By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, my family had one not-quite-Cadillac after the next. A succession of Oldsmobiles that had many of the same features, but cost my folks less to buy because an Oldsmobile wasn’t a Cadillac — even if only in name.
The Hyundai Azera is a modern take on this idea.
For about what you’d pay to get into a compact-sized entry-luxury sedan such as a BMW 3 or Benz C, you can get into a full-sized Azera that’s bigger outside and inside than a BMW 5 or Benz E.
And it’s not merely a large car.
The Azera (like its principal rival, the Toyota Avalon) is also a really nice car. Leather interior — with heated seats in both rows — and a refrigerated beverage cubby in the center console. 10-speaker HD radio, GPS, auto climate control. An almost-300 hp V-6.
All standard — and for just over $33k.
For a few bucks more, you can fit it out with a full-length panorama sunroof, power driver’s seat cushion extender, side glass privacy shades, 14-speaker Infinity stereo, carbon fiber interior trim plates, 19 inch wheel/tire package — and still only be looking at about $37k, sticker. About what you’d pay for an entry-level (and only mid-sized) Lexus ES350 ($36,470).
Now, granted, it’s not a Lexus — or a BMW or a Benz.
But damn, Hyundai is sure trying to make them look bad.
And in several respects, succeeding.
WHAT IT IS
The full-size Azera luxury-touring sedan occupies the slot in Hyundai’s model lineup just above the mid-sized, family-minded Sonata sedan and right below the also-mid-sized but more sport/performance-minded (being RWD) Genesis sedan.
It’s also corporate cousin to the just-launched (2014) Kia Cadenza — which is priced slightly higher: $35,100 to start vs. $33,145 for the Azera. The Kia is slightly sportier-looking than the Hyundai and also a bit more sporty-driving, with a slightly firmer-riding suspension. It also comes with a few additional bells and whistles, such as adaptive cruise control and water-repellent window glass — which you can’t get in the Azera at the moment, but which will likely become available soon.
The Azera’s base price is slightly higher than the base MSRPs of rivals like the Toyota Avalon ($31,800 to start) and a lot higher than the base MSRP of the all-new 2014 Chevy Impala ($26,860 to start). But unlike these competitors — which are sold in multiple trims — the Azera comes in just one fully loaded trim.
When comparably equipped, its rivals typically end up costing more.
Hyundai introduced the current Azera in 2012, so the current (2014) is only about two years old. There are no major updates for 2014, but it looks like there will be a mid-cycle refresh for the 2015 model year. In all likelihood, the ’15 Azera will come with (or offer) some of the equipment currently offered in its Kia Cadenza cousin, such as Adaptive Cruise Control.
It’s also possible there will be a hybrid or other economy-minded engine option.
Full-sized luxury, mid-sized price tag.
Standard V-6 is more powerful than several “luxury” cars’ standard fours.
Well-equipped, but not overwhelmingly so.
Peace-of-mind 10-year powertrain coverage.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
No hybrid or other gas-sippy engine option.
Sister car Cadenza has features not offered (yet) in Azera; offers a bit more styling and driving verve for about the same money.
UNDER THE HOOD
All Azeras come standard with a 293 hp 3.3 liter V-6 and six-speed automatic. The car can get to 60 in about 6.5 seconds, which is a speedy run.
It’s interesting that a car like this — a car that costs about $33k — comes with more engine — both in terms of displacement and power — than cars like the BMW 3 (or 5) sedans and the Mercedes C (or E) sedans, which can cost as much as $20,000 more and which are — ostensibly — premium cars. Those cars (most of them) come standard with fours now — and some of them (like the 1.8 liter, 201 hp Benz C250) are nearly 100 hp shy of what you get standard in the merely “Hyundai” Azera.
The Azera also outmuscles price-comparable rivals like the Toyota Avalon (3.5 liters, 268 hp) as well as the Chevy Impala — which comes standard with a 2.5 liter, 195 hp four (a 3.6 liter, 305 hp V-6 is available — but it’s optional).
So, what don’t you get?
Good gas mileage.
The BMWs and the Benzes use turbo fours (and turbo-diesels) to deliver comparable 0-60 times, with EPA highway numbers in some cases (3 series diesel, for instance) well into the mid-40s.
The Azera rates 20 city, 29 highway — which isn’t terrible.
