2011 Hyundai Equus Review

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Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
January 26, 2011

The 2011 Hyundai Equus sets a high-water mark for the Korean brand, and rings like a warning shot to the folks over at Lexus.

The 2011 Hyundai Equus is picking a fight with the best executive-class sedans in the world, but can it really topple the Lexus LS, BMW 7-Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class from their lofty perches?

The answer depends largely on how much the recession has ravaged your 401(k). If you're drooling over a German, but aching badly for some sort of fiscal relief, the Equus delivers a knockout blow to those car prejudices and gives you the cover you need to buy a Hyundai instead.

The math is simple. Hyundai's new Equus carries the same number of people, spits out nearly identical fuel-economy numbers, and hustles itself along about as swiftly as the comparable versions of these time-honored sedans. What it doesn't do is maul your Quicken account quite as badly, since its base price of $58,000 is what you'd pay in most instances, for the mid-size sedans from those brands. BMW's 7-Series starts from $82,500 for a competitively powered 750i; the Mercedes-Benz S550 soars even higher at $91,600.

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The Equus can't deliver the kind of prestige--yet--that those badges confer on their drivers. In truth, the big Hyundai's handling is off the high-water mark set by the BMW and Benz, though it's a better handling car than the Lexus LS. It wears a mishmash of styling cues from all continents, too. But the Equus' interior gives up nothing on luxuriant leather and wood trim, or on tech-centric features, down to the airline-style reclining right rear seat and its built-in, robotic Shiatsu specialist. The service plan for the big sedan is defining: the free Apple iPad included with each sedan allows owners to schedule appointments for technicians to come to them, not the other way around. It's a white-glove twist that neatly avoids the question of whether Hyundai showrooms are luxe enough yet for that task. And there's a 429-horsepower, eight-speed powertrain in the offing that might convince you, if you're not already sold on this keen value proposition.

We've driven the 2011 Equus a few times, and with each experience, the Equus made more and more sense--particularly when it's held up against the Lexus LS, the most vulnerable of those worthy competitors, or even the beloved Infiniti M56. The Equus outpoints Toyota on its own game, in an irony that can't be lost on the Japanese brand. In 1989 Lexus up-ended the luxury battle of the titans; now Hyundai's set to do the same. Whatever your current notion of Hyundai may be, the Equus is an entirely credible beast that brings ultra-luxury amenities down to the semi-well-heeled masses.

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2011 Hyundai Equus

Styling

Generically handsome, the 2011 Hyundai Equus lifts inspiration from around the luxury world, but reveals a hint or two of distinctive Korean style.

The Equus still doesn't quite have the distinctive, instantly recognizable face that cuts across luxury radar, like the face on the 2011 Jaguar XJ or even the twin-kidney grilles of the BMW. But it's getting there.

On longer exposure, the first glance at familiar cues--hints of E-Class and Lexus LS--in the Equus' details mutes itself, and you begin to see the upswept tail and tapered side glass a bit more. Hyundai's gained confidence in styling with the Sonata and the Genesis, and the Equus simply straddles a different point in time, since it's coming to the States essentially midway through its life cycle. The cabin is very much a convincing luxury piece, with similar Lexus cues but delicately applied subtext--like the winged metallic trim that surrounds the dash vents, and echoes the logo on the hood and on the big LCD screen during start-up.

From our first impressions both times in the Equus, it's fair to say it should attract some buyers interested in the softer side of things. The Lexus LS 460 in particular is in the Equus' crosshairs, since the cars are similar in size, in power output and much more so, in interior styling. Outside, the Equus reminds us more of a blend of the current E-Class Mercedes and the last-generation Lexus LS--not bad stretch goals to hit, squarely.

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2011 Hyundai Equus

Performance

On the spec sheet and on the pavement, the 2011 Hyundai Equus clears major hurdles in its race for luxury credibility.

