Rarely seen in the media spotlight is a selection of cars that cater to a very select demographic. These sedans go about their business in a very quiet manner and do so without complaint or concern. Because they were created for a small section of the buying public, the competition between the segment’s offerings has become rather heated. The philosophies that embody the large, “aspirational” luxury sedans are so similar that each vehicle available seems to model each other perfectly. It is only when you begin to dig deeper that each one starts to show their separation with certain unique traits and talents. It may seem oddly similar to its rivals from America and Japan, but Hyundai’s latest quiet heavy hitter is much more than just a Korean Toyota Avalon. The 2012 Hyundai Azera truly is, luxury the way luxury used to be.

The Azera has a rather interesting place in the Hyundai lineup. Before 2008, the big bodied sedan was the automaker’s flagship and had been since the first version of it – the XG350 – bowed in the late 1990s. But once the Genesis Sedan debuted, the Azera became an “aspirational” luxury sedan; the kind of which former Sonata owners would purchase. It wasn’t as technology filled and racy as the rear drive Genesis but in all honesty, the car hasn’t been so significant that it’s outshined the Sonata. This became especially true when the current generation Sonata was born in 2011 as that car became so popular and successful, that the fourth generation Azera went practically unnoticed. For the 2012 model year, Hyundai has decided to change that by giving their Azera a new lease on life as pretty much everything about the new car is, well, new.

It is clear that Hyundai wants the word “easy” to come up quite often when the Azera is described. In order to accomplish this, the car is offered with just two trims and two prices: base and Technology. Like the last Azera we drove in New Orleans, our tester came equipped as the loaded-out Technology, which goes for $36,875 with destination charge. That price is $4,000 more than the base car which means that compared to the 2011, the $32,000 2012 is a bit more expensive. There just so happens to be a “but” as for that MSRP, a buyer gets a substantial amount of stuff including leather seats, heating for the front and rear, rear backup camera, dual zone climate control, satellite radio, Hyundai’s BlueLink telematics system with hands-free control as well as navigation. This feature might be justification alone as the Azera is the only segment offering to have such a system as standard. To accompany our tester’s wealth of no-charge items, the Technology package adds things like HID headlamps, a panoramic sunroof, 19 inch wheels, cooling feature for the front seats as well as lower extension for the driver’s side, a tilt and telescoping steering wheel, power rear sunshade, an Infinity supplied stereo and ambient lighting.

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With its sights set on the likes of the Toyota Avalon, Ford Taurus and Buick LeCrosse, the Azera’s specialty can be found on the inside. Cars of this magnitude carry with them a level of luxury that was first since in 1960s Detroit: complete and totally effortless. Separating itself from its smaller Sonata brother, the Azera’s interior is truly unique to the Hyundai lineup and features a layout not to commonly used. Instead of height, lumbar and angle adjustments on the lower part of the front seats, the switches can be found on the door cards: a rarity in itself. It may look classy and antiquarian, but it isn’t grab-and-go friendly and more often than not, we found ourselves reaching underneath us only to find nothing. Even still, once we became “used” to it, a desired seating position was quickly found. The Azera caters to a wide variety of drivers, especially when given the tilt and telescoping steering wheel. Someone measuring in at 5 foot 7 can find comfort as easily as someone six and a half feet tall. There was never a case of cramped feelings while up front and the wide center console supplied ample arm room for both driver and passenger. This is created by Hyundai’s “Y” designed dash so that each front occupant has his or her own “personal” space. Whether gripping the leather wrapped steering wheel or fiddling with the satellite radio stations, each person up front has a fantastic view all around them: including up above. It may seem novel, but the panoramic sunroof actually adds enough charm to justify its existence.

Just like its big brother, the Genesis Sedan, the back area of the Azera is a place of pure envy. The quality of the materials used throughout the interior is fantastic but for some reason, the back feels slightly better. With leg room aplenty, separate climate control, heated seats and our tester’s side and rear sunshades, occupants of the back will find it rather difficult to complain honestly about a lack of comfort. The case might be that the Azera engineers favored the back a little more than usual because despite the front being superb, the rear doors seem to open an entirely different world. For once, being the last person to call “shotgun” isn’t cause for disappointment.

Comfort is one thing, but a person isn’t going to spend more than $30 grand on a couch, so the Azera must function beyond just that. Under the hood of all 2012s is one engine which is paired to one transmission which drives only two wheels: the fronts. Motivating the car is a Hyundai exclusive V6 engine that displaces 3.3 liters and uses the automaker’s NEMPA’s award-winning gasoline direct injection. This mill, a member of the Lambda family and close relative to the 3.8 liter unit powering the Genesis, is only used in the Azera and features an 11.5:1 compression ration, dual overhead camshafts, variable valve timing, 293 horsepower and 255 lb-ft of torque. Where the 3.8 is tuned for high performance, high revs and high excitement, the 3.3 is tuned to be a smooth operator. Paired to Hyundai’s six speed automatic, the Azera accelerates quickly, but in the most mature manner possible. When floored, the ability to drag race 20-year-old modified Honda Civics is there, but the Azera is much more comfortable cruising and quietly shuffling away. Shifts from the six speed, be it ups or highway passing down-down-downs, are pretty much unfelt and just like in New Orleans, its operations went on the background unbeknownst to us. The electric power assisted steering is utterly effortless and by no means “weird”; a contrast to the similar system found in the Veloster. Hyundai has a fantastic ability at engineering personality into their vehicles and the Azera is – let’s be honest – old. Unlike other cars which are described as such, the Azera is easily one of the most modern interpretations of the adjective on the market today and it goes about its business with wisdom, courage and confidence.

For 2012, Hyundai is taking a chance with the Azera. The car is a strong seller in the automaker’s Korean home but here in the U.S., its namesake went throughout life with more raised eyebrows than anything else. The Sonata and Genesis Sedan find numerous spots on television and in magazines and are generally known by the media and the public. The Azera on the other hand hasn’t fared as well, but perhaps things are about to change. No longer lost in the shadows of its bigger and even smaller siblings, the other large Hyundai finally appears to be significant, especially when compared to its main rivals. It has its flaws such as too much road noise, back seats that are better than the fronts, a far-to-similar family look and when taken out of its segment, it can seem expensive. The Infiniti G25 we tested not too long ago starts at $32,000 while the Lexus ES begins at $36,000. Those vehicles may create a more drastic effect of jealousy upon the neighbors, but none of them offer satellite navigation as a standard feature. The Azera may cater to a select group of buyers, but when shopping between the Buick LeCrosse and the Toyota Avalon, you would be doing yourself a disservice by ignoring the Hyundai. No longer is the Korean nameplate a downside to purchasing a new vehicle as the sedan is just as comfortable, roomy and luxurious as its long-standing competition. The car hit dealerships recently with numerous goals to accomplish but perhaps its most important was to become actually significant. We believe it is safe to say that the 2012 Hyundai Azera can rest assured knowing it has done just that.

Photos: © Copyright 2012 Ossamah Shabbir