bit too far away. Or maybe I was just pushing the seat back too far. Because of that high mass of steel on the sides, and the lower roofline, you feel a little cramped when you look around while backing out of a parking space. The Azera’s predecessor had a larger greenhouse and the sightlines were better. But these are nits.
The main thing about the Azerais this: it is a car for people who don’t want to be noticed. It will blend in with all the other four-door near-luxury sedans in that sprawling shopping center parking lot (good luck on finding your car in that sea of sameness) and it will do a fine job of getting you from here to there.
In truth, it’s a stealth car. It’s as if Hyundai sneaked it in between the Genesis and the Sonata and is now telling its customers, almost as an afterthought, “well, come over here and take a look at this one.” And they’re right. It’s worth looking at.