Think of this comparison of the Buick LaCrosse, Hyundai Azera, and Lexus ES 350 as an elimination round. Very soon, the soup bowl of contenders in the full-size, near-luxury sedan category will be joined by two new ingredients — the profoundly revamped Toyota Avalon and Lincoln MKZ — and both of them will spice things up.
Hold on, an Avalon and an MKZ … spicing things up? No, we don’t mean in-car bingo on their entertainment screens. They’re the revamped real deals. Toyota, after contemplating nixing the Avalon nameplate entirely, has pulled out the stops to build a serious player instead. And Lincoln? It’s betting its entire brand on the MKZ re-establishing its relevance. But as we await these two, let’s winnow down the existing challengers.
Of the current crop, our top trio hails from three different countries. The Buick LaCrosse is a familiar face that trumpeted Buick’s return to the living three years ago. In 2010, we compared the LaCrosse to the previous-gen ES 350 and found the new Buick an unexpectedly good driver. It was dramatic-looking, with a confident, big personality design. And its claims of being very quiet were born out by it coming within a whisker of the previous-generation ES 350’s noise levels.
Since then, that ES 350 has been replaced by an all-new edition, which MT contributor Art St. Antoine recently explored in-depth. As he pointed out, it’ll probably be an even bigger sales hit. But let me summarize his dim conclusion: “…in many respects it’s downright disappointing, an uninspired effort, beneath what Lexus is clearly capable of.” Some indisputable good news is that those Avalon origins (its predecessor was based on the Camry) have led to more than four inches of additional rear legroom. But overall, St. Antoine’s critique is pretty harsh.
The Azera is a real wild card. Based on the Sonata’s platform, it’s sort of Hyundai’s Avalon — 3.5 inches longer than the Sonata and 1 inch wider. And the biggest winner is rear legroom, which is inflated by 2.2 inches. But what immediately struck us was the Azera’s jewel-like interior. If Audi is the leader in sophisticated, artful interior design, Hyundai has become the ringmaster of mass-market dashboard dazzle. How well does it actually work? We’ll get to that, but first, the numbers.
Two insights emerged from sifting through the data we recorded at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. First, the ES is a comparatively light car, light enough to leverage its last-place horsepower (268 versus the Azera’s 293 and the LaCrosse’s 303) into a sizable acceleration advantage. Remarkably, its 6-second-flat, 0-60 mph time is 0.6-second quicker than the Azera’s and almost a second better than the 531-pound-heavier Buick’s.
The new ES is even 55 pounds lighter than its predecessor, delivering 2.4 better combined EPA mileage (2013’s 24.6 mpg versus 2012’s 22.2). Some of that is because of its Michelin Primacy MXV4 tires, which happen to be the same low-rolling-resistance rubber worn by the ES 300h hybrid. Unfortunately, it shows. The Lexus understeered its way round the figure-eight course’s corners at a crummy 0.76 g, not helped at all by its group-worst weight distribution (61% of it up front). Frankly, I wondered if this car had the wrong tires, but a call confirmed that these are indeed the prescribed footwear.
Numerically, the track numbers don’t offer a particularly clear picture – the Lexus is quickest in a straight line; the Hyundai stopped in the shortest distance; the Buick delivered the highest lateral grip. However, subjective differences most certainly emerged from our figure-eight lapping.
Here’s what I said about the LaCrosse: “On the road, the Buick seems easy to pitch and roll, but here, where it’s being driven much, much harder, that impression largely disappears. It really gets with the program and turns in a lot better than I expected. Unfortunately, its seats are way too wide a perch for performance antics, and its insanely-wide A-pillars badly obstruct your view while cornering.”
On the Azera: “This car’s steering is a tick more remote than the Buick. Its on-center response is slow, but add in some angle and the front end bites abruptly. The Buick’s steering is no great shakes, but it’s better than this. Within a few laps the Hyundai was really punishing its front tires.”
And the ES 350: “Although its stability system is still presiding over matters, its touch is so subtle, I was able to slightly spin the inside front tire at will while cornering. All its controls seem to have a little more clarity than the other two, but that understeer is a real problem. And its seats? Frankly, I’m simply flying into the door panel. The support is virtually nonexistent.”
To be honest though, for cars in this category, sportiness is an optional reward. But refinement better be standard equipment. And so we took all three cars to a favorite long, straight, delightfully ill-paved road late at night to measure interior noise over an uninterrupted, one-mile stretch. (The results were averaged two-ways.)
This time, the ES 350 bested the Buick in interior noise, 24.6 sones (and 66.1 dBA) to 25.3 sones (66.7 dBA). The Hyundai was a sonic blink behind, tying the LaCrosse in sones, but generating 66.8 dBAs.