It’s just not great.
And it’s also odd in a way. The higher-priced cars just mentioned can be a lot more economical to drive — even if they are much less economical to buy. A car like the Azera loses some points on this account — especially in view of the fact that more direct rivals like the Toyota Avalon can be ordered with a hybrid powertrain capable of exceptionally economical operation (40 city, 39 highway) or — as in the case of the ’14 Impala — can be ordered with a more frugal four-cylinder engine (25 city, 35 highway).
It’s likely that Hyundai (and Kia, in the Cadenza) will address this by 2015. A hybrid version will almost certainly become available — and perhaps a four-cylinder, too.
The current car does have an “Active Eco” setting — there’s a driver-selectable button off to the left of the steering wheel. When activated, the transmission shifts into higher gear sooner to conserve fuel and other engine operating parameters are adjusted to maximize efficiency.
I honestly could not tell the difference, MPG-wise, either way.
However, one very real fuel-saving attribute of the Azera is that its engine is made to run best on regular unleaded.
Premium fuel isn’t even recommended.
It’s often the case (and typically the case with status-brand cars) that powerful engines require premium fuel only. The 20 or so cents per gallon difference in cost, regular vs. premium, will probably save you more money than pushing (or not pushing) the Active Eco button.
I also dig that the Azera does not have an Auto-Stop function — a gimmick, in my opinion, that probably causes more in the way of wear and tear than saves you money on gas.
ON THE ROAD
The Azera’s engine pulls strongly and without drama — for which it has been criticized by some other reviewers. They forget, I think, that the Azera is supposed to be a luxury-touring car. Or more to the point, a car that in many ways offers more real luxury than the higher-priced cars it was designed to undercut. And what could be more luxurious than a bigger/stronger — and quieter/smoother — engine?
It used to be that when you paid more for a car, you got more under the hood.
Lately, you get less.
For instance, to get nearly 300 hp in a new BMW 3 sedan (a much smaller car than the Hyundai) you’re looking at $43,400 to start — for the 335i. To get 300 hp in a BMW 5 (still smaller — and less roomy inside — than the Hyundai) you’re up to $53,400.
Meanwhile, the standard turbo four in cars like the above — while fun to play with, if you’re after that — isn’t as calmly powerful (especially in the lower ranges of the RPM band) as a bigger (and not turbo’d) V-6 as in the Azera. You hardly have to exert pressure on the accelerator pedal to get gratifying (and amply sufficient) acceleration. Spur it lightly — and off you go. Quietly, smoothly, without fuss. It’s rarely necessary to spin it faster than 3,500 RPM or so. This is the chief virtue of a bigger rather than a smaller engine — and having a big engine is one of the things that used to define a luxury-touring car.
But don’t expect the good times to last.
The current Azera was introduced in 2011 as a 2012 model. Since then, the federal government kicked-up fuel economy mandatory minimums (CAFE, in DC-speak) to 35.5 MPG, average. It is for this reason that BMW, Benz — and probably soon, Hyundai too — have been shedding bigger — and thirstier — sixxes in favor of smaller, fuel-sippy fours like a Himalayan cat drops fur on the couch. I fully expect the Azera update that’s on deck for model year 2015 to involve either a smaller, less powerful (but more economical) standard engine — with the 3.3 liter six relegated to optional status, as is the case with the new Chevy Impala. Or there’ll be a hybrid option, to even out the CAFE averages.
One other point of order. The Azera is, of course, a front-wheel-drive car. FWD vs. RWD is one of the few meaningful/functional differences between “status” cars (BMWs, Benzes, et al) and, well, not-status cars. Hyundai is trying to horn in on that action too, of course — with the RWD Genesis and Equus sedans.
But RWD isn’t necessarily a plus.
Getting the power to the back wheels means a driveshaft running from the engine up front to an axle in the back. This means more parts — and more parts take up more space. All else being equal, a FWD car will usually have more interior space (and a larger trunk) than an otherwise similar RWD car. I’ll get into that in more detail below.
On the track, a RWD car has a handling advantage over a FWD car, by dint of (usually) more even weight distribution and because the drive wheels aren’t also the wheels that steer the car. But on the street, the FWD car has the traction advantage — especially if there’s water (or snow) on the road — because the engine pulls rather than pushes the car and because the weight of the engine (and transmission) is pushing down on the drive wheels, which helps them to bite better and slip less.
