Not A First Drive: 2011 Hyundai Equus

August 13, 2009

Editor's Note: For those of you who know it's not really legal to drive Korean-spec cars in the U.S., well, we wouldn't call this news report a "first drive." There may have been some use of the gas pedal, steering, and some suspension motion. A turn signal or two. Definitely some gears changing. A first drive of the 2011 Equus? That would be nitpicking.

We'll give you the full scoop next year, when we rate the Equus and publish our full review from a drive in a U.S.-spec car.

 

•    What is it: The new luxury four-door from Hyundai, bigger than the Genesis sedan
•    Key facts: As long as an S-Class; shares its V-8 with the Hyundai Genesis
•    On sale: July 2010
•    Price: Base price of $50,000+ (est.)

"Six years ago, think of where Hyundai was."

It sounds like a bit of a surprise to Hyundai's Joel Ewanick, and maybe it is to you, too--to see Hyundai set to challenge the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and the like with the new 2011 Hyundai Equus. The Korean automaker's vice president of marketing for the U.S., Ewanick can't recall any auto brand ever shifting its perceptions so quickly in among American car buyers.

While the recession batters some luxury brands, Hyundai is happily ticking off sales of the 2009 Hyundai Genesis, the car that cemented its new reputation as a real alternative to the likes of Acura, Infiniti and Cadillac--if not quite Benz and BMW. When it bowed in 2009, the Genesis sedan capped a string of improved vehicles, from Hyundai's Elantra compact to the Sonata and Azera sedans, taking home a North American Car of the Year award in the process.

With the  Genesis launched successfully in the "worst downturn in the car market ever," Ewanick points out, his company is laying the groundwork for the arrival of an even bigger, more luxurious sedan than the Genesis--the Equus , now slated to arrive in the U.S. sometime in the summer of next year.

Hyundai brought the Equus to Pebble Beach during this weekend's 2009 Concours, and TheCarConnection briefly sampled the prototype Korean-market sedan Hyundai is using to spread the word to buyers, and is using to tailor U.S. versions for sale. From now until late 2010, this Equus is the way Hyundai begins the long process of letting America know it's ready to challenge the likes of the BMW 7-Series, Lexus LS and Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

Hyundai Equus: a bigger shift?

Germanophiles may scoff, but Hyundai's taken a significant leap forward with the 2009 Genesis sedan. Unlike Volkswagen--which launched the expensive Phaeton and priced it nearly twice as high as its Passat sedan, then pulled it from the U.S. market--the Genesis came to showrooms with the right look, the right price of about $40,000, and the right execution.

The Equus is bigger in every direction: in size, but particularly in mission. Marginally shorter than the German sedans it's targeting, it's set to undercut their prices by as much as $30,000.

The car Hyundai brought for this brief drive shared the 4.6-liter, 375-horsepower V-8 with the Genesis, and its six-speed ZF automatic transmission. There's talk of a larger 5.0-liter version, which Ewanick can't confirm. Korean versions also share the Genesis V-6, but American editions will not. Nonetheless, the "Tau" V-8's part of the basic goodness in the Genesis, and it feels ample enough around the streets of downtown Monterey. At 4.1 inches longer in wheelbase than the Genesis, the Equus isn't so much larger as to affect that kind of performance.

What's noticeable from the Equus, mostly, is the relaxed feel. It's probably too relaxed for American buyers, Ewanick says. One of the important tasks in the next year is to tailor the sedan's ride and handling to match its competition. "It's going to be more in that S-Class and LS area in terms of ride quality and handling," Ewanick says, "and discerning owners in that segment know exactly what that means."

Hyundai's already taken extensive measures for noise and harshness control, to give the Equus the kind of isolation that the Lexus makes a brand hallmark. Adhesives and body welds together give it structural strength, and lots of sound deadening gave the prototype we rode in a very well-hushed ride.

Other details under discussion include the interior features. The excellent Lexicon audio system from the Genesis will be fitted to the Equus, along with an updated navigation system. The hood ornament--a stylized bird--will be replaced by an emblem, but dealers will be able to install the ornament for customers who want it. Wood trim will be standard, along with a plush suede headliner. And in the roomy back seats--plenty of room for six-footers to cross leg over knee--will get fold-down wooden trays, and either a single or dual LCD screens.

There's some talk over the long-wheelbase model, and whether it will eventually be offered in the U.S., along with the larger 5.0-liter Tau V-8. It's not being confirmed by Hyundai now; neither is four-wheel drive, which is "not now" in the product plan.

Coming soon: Equus by Hyundai?

The year-long march of the Equus to the media, dealers and potential customers has a point. Hyundai still is deciding issues some of those important product points--but it's also evaluating the name. "We kind of favor Equus," Ewanick explains, "we think it's a cool name, [but we're] still looking at alternates." Hyundai could, in fact, badge the car as "Equus by Hyundai" to distance it somewhat from the other vehicles in showrooms.

As a halo car, the Equus dealer experience will get upgrades. There won't be a separate brand for the Equus anytime soon--that idea is not dead within Hyundai, but not happening now, Ewanick says--but special training for dealers and service people is part of the plan. Hyundai is investigating whether it wants customers to come into showrooms at all--reps could pick up and deliver cars for service, under one scenario.

While it hashes out the details, Hyundai will show the Equus at future auto shows. When it reaches dealers at the end of summer 2010, it will join a new 2010 Hyundai Tucson already on the way, and will precede the new 2011 Hyundai Sonata and Sonata Hybrid to showrooms. Hyundai will be "conservative" on pricing, which may mean a proportional step up from the most expensive Genesis sedans, somewhere around or above $50,000. Only 100 to 200 dealers will be allowed to sell the car, and Hyundai only expects to sell 1000 to 2000 cars annually while it feels its way around the luxury end of the market.

At that price, the Equus could prove as compelling as the Genesis has been to near-luxury shoppers. The Genesis has brought Hyundai new customers while other pure luxury brands are losing share, and the low-volume Equus should do the same, Ewanick concludes. "These cars will lock in that market share gain and take us to the next level."

Stay tuned for more from the 2009 Los Angeles auto show--and until then, see more photos at our 2011 Hyundai Equus page.

2011 Hyundai Equus (Korean-market vehicle)

2011 Hyundai Equus (Korean-market vehicle)

2011 Hyundai Equus (Korean-market vehicle)

2011 Hyundai Equus (Korean-market vehicle)

2011 Hyundai Equus (Korean-market vehicle)

2011 Hyundai Equus (Korean-market vehicle)

2011 Hyundai Equus (Korean-market vehicle)

2011 Hyundai Equus (Korean-market vehicle)

2011 Hyundai Equus (Korean-market vehicle)

2011 Hyundai Equus (Korean-market vehicle)

2011 Hyundai Equus (Korean-market vehicle)

2011 Hyundai Equus (Korean-market vehicle)

2010 Hyundai Equus

2010 Hyundai Equus

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