After two rounds, the Lexus — which had completely failed to impress our Mr. St. Antoine — appears to be ahead by a nose. Was he mistaken? Our final destination was our Mount Palomar, site of the historic and mighty 200-inch Hale telescope, and perhaps its proximity would offer the insight we’re needing.
The steep climb to Palomar’s summit is a rapid-fire set of horsepower- and agility-testing kinks; the descent, a looser ribbon of road that gradually unwinds down the slope, stressing brakes and stability as it goes. Connecting them is a leisurely cruise to judge luxury-car credentials. And at its summit is Mother’s Restaurant, our headquarters for liberal pie-eating and debriefing.
Benson Kong on the Buick: “The LaCrosse’s small side mirrors attempt to hide the car’s girth, but its lazy body movements give away the car’s true purpose. In attack mode, though, its body roll is well-controlled (better than expected) and the wide tires offer surprising stick. There’s good stability in fast corners, but you use tangible effort to keep your body in place. This is the softest brake pedal of the bunch, and those sounds coming from underneath the hood are not so good.”
On the ES 350: “It’s loud for a Lexus, and I’d wager it’s louder than the previous-gen ES. There’s a lot of road noise and it wanders quite a bit on-center. The ES’ powertrain is probably the best engine and transmission of this group by a smidge over the Hyundai. Good all-around visibility.” But about its enthusiast-driving qualities, Benson opined, “There’s no grip. Its steering response is OK, though artificially heavy. It’s livelier than its predecessor, but there’s just no grip.” Interesting comments.
This new ES 350 is really suffering from a bad case of unmet expectations. It’s louder than we expected. And rides worse than we expected. When you climb into a Lexus, you’re expecting, at minimum, Lexus quietness and ride suppleness. And you hope you’ll be surprised by more. I’m starting to get St. Antoine’s “beneath what Lexus is clearly capable of” comment.
And here’s Kong on the Azera: “As long as there isn’t too much going on for the chassis and suspension to cope with, the car glides easily, though it feels like it needs a little more suspension travel for this segment. Wind noise is prevalent, primarily coming from around the windshield. Surprisingly, those long, slender side mirrors don’t appear to contribute to the noise.” About its performance traits: “Its initial brake bite feels like you’re tapped out of braking early, but more is there. Its suspension is communicative enough, but the car’s rebound behavior makes it feel jittery through poorly paved turns. Maybe the shock absorbers are retaining too much heat? In any event, the steering is really good at isolating all the bad parts of the driving moment (plus some of the good). I think the back end moves around more than the front when in attack mode.”
Where does this leave us? With the cars parked, we tried all the seats, fiddled with controls and contemplated the meaning of it all.
Kong on the Buick’s interior: “There’s a lot of wasted storage opportunity on the flowing center console and too much redundancy on the stack controls. Its back seat feels very cramped in relation to Azera’s and ES 350’s though it’s dimensionally the largest. And I discovered that I can’t put an address into navigation system while in motion. I like having the big wheel on the center stack that controls functionality, but its mirrors’ blind spot warning indicators easily wash out if the sun is hitting just right. Leaving the left blinker on for minutes changes the turn signal chime to a different alert tone — super neat.”
Azera: “This car’s cabin presentation is most forward-thinking here. Dark colors give it a cool, classy ambiance, and I like the ringed lighting sprinkled around the cabin. Center stack is definitely design-driven and the huge volume knob is somewhat out of place. Lots of cool, soft lights that make it impressive to look at at night. The Azera’s shifter, like the Sonata’s, remains too close to the driver. Having the power seat controls on the door panel a la Mercedes is a mind trip every time. And there’s rear seat heaters (outboard only)! Can put address in nav system while driving, but can’t add new cellphone profile via Bluetooth unless the car is in Park. And its panoramic sunroof is impressive.”
ES 350: “Disappointing compared to its fellow newcomer, the GS. The GS’ interior is in genuine contention to be called beautiful, but the ES cut several corners. Beige plastics do it no favors and the separated cupholders on the console look very out of place. However, its cavernous second row should satisfy many a backseat driver. The coolest thing here is its nicely sized center display screen. Its haptic controller works well enough but needs a physical “back” button near the mouse and a software update so the GUI graphics and text enter the hi-fi world. (The latter is a widespread Toyota problem.)”
All three of these cars offer generous interiors, with the Azera leading in both front head- and legroom, plus front and rear shoulder room. The ES 350 had the best rear headroom, while the Buick bested the Lexus’ rear legroom by a half-inch. There’s also a notable difference in trunk volumes. Azera swallows the most, with 16.3 cubic feet, and the Buick is the smallest at 12.8.
