LAS VEGAS – Few segments have cratered more deeply in recent years than large sedans.

Midsize sedans have grown in size, amenities and performance, eating away at the big, front-wheel-drive 4-door’s niche.

But some auto makers press on, including Hyundai, which in March brings out a new-generation Azera to fill the front-wheel-drive, V-6 hole left when the Sonata went 4-cyl.-only.

The previous generation was reasonably nice, but due to its bland looks and a meager power rating, the car was as forgettable as many of the brand’s other mid-2000s models. Sales were so-so, peaking in 2006 at 24,057 units.

Soft demand for the Azera and competitors Ford Taurus, Buick LaCrosse, Toyota Avalon, Nissan Maxima, Acura TL and Lexus ES 350 dropped those models’ collective sales to 283,296 units in 2011, from 369,658 in 2007, WardsAuto data shows.

The ’12 Azera tested here takes a big leap forward in looks and performance, but its price and lack of pluses over the midsize Sonata likely will continue to narrow its appeal.

The new model, benefitting from the Korean auto maker’s design transformation, wears the same fetching, “Fluidic Sculpture” language that has made the Sonata and compact Elantra successes. Interior materials are Hyundai’s best-ever: buttery soft leather, plush carpet and mostly matte surfaces.

The new sedan grows almost 3 ins. (7.6 cm) in wheelbase, but overall length remains the same, while width increases and height shrinks by less than an inch each.

Total interior volume holds steady and is still the best in the segment, Hyundai claims.

A performance boost is one of the car’s most notable changes. Horsepower of 293 and peak torque of 255 lb.-ft. (346 Nm) come from the addition of high-pressure direct-injection technology and 3-stage variable intake to the carried-over 3.3L V-6.

The previous Azera’s 3.3L topped out at 260 hp and 233 lb.-ft. (316 Nm); its optional 3.8L V-6 churned out 283 hp and 263 lb.-ft. (357 Nm) of torque.

The revamped 3.3L presents a tradeoff. Though increased, torque peaks at a higher engine speed, meaning the Azera responds slowly when the accelerator is mashed. On the plus side, Hyundai is able to squeeze out an additional 1 mpg (0.4 km/L) on the highway and maintain a city/combined rating of 20/23 mpg (11.8-10.2 L/100 km), despite the horsepower boost.

The $36,000 tester, which includes a $4,000 tech package, averages a solid 27.4 mpg (8.6 L/100 km) after nearly 40 miles (64 km) on low-elevation, 2-lane roads from Las Vegas to Pahrump, NV, at an average speed of 51 mph (82 km/h).

Large sedans may have the reputation of old fogeys’ cars, but the calibration of the suspension, accelerator pedal and steering wheel in the Azera suggests otherwise.

The car is no soft-roading, comfort-cruiser like the current Toyota Avalon.

Instead, the suspension is taut, the accelerator pedal quite stiff and the steering heavy. The Azera won’t be mistaken for a BMW 3-Series, but it does lean toward the sportier entrants in the segment, such as the Nissan Maxima.

Not as enjoyable is the driver’s seat, which is positioned neither high enough for the accelerator to be at a comfortable downward angle, nor close-to-level as in a sports car. Fiddling with the cushion controls and extending/retracting the thigh support doesn’t help.

Forward head restaints also are uncomfortable. To comply with federal anti-whiplash rules, auto makers either can employ headrests that auto-adjust forward in a crash or, like in the Azera, that permanently are slanted forward. After an hour or so, driver and passenger necks ache.

But sore is safer to Hyundai, as testing finds forward head restraints, in combination with a unique seatback design, better blunt shock forces of a ricocheting driver.

In addition to the leather and matte surfaces, damped grab bars and a headliner that has the feel of a thick, high-quality cotton shirt give the Azera a premium appearance. Flowing lines that match up precisely across the door panels and instrument panel also are pleasing.

But the cabin lacks the wow factor of the busier Elantra, one of Ward’s 10 Best Interiors of 2011. Rear seats are too soft, causing the leather to pucker, a phenomenon seen in many new Hyundais, as well as models from sister-brand Kia.

Large sedan prices certainly have shot up in recent years.

The ’12 Azera is no different, starting at $32,000, a whopping $7,000 more than the ’11 model, but similar to entry prices for such competitors as the ’12 Maxima and Avalon. Adding the tech package brings the car’s cost to $36,000.

While the large Hyundai and many of its competitors do come well-appointed – the Azera has nine standard airbags, including a driver’s knee bag, a rearview camera and 7-in. (18-cm) touchscreen – a ’12 BMW 328i with all-wheel drive can be had for $36,600.

Because the Azera is such a hot commodity in Korea, outpacing even the Sonata, every U.S. sale likely is icing on the cake for the auto maker.

However, we’re not sure an expensive Hyundai, whose name isn’t Genesis or Equus, will enjoy much success in the U.S., particularly as the now-credible Sonata equipped with a 2.0L turbo and navigation system costs less, delivers more torque more quickly and has just 3 cu.-ft. (0.08 cu.-m) less interior volume.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com

 

12 Hyundai Azera
Vehicle type 4-door, front-wheel drive sedan
Engine 3.3L DOHC V-6 with gasoline direct injection and dual   CVVT, aluminum block/head
Power (SAE net) 293 hp @ 6,400 rpm
Torque 255 lb.-ft. (346 Nm) @ 5,200 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 92 x 83.8 mm
Compression ratio 11.5:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic w/ Shiftronic, OD lock-up torque converter
Wheelbase 112.0 ins. (284 cm)
Overall length 193.3 ins. (491 cm)
Overall width 73.2 ins. (186 cm)
Overall height 57.9 ins. (147 cm)
Curb weight 3,605-3,825 lbs. (1,635-1,735 kg)
Base price $32,000
Fuel economy 20/29 mpg (11.8-8.1 L/100 km) city/highway
Competition Toyota Avalon, Buick LaCrosse, Nissan Maxima, Ford Taurus, Acura TL, Lexus ES 350
Pros Cons
Plush interior Uncomfortable driver’s seat
255 lb.-ft. @ 5,200 rpm
Well-equipped Could buy a Beemer instead