Get a luxury-car-owning friend or relative to wear a blindfold for a moment, then get them into the passenger seat of the Equus—and we'd venture to say that on a gentle cruise he or she might guess that you're in a Lexus, Infiniti, Lincoln, or maybe Mercedes-Benz.
Of course, it would be more than a little gimmicky for Hyundai to try something like the Pepsi Challenge with the Equus; and the truth of the matter is that, once you pull the blindfolds or disguises away, it's game-over for some shoppers who do consider image, feeling accomplished, and impressing the Joneses. And as we found in a week with the Equus, it also doesn't take long to lock on to a few subtleties that, depending on your motivations for a luxury car in the first place, might affect how you feel about the deal you're getting.
While Toyota went to establish Lexus, Honda formed Acura, and Nissan has Infiniti, Hyundai has no such plans (although it is offering Equus shoppers an upgraded dealership and service experience). And almost in an effort to downplay that decision, the Equus doesn't seem all that eager to call itself out as a Hyundai. In place of the Hyundai logo, there's a winged-bird logo at the front—above a grille design that it mostly shares with the somewhat smaller Genesis sedan—as well as on the wheels, and on the steering wheel. From inside the car there's no reminder that you're in a Hyundai, and the 'H' atop the trunklid is the only brand badge.
Derivative cues, overt expression
Otherwise, from the outside, the Equus makes a little too overt of a first impression for aspiring to be a top-tier luxury car. Its mirror-like chrome-finished wheels and heavily chromed grille and trim do make it look like it's trying hard—although we liked the Black Noir Pearl paint, with its faint metallic purplish hue, as well as the Bentley-like body crease at the front of the rear fenders, which brings it a muscle-toned look from some angles.
Aside from those points, the Equus feels inside and out like a luxury-car greatest-hits package. We see the cabin as convincing as a whole, but with details that piecemeal, we could say we've seen before. There's none of the daring design leadership we see with Hyundai's other mass-market sedans, like the Elantra, Sonata, or Azera, but maybe it's coming in a next-gen Equus.
It's not all milquetoast, and the Equus also stands apart from other large luxury cars in ways good and bad. This past year, Hyundai introduced a new 5.0-liter version of its Tau V-8. This engine leaves no question about its virility; it starts with a rumble, and launches the heavy Equus from traffic lights with a level of snap and gusto that feels almost out of character for the rest of this car's sedate demeanor. Adding to that impression is a throttle that's quite a bit touchier than those of other luxury cars.
We have no complaints about the way in which the eight-speed automatic transmission shifts, either; in the style of transmissions in traditional German luxury cars, it lopes up to second gear when you're just underway, unless your right foot is really into it. Yet make any rapid movement with your right foot and the transmission grabs a lower gear, seemingly overdelivering on forward g forces; it's more in sync with the Infiniti M56 in that way. Steering is electrohydraulic, and it feels precise and well-weighted, allowing you to easily place this wide sedan on narrower city streets.
Body motion, thirst are character flaws
To say that ride quality is where it falls apart would be an exaggeration; but ride quality is where the Equus starts to feel less in that top echelon of prestige luxury, yet a notch above the outgoing Lincoln Town Car (the Equus was after all developed as an executive/limo model in its home market). Overall, the air suspension and relatively soft chassis settings make no attempt to play sport sedan. We sensed very little difference in settings by hitting the Sport button, and at higher speeds when the pavement is more rippled or uneven, there's a wallowy feeling, and the front end seems to bob over patched pavement; there's also quite a bit of nosedive in hard braking. The Equus tends to look a little odd when it's parked, as it does sink noticeably (a couple of inches, perhaps) to an access mode when the engine is off.
Gas mileage is disappointing; and in fact based on what we saw in the Equus we have every right to call it a guzzler. EPA ratings stand at 15 mpg city, 23 highway, but after a few days and 90 miles of mostly short errands around town we were only averaging 12 mpg. After nearly 150 miles and some driving on the highway, our average lifted to nearly 15. And no, that includes just a couple foot-to-floor passes.