V-8 power, rear-wheel drive and a six-speed automatic sound like the performance goods bundled into a German sedan--or maybe a Lexus, or a Jaguar--and that alone spells out how Hyundai's targeted the heart of the luxury sedan market with the new Equus. Hyundai's sedan shares all those specs with the likes of the 7-Series, the S-Class, the LS and the XJ, and it's probably a bit disconcerting to some, how its other performance characteristics measure up against the pack.

The Equus shares its V-8 with the Genesis, the smaller rear-drive sedan introduced by Hyundai back in the 2009 model year. The 4.6-liter, 385-hp V-8 remains a good and faithful companion to hurtle to 60 mph in an estimated 6.4 seconds, and the Equus lets in just the right kinds of noise and vibration so you're sure it's working underhood. 

The Equus is limited to a top speed of 155 mph by its engine electronics.

If it's a little thin on torque at low engine speeds, the V-8 makes up for it by marrying well with the six-speed gearbox. The transmission shifts willingly; it's swift and decisive. It lacks shift paddles, though--probably only for reasons of perception, and not for cost. We say bring on the paddles--they encourage drivers to keep both hands on the steering wheel, and more to the point, to enjoy all the gears they paid for.

Sometime this year, both the Genesis and the Equus will receive a 5.0-liter version of the same engine, with 429 horsepower, and an upgraded eight-speed automatic transmission. It's possible Hyundai still will offer the smaller-displacement engine in this Equus. It may add a long-wheelbase Equus to further distinguish it from the Genesis, too, but to date that's all that's known about the upcoming engine.

Hyundai started teasing us with the Equus in the middle of 2009. Since that drive, and after a few rounds of suspension changes during its transition from Korean to American tastes, the Equus gained more handling confidence. Now, it can rifle off switchbacks as well as or better than the Lexus, with some of the taut ride control of the bigger BMW and Mercedes sedans, thanks to a well-tuned air suspension. The Equus' electrohydraulic steering is pretty lovely, too--it's the ideal blend of motors where they save energy and hydraulics where linear, consistent feel are required. The steering now feels less vague than Korean prototypes we'd driven last year, and much of the time, it contributes greatly to that appealing driving "smallness" you'll find in German cars. It doesn't get harsh, even with 20-inch wheels and tires. The brakes seemed up to the task of slowing the hefty Equus, but they didn't have the soothing bite of the best brakes you'll order from BMW (or really, Porsche).

There's a Sport button on the Equus that's supposed to sharpen its steering feel, transmission shift points and throttle mapping, but it doesn't seem to alter its behavior as much as intended.

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2011 Hyundai Equus

Comfort & Quality

Its cabin's not enormous, but the 2011 Hyundai Equus polishes and vamps every square inch of space for an ultra-luxe experience.

It's difficult to demonstrate how far Hyundai's come in design and detail, but the Equus' interior is a grand start.

On space and arrangement alone, the big four-door's cabin is a success. The front seats are on the more supportive side, not heavily bolstered but adjustable in all the meaningful ways. Both are ventilated and heated, and the driver's seat has a massage function that inflates and deflates air bladders to give a robotic Shiatsu rubdown while you're on a long, numbing interstate drive. Whether it's a thoughtful touch or a gimmick isn't up to us--it's between you and your backside.

Those front passengers will be encased in a dash trimmed out with leather and either birch or walnut wood trim, buffed to a moderate gloss. The Equus caps the interior with Alcantara trim, a lovely touch you'd find otherwise in cars like the Jaguar XFR. The wide center console houses the knob controller that directs some of the climate and entertainment functions, which are displayed on a big LCD screen, framed by winged vents that mimic the Equus' Korean-market hood ornament. (The hood ornament doesn't fit U.S. safety requirements, though we're sure you could find one on eBay and fit it on your own). If the interior feels and fits much like the one in the first- or second-generation Lexus LS, it's probably on purpose--and Hyundai probably would take that as a compliment.

The Equus' rear seat comes either as a three-person bench on Signature editions, or as a pair of buckets on the luxury-overload Ultimate edition. On the latter Equus, Hyundai fits a reclining, massaging seat in back--but only on the passenger side. A legacy of its role as a chauffeur-driven car in Korea, the single reclining chair also accepts the reality that this Equus isn't quite long enough to sport a fully reclining chair. Trust us--you'll be fine with the ventilation and massaging, and the gentle power rake to the backrest. And that reclining chair makes complete sense in long-wheelbase Equus sedans, should they ever make their way Stateside.

