Hyundai Equus — Moving on up

 By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Hyundai broke into the U.S. car market with a roar in 1986 when it sold more than 100,000 sub-compact Excels at a bargain-basement price.

Although the South Korean automaker — which starting building cars in the late ’60s — had gained an instant foothold, its North American existence was threatened with shoddy build quality and unreliability. Hyundai eventually got things sorted out, and in an effort to overcome its dubious reputation it initiated an unprecedented-for-the-time 10-year, 100,000-mile drivetrain warranty.

As Hyundai products got better, the warranty remained and more and more customers were attracted to the ever-improving brand. Then Hyundai, much like Toyota, Nissan and Honda in the ’80s and early ’90s, added a wider range of products including sport utility vehicles, crossovers and sporty coupes.

Once firmly established, Hyundai began building more upscale sedans starting with the XG300 in 2001. The XG became the Azera in 2006 and was joined by the Genesis, an even more upscale sedan, in 2009. The full-sized Genesis, with rear-wheel drive and an available V-8 engine, was named North American Car of the Year in 2009.

Now Hyundai is building on its new-found success in the entry-level luxury market with a more premium luxury sedan called the Equus. It’s built on the Genesis platform and can best be described as the want-to-be equivalent of a loaded $100,000 Mercedes S-Class, but for under 60 grand.

The 2011 Equus is nothing short of an astounding effort. But while it is extremely well done, it somehow lacks the feel — the panache — of the top-level Germans and the Japanese luxury nameplates.

Equus suffers just as the Lexus LS suffered for its lack of heritage and imagination. A soulless copy of a premium luxury automobile; and while the LS has made significant strides forward, getting deserved kudos as a player in the luxury market it still struggles for a place among the very high-end. Equus is just starting in this game and it does it with the burden of being identified primarily with a mainstream, middle-of-the-road brand.

Unlike Toyota, Honda and Nissan that created separate luxury brands Hyundai is not yet ready or willing to take that costly step for a single vehicle, especially for one that has limited production and sales numbers.

Hyundai obviously feels it can overcome this drawback hoping open-minded people who desire this level of luxury at such an affordable price will gladly overlook the Hyundai H sitting high in the middle of the trunk lid. Only time will tell.

None-the-less, the Equus stands on its own as a large, full-fledged luxury-like sedan, and it seems worth every penny of its $58,900 (Signature edition) or $65,400 (Ultimate edition) price-tag.

The Equus is loaded with standard features — many of which are optional on virtually all competitors. The Equus delivers what you expect from a car in this classification including a quiet cabin, rich-looking surroundings, a suspension that soaks up road imperfections, and smooth V-8 performance.

On the downside its rather bland exterior styling leaves the Equus almost invisible with a design, while certainly inoffensive is not inspiring. The demure design is surprising coming from a company that has used bold, eye-catching designs for its newest cars such as the Sonata and Elantra. We can only surmise that Hyundai wanted a conservative appearance thinking that at a glance it was Mercedes like.  

Perhaps another downside in comparing the Equus to other vehicles in the segment is its drivetrain. That being said, we have no complaints over the 4.6-liter V-8 that generates a very enthusiastic 385 horsepower mated to a silky shifting six-speed automatic.

Performance is measured from 0-to-60 in 6.1 seconds with a quarter-mile time of 14.6 seconds at 99 mph. Good enough, but against the Audi A8 (5.5 seconds), Porsche Panamera (5.4 seconds) and BMW 740i (5.5 seconds) Equus is a step slower.

We hear that Hyundai has plans to fix this shortcoming when the 2012 model arrives. It is rumored that under hood will be the company’s new 5.0-liter V-8 developing 429 horsepower mated to an eight-speed transmission. Hyundai has already announced that the new engine will go into a special edition Genesis in 2012.

While steering is a bit on the light side, the Equus still handles fairly well on the twists and turns. No sports sedan by any stretch, the Equus still provides a good balance of comfort and road holding. For an extra measure of performance there is a sport mode available with the push of a button giving the car a slight firming of the suspension and some alteration in the shift points.

Where the Equus stands out is in cabin comfort with virtually all the modern amenities available at the advertised base price. It should be noted that the distaff team of passengers raved about the interior. “Big and comfy,” seemed the consensus. And Equus received top grades for its nicely done IP and trim.

Finding the correct driving position and then saving the settings are a snap mainly due to the Mercedes-like seat controls on the door panel. The front seats, which are heated and cooled, are comfortable. And the driver gets a seat massager to make things even more amiable.

The back seat passengers have not been overlooked. The Equus features amazing stretch-out room for those in the second-row. The rear seats heat and recline for long-distance comfort.

If you opt for the Ultimate edition the rear bench seat is replaced by two reclining bucket seats with heating, cooling and massage functions. A center console includes storage bins, a mini refrigerator, separate climate controls, and controls for the DVD entertainment system.

Standard equipment covers the luxury car gamut. Highlights include an adjustable air suspension, navigation with backup camera, a 17-speaker 680-watt Lexicon surround sound system, adjustable air suspension, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning system and adaptive bi-xenon headlights. Unfortunately its sans a blind spot monitoring  system.

New owners also get an Apple iPad that serves as an interactive owner's manual. How cool is that? And Hyundai will come to your home when you need any type of routine maintenance including oil changes, pick up your car and leave you a loaner. That might be an industry first. Things like these really make you appreciate the effort.

Will Hyundai get many conquest buyers, people who have been driving S-Class Mercedes or BMW 7-Series vehicles? Probably not. But it’s a terrific machine in which to move up from a Lexus ES, Mercedes C-Class, or its own Genesis.

The stumbling block is just that darn big “H” on the trunk lid.

Base price: $58,900; as driven, $58,900
Engine: 4.6-liter V-8
Horsepower: 385 @ 6,500
Torque: 333 pound-feet @ 3,500 rpm
Drive: rear wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 119.9 inches
Length: 203.1 inches
Curb weight: 4,595 pounds
Turning circle: 39.6 feet
Luggage capacity: 17 cubic feet
Fuel capacity; 20.3 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 24 mpg highway, 16 mpg city
0-60: 6.1 seconds (Motor Trend)
Also consider: BMW 740i, Audi A8, Lexus LS 460

The Good:
• Unbelievably low price for luxury segment
• Very long list of standard equipment
• Huge back seat
• Extremely quiet cabin

The Bad:
• Performance good but not up to segment standard

The Ugly:
• It wears a Hyundai badge