The Equus is Hyundai's first foray into the large luxury car market segment and it is effectively an all-new model in a very competitive environment. Equus aspires to compete with the Lexus LS 460, Mercedes-Benz S-Class, and BMW 7 Series.
As well as being an insouciant gesture to the world's premium car manufacturers that it intends to play in every important segment, this model signals Hyundai's unshakable confidence in its own ability to engineer and build world class vehicles. And it might have been easy to discount the threat this company poses to established players were it not for the impressive recent introductions of the Sonata midsize sedan and Genesis near-luxury sedan and coupe.
Now, after driving the new Hyundai Equus, we can confirm that it is comparable in many ways to the key players in the upscale market. Still, after just an introductory drive in Northern California we are not about to proclaim it the best car in class. Considering the stratospheric panache permeating the luxury-car industry, that would have been an unbelievable achievement.
And yet, with its stylish, European-flavored exterior design, a roomy, comfortable interior clad in tasteful textures, mechanical attributes at the leading edge of automotive technology, and tactile and esthetic qualities good enough for the most discerning customers, the new Hyundai clearly has the goods to play in this league.
At the very least, we'd say the Equus is a fantastic vehicle to move into from a lower segment. We don't see potential Mercedes or BMW buyers considering the Hyundai brand, particularly when their aspirations are linked to social status. But with a base price of less than $60,000, the Equus offers all the performance, refinement and amenities this class of car offers at considerably less money than the entrenched opposition.
That on its own is worth consideration. Add intensive engineering, tasteful design and intelligent use of supplier's technology, and you have a car worth owning in its own right. While it might be tempting for some to discount this car as a luxury wannabe with derivative styling and a copycat format, our experience inside the car tells us that Hyundai has closed in on the concept of fine car-making in a way that confirms there is no going back.
Hyundai Equus Signature ($58,000); Ultimate ($64,500)
At first glance, the Equus flashes styling cues at you from various other brands. There's a little Mercedes in the grille, some Lexus at the rear lights, perhaps a bit of Acura RL from directly behind the car. But that's true of many new cars these days. And the Equus goes on to establish its own look after you see it enough times.
In the process, it looks better and better to us, revealing some of the subtlety in former Hyundai design chief Joel Piaskowski's design. (He's now gone off to join Mercedes-Benz, in an ironic turn of events.) Hyundai calls its new design language Fluidic Sculpture.
At the front, the grille design we know well from the Hyundai Genesis has been skillfully integrated with the headlight shapes, and carefully beveled front corners allow the light forms to carry around as vivid slashes into the quarter panels. The effect visually shortens the front overhang appreciably, to good effect. It is functional, too, allowing the auto-cornering HID headlights to swivel more effectively as the car turns.
The side of the car is distinguished by a contour crease that runs across the top of the front fender and then arcs through the doors before kicking up over the rear door handle to meet the rear light, lending the rear fender a muscular outline as it does. Chrome window surrounds and a bright strip below the doors adds further detail, while large, bright 19-inch wheels cram the wheel housings to emphasize a solid stance.
A fast roofline reduces the impression of size, so it is a surprise when you discover just how much interior space the design allows. Mercedes and Lexus have to field long-wheelbase models to be comparable. And the sleek Hyundai roof doesn't hurt rear-seat headroom much, either. The Equus is 0.8-inch shorter and 0.6-inch wider than a Lexus LS 460 L yet the Hyundai has 7.3 cubic feet more interior space than the Lexus does.
As you'd expect from an ambitious luxury-class contender, the Equus features a tidy leather and wood trimmed interior. There's nothing adventurous or experimental about the design, it's straightforwardly classic, but with some interesting arcs and curves in the dashboard wood inlays and vent register shapes to add character. An Alcantara headliner lends a real sense of privilege, and the seats are generous in size and support.
Contemporary instrumentation technology makes for an attractive display, and the main gauges are large and legible. A driver's information display is incorporated into the IP, providing all trip and vehicle status alerts, with accompanying audible warnings when appropriate.
