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 $32,000 Azera foretells of a battle in the large sedan segment.
The Azera 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 quiet under nearly every circumstance, but like that shy kid in the back of chorus, it really sings when encouraged. Fuel economy is rated at 20 miles per gallon in the city and 29 on the highway.
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.
But on the outside, 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.
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, anti-lock breaking system, stability and traction control and a tire-pressure monitoring system.
Although it's a bit pricey, Hyundai keeps the 2012 model fiercely competitive for its segment. Thus, value joins a commendable list of reasons the Azera is in an excellent position to challenge current and future rivals.