2012 Hyundai Equus Signature: Driven

August 8, 2012
For luxury vehicles, brand and brand image really matter. And it's definitely a limiting agent for the Hyundai Equus—a big, comfortable sedan that's appealing, if not a little confounding on its own.

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.

Inside, the accommodations are mostly on par with luxury flagships. The Equus' front seats are relatively comfortable, but they lack both lateral support and the kind of extendable thigh support that makes the front perches in many luxury cars so good for taller drivers. The trunk space isn't perfectly shaped, but it's huge, and you could fit a couple of full-size suitcases and still have spare space for a few weekend bags.

As much as the Equus seems to be trying to be on the same level as Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, and others, it feels a half-step behind on infotainment. In place of a touch screen, there's a static (yet attractive) eight-inch LCD screen plus a rotary controller, flanked by hotkeys for commonly used features like navigation or calling. I'm also now used to using Bluetooth audio streaming (or Pandora integration) in many mass-market test cars—including our Six-Month Road Test Hyundai Veloster—and was surprised to find that as a premium offering the Equus doesn't have it.

Otherwise for just under $60k, which is what our test 2012 Hyundai Equus Signature cost, you get an incredible amount of standard equipment, including smart cruise control, a pre-collision system, heated and cooled front seats, a heated steering wheel, and parking sensors front and back. And the 608-watt Lexicon audio system sounded majestic and well-rounded.

Luxury good or awkward knockoff?

Depending on your mood and where you are, the Equus can feel like a true luxury good or an awkward knockoff. Because Hyundai has gone less its own way with design, and more derivative, it's harder to take the effort seriously. And the weird bird emblem isn't a good start. Every one of my passengers through the week asked about it: “So Equus means horse, why is there a bird?” By the end of the week, I was a little frustrated: I didn't know; and I haven't heard Hyundai give an answer yet that makes sense.

Cosmetically, this is a car that will wax and wane on you, at times feeling more like a garishly dressed up Continental or Town Car, other times feeling convincingly like a Lexus LS—or as its own well-mannered beast. It's different than the Genesis, which we like more for possessing its own clearer identity; the more time with the Equus, we tended to focus on subtle things that go well beyond first impressions.

To us, what it comes down to is: If image matters, then you're probably better off going with a late-model used S-Class, Jaguar XJ, or Lexus LS. But if you want to reward yourself with a good luxury car that's actually a pretty good value for the money, Hyundai is already there.

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