Considering how much equipment the car has, the control layout is relatively uncluttered, with easily found switches and a fairly intuitive iDrive-like function controller. As is typical of the class, the Equus mounts some of the more commonly used switches on the steering wheel, further simplifying the layout.
Tall drivers will like the Equus, since it flaunts a roomy interior with large door apertures for easy access. And sybarites will enjoy the many luxury and convenience devices. We found no difficulty operating the stereo system or navigation without recourse to the manual, although a quick review of the voice-control glossary will certainly help if you plan to handle those tasks verbally.
Both models come with an extremely high level of interior equipment, including a heated wood-and-leather steering wheel with power tilt-and-telescopic adjustment, heated and cooled front seats, Alcantara suede headliner, driver's seat massage, dual automatic climate control with separate adjustment and rear-seat vent control, 60/40 power-reclining rear seats, power rear and side sunshades, auto defogging system with rain-sensing wipers, and 12-way power-adjustable driver's seat.
The Ultimate model adds a forward-view parking and cornering camera, a power decklid, reclining rear seats with powered headrests, cooled rear seats, rear seat massage and leg support, rear seat refrigerator and a rear seat entertainment system. Harden's Lexicon stereo system is among the best available in-car sound systems we've ever heard, with full 7.1 Discrete Logic Surround Sound for brilliant separation and imaging.
Drivers will find much to enjoy behind the wood and leather steering wheel and the unusual winged emblem found at its center. The combination of a very stiff structure, elaborate sound-insulating disciplines and an air-spring suspension produces an experience that is at once quiet, smooth and responsive.
Hyundai's 4.6-liter Tau V8 wrings out its 333 pound-feet torque peak at a fairly low 3500 rpm, but sustains much of that throughout its operating range by dint of variable valve timing and variable intake volume, so it's seldom found wanting. And on the rare occasions where engine speed is too low for the driver's needs, the 6-speed ZF transmission is reasonably quick to find a lower gear.
Of course, the shifts are made in keeping with the Equus's quest for refinement, and the avoidance of shift-shock is a big priority. If you need more response, the selector slips over into the manual slot and puts command back at the driver's right hand. It still takes a full-throttle, high-rev run for the redline to showcase the Tau's real strength, when the fairly hefty car displays an impressive surge of acceleration.
With multi-link suspension all around, the big Hyundai's chassis handles accurately, abetted by the Continental air-struts and the Sachs electronically controlled damping system. There's a driver-selectable Sport position, which subdues ride motions quite well without introducing much abruptness into the ride, but this is not really the kind of car one wants to fling around. It does very nicely with deliberate inputs at a brisk pace.
Hyundai's decision to adopt a hybrid electro-hydraulic steering mechanism was a good one. Utilizing an electric motor to drive a power-steering pump, it benefits from the energy savings enjoyed when cruising straight ahead with the motor at rest, and from the more natural feel of hydraulic assist once the electric motor has been summoned into action. Compared with a Lexus LS 460L which happened to be on hand for reference, the Equus has a far more organic sense to its steering than the Lexus can muster with its fully electric system.
That comparison revealed that the Lexus still has the upper hand, if only fractionally, in terms of noise and vibration damping, and perhaps also in regard to ride quality. But the Equus isn't far off, and it's certainly in the game as far as luxury attributes are concerned. It proved quieter than a Mercedes-Benz S550 that was also on hand, and its standards of fit and finish left very little to be desired. Altogether, it's an impressive interloper in rich company.
Conventional wisdom suggests that you can't move an everyday car brand upscale without a name change and a new dealer outlet. Hyundai is about to contest that assertion, using a store-within-a-store point of sale system and an at-home vehicle demonstration system called your time, your place. The company says it will offer a modern premium experience, where the owner's manual comes in the form of an iPad and a valet service program will pick up the vehicle for services, providing a loan vehicle until its return. It's a new way of doing business, and a bold new luxury model to accompany it.
Barry Winfield filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report after his test drive of the Equus near Palo Alto, California.