Quite honestly, this one’s a close call. But in the very end, the deadlock was broken by a consideration of the Azera’s sheer value. As Kong had commented, “It’s an imperfect car, a snapshot in time as Hyundai continues its rise.” But unlike some previous offerings, this time it checks all the necessary boxes for competence, impresses us with its interior design and finish, and arrives with standard equipment the other two charge dearly for (heated leather seats, 10-way power front seats, touch-screen navigation, back-up camera, and on and on). Parsing second and third place wasn’t easy either, but in the end we liked the Buick’s road manners despite its inferior mileage compared to the ES 350.
Next time: How the Azera compares to the new Avalon and Lincoln MKZ. Stay tuned.
1st Place: Hyundai Azera
Style, competence, and great value win the day, though it’s not a perfect car.
2nd Place: Buick LaCrosse
Giant A-pillars and a cramped trunk are offset by high style and surprisingly good driving manners.
3rd Place: Lexus ES 350
It’s a competent car, but not only does it not raise the bar for the ES 350’s traditional qualities, it actually seems louder and coarser on the road than its predecessor.
|2012 Buick LaCrosse||2012 Hyundai Azera||2013 Lexus ES 350|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front engine, FWD||Front engine, FWD||Front engine, FWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||60-deg V-6, alum block/heads||60-deg V-6, alum block/heads||60-deg V-6, alum block/heads|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||217.5 cu in/3564 cc||203.9 cu in/3342 cc||211.0 cu in/3457 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||303 hp @ 6800 rpm||293 hp @ 6400 rpm||268 hp @ 6200 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||264 lb-ft @ 5300 rpm||255 lb-ft @ 5200 rpm||248 lb-ft @ 4700 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||13.4 lb/hp||12.8 lb/hp||13.2 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed automatic||6-speed automatic||6-speed automatic|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multi-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multi-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F;R||12.6-in vented disc; 12.4-in disc, ABS||12.6-in vented disc; 11.2-in disc, ABS||11.6-in vented disc; 11.0-in disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||8.5 x 19-in, cast aluminum||8.0 x 19-in, cast aluminum||7.0 x 17-in, cast aluminum|
|TIRES||245/40R19 94W M+S Goodyear Eagle RS-A||245/40R19 94V M+S Hankook Optimo H426||215/55R17 93V M+S Michelin Primacy MXV4|
|WHEELBASE||111.7 in||112.0 in||111.0 in|
|TRACK, F/R||61.7/62.0 in||63.2/63.3 in||62.0/61.6 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||196.9 x 73.1 x 59.2 in||193.3 x 73.2 x 57.9 in||192.7 x 71.7 x 57.1 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||38.8 ft||36.5 ft||37.4 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||4072 lb||3762 lb||3541 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST., F/R||58/42 %||59/41 %||61/39 %|
|HEADROOM, F/R||38.0/37.3 in||38.3/37.3 in||37.5/37.5 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||41.7/40.5 in||45.5/36.8 in||41.9/40.0 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||57.4/56.0 in||58.3/56.4 in||57.6/55.0 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||12.8 cu ft||16.3 cu ft||15.2 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.6 sec||2.5 sec||2.3 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||3.4||3.3||2.9|
|QUARTER MILE||15.4 sec @ 92.4 mph||15.1 sec @ 94.3 mph||14.4 sec @ 99.3 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||129 ft||117 ft||125 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.83 g (avg)||0.80 g (avg)||0.76 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||27.3 sec @ 0.63 g (avg)||27.7 sec @ 0.61 g (avg)||28.0 sec @ 0.62 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1600 rpm||1800 rpm||1700 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$41,835||$36,875||$36,995|
|AIRBAGS||Dual front, f/r side, f/r curtain||Dual front, f/r side, f/r curtain, driver knee||Dual front, f/r side, f/r curtain, front knee|
|BASIC WARRANTY||4 yrs/50,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||5 yrs/100,000 miles||10 yrs/100,000 miles||6 yrs/70,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||5 yrs/100,000 miles||5 yrs/Unlimited||4 yrs/Unlimited|
|FUEL CAPACITY||18.0 gal||18.5 gal||17.2 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY ECON||17/27 mpg||20/28 mpg||21/31 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS., CITY/HWY||198/125 kW-hrs/100 miles||169/120 kW-hrs/100 miles||160/109 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||0.95 lb/mile||0.85 lb/mile||0.79 lb/mile|
|MT FUEL ECONOMY||19.6 mpg||21.5 mpg||25.2 mpg|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded regular||Unleaded regular||Unleaded regular|