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2011 Hyundai Equus

Safety

It hasn't been crash-tested yet, but the 2011 Hyundai Equus stocks lots of safety gear.

The 2011 Equus is replete with high-technology safety features, and so far it's earned nothing but top crash-test ratings.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) hasn't yet tested the Equus, but in Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) testing it's earned top 'good' ratings in all test categories--including the new roof strength test.

The Equus earns a high score here based on Hyundai's steady, stellar improvement in safety engineering on cars like its Sonata sedan. It also gets credit for a deep list of safety tech that's built into every Equus. That run sheet includes front and rear parking sensors, a rearview camera, adaptive cruise control, and a lane-departure warning system--on top of the usual fleet of airbags, traction and stability control, and anti-lock brakes. We're not tremendous fans of the steering feedback generated by the lane-departure system--like the one on the Infiniti M56 sedan, it vibrates the steering wheel when you cross the stripes--but it can be turned off easily enough.

The Equus, unlike some offerings in the class, does not offer all-wheel drive as an option.

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2011 Hyundai Equus

Features

An unparalleled service plan--complete with a free Apple iPad--coddles 2011 Hyundai Equus owners more than anything you'll find at Infiniti or Lexus.

It's easy to get lazy inside the Equus, since Hyundai sees fit to fill each one with nearly every item from the luxury-sedan greatest-hits list. Get beyond the obvious standard power features, the leather interior, the moonroof and the wood trim, and the Equus still wows with iPod connectivity, Bluetooth, a navigation system driven through an iDrive-like controller and an LCD screen.

The Ultimate doesn't even allow the lush-sounding Lexicon audio system or the rear massaging seat to escape its features list--or a refrigerated console bin, or power rear-seat headrests, or a power trunklid, or a forward-facing cornering camera.To get this lavish in a Jaguar XJ, you'd spend well over $100,000.

And once you've watched scenes from The Italian Job at speed from the Equus' rear seat, you'll not be quick to exit the car until you really need to. That said, we'd love to see headrest-mounted monitors instead of the single screen that flips up at the back end of the center console. Looking down at the eight-inch rear-seat screen would make us woozy after some of the back-road esses.

The Equus' killer app--pun implied--is the free Apple iPad that comes with each one. On its glassy surface, the free iPad latches on to one of the most successful product launches in history. But it's also a convenient delivery system for a white-glove sales and service experience that cushions the Equus and its buyers from the everyday Hyundai showroom experience. In some areas of the country, you won't even have to step into a showroom to buy an Equus--a demo will be brought to you, at home or at the office. Once you've signed the purchase agreement, the iPad becomes your link to the dealer's service arm; technicians will come to you to pick up and drop off the car for service, and leave a loaner Equus or Genesis in its place if need be. It's a clever, low-impact plan that outflanks the coddling you'd receive from any mainstream luxury brand--even Lexus and Infiniti, long known for their handling of owners.

Your iPad even fits neatly into the glove box, and contains an app-driven version of the owners' manual. You may not remember how cool that refrigerator bin can get, but you'll feel it as you look up the facts and figures with the swipe of a finger.

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2011 Hyundai Equus

Fuel Economy

A single V-8 drivetrain does not a green machine make--though the Equus' fuel economy is average, or better.

With only a single drivetrain to its spec-sheet credit, the 2011 Hyundai Equus is a straightforward luxury sedan with average green credentials.

The V-8, rear-drive Equus earns an EPA rating of 16/24 mpg for the 2011 model year.

Hyundai plans on introducing a larger, higher-output V-8 in 2011, but hasn't announced that 429-hp V-8's fuel economy. The new model will arrive alongside a new eight-speed automatic, so fuel economy may top that of today's Equus.

No hybrid, electric or diesel versions of the Equus are planned for the American market.

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