AT THE CURB
Hyundai (and Kia) are surely giving the Status Boys heartburn. The initial knife-thrust was the striking-looking Kia Optima — which has sold like black velvet paintings at an Elvis convention. I see them (Optimas, not Elvis paintings) everywhere.
Now comes the Azera (and its corporate cousin, the Kia Cadenza). Also striking-looking cars that shiv the Status Cars on price. It is no coincidence that Mercedes just launched a new “under $30k” sedan — the CLA. Not when you can buy a car like this for just over $30k.
Now, granted, Hyundai did some cribbing. The Jaguar XF-esque tail-lights, for instance. The Chrysler 300 double-pleated hood. And the Lexus LS-esque trapezoidal exhaust tips. Doesn’t detract from it looking good, does it? And the jaunty arch that sweeps upward from the back doors to the trunk? That’s uniquely Hyundai — and uniquely Azera.
I mentioned earlier the roominess advantage of the FWD layout vs. the RWD layout. The Azera has slightly more legroom up front than Hyundai’s top-of-the-line (and RWD) Equus sedan — 45.5 inches vs. 45.1 — and nearly as much backseat legroom — 36.8 inches vs. 38.6 — as the physically much larger (196.3 inches long overall vs. 193.3 inches) Equus.
But how does the Azera compare to its immediate competitors?
The Toyota Avalon and Chevy Impala are both a bit larger on the outside than the Azera, 195.3 inches overall for the Toytoa and 201.3 inches for the Chevy — and give you a lot more backseat legroom — 39.8 inches for the Chevy and 39.2 for the Toyota. Still, they’re all adult-friendly as far as the back seats go — vastly more so than RWD price (but not size) comparables. The new Benz CLA, for instance, has just 27.1 inches of second row legroom.
That’s a difference you’ll notice.
Headroom in the back is also something you’ll notice. There’s plenty for someone well over six feet — and that means for nine out of ten people.
I mentioned earlier the back seats also come standard with heaters — a nice touch, that. To get heated rear seats in the Avalon, you’ve got to step up to the Touring trim, which has a sticker price of $35,500 — $2,355 higher than the Azera’s base price. The Impala doesn’t offer rear heaters at all.
Other nice touches include the controls for the front seat adjusters, which are not located where you can’t see them. Hyundai emulated the premium cars it is working night and day to send to the glue factory by mounting them on the door panels, where you can both see and reach them easily. At night, the buttons are highlighted with ice-blue LED backlighting, too.
The trunk is huge — 16.3 cubic feet, bigger than the Avalon’s — and the trunk lid opens tall and wide. It’s not quite as capacious as my mom’s old ’74 Olds 98 — but it’s close!
All the Azera’s controls are blessedly easy to comprehend and operate. For example, there’s a single, hand-sized rotary knob to control the audio system’s volume. Push it to turn the radio off — again to turn it back on. You want the seats to heat? Push the (clearly marked) seat heater button. No multiplexed menus; no mice — no hassles. This is a clear departure point relative to the Status Stuff, where the controls are often inscrutable and awkward to operate.
One control that does need updating, though, is the cruise control. It’s a basic system that will try to maintain whatever speed you set. But if you roll up on traffic — or find yourself rolling down a hill — the system can’t adjust vehicle speed accordingly. You have to manually brake to avoid running up on the bumper of the slower car ahead of you — or to keep the car from building up too much speed when descending a steep grade. Adaptive cruise control — which is pretty much standard in higher-end cars these days — uses radar proximity sensors to detect the presence of traffic and automatically decreases (and then increases) your vehicle’s speed to match the ebb and flow of traffic. And to keep you from getting nabbed in a speed trap at the bottom of a hill.
The absence of adaptive cruise control — even as an option — is one of the very few areas where the Azera’s not quite up to snuff.
Some cars have obnoxious buzzers that harass you if you elect not to wear your seatbelt. The Azera has an overly-cheerful syrupy ring-tone thing that plays whenever you start — or stop — the engine. It only lasts a few seconds, but it gets old after awhile. I wonder whether it can be turned off.
Beyond this — and the lack of Adaptive Cruise Control — this is an impressive car for the money.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I’ll take a Cadillac at an Oldsmobile price any day of the week.
How about you?