2011 Hyundai Equus

2011 Hyundai Equus

The Basics:

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.

Hyundai is becoming a harbinger of doom for other car brands. The Elantra’s elbowed the Civic aside as one of the most frequently-recommended compact cars. The Sonata’s near the top of the family-sedan ranks, and with the Genesis, Hyundai aped Lexus’ first steps by introducing a luxury sedan at an eye-popping price, and fitting it with the luxury stuff you’d find in any upmarket near-luxury vehicle.

Now the Hyundai Equus is trying to tackle an even more exclusive group of sedans. Riding on the same wheelbase and sporting the same powertrain as the Genesis, the Equus is plushly outfitted and more formally styled—all the better to throw down the gauntlet to the likes of the Lexus LS, Infiniti M and Lincoln MKS.

After a brief drive in U.S.-spec cars in Korea, we’re able to draw some early conclusions about the Equus. At a base price of around $55,000, the Equus presents an intriguing alternative to the Lexus or the Lincoln, but performance isn’t quite as sharp, nor is it intended to be as sporting, as that of the Infiniti M or the German trio of top-line four-doors: S-Class, 7-Series and A8. Its V-8 throbs with horsepower, but handling’s less confident than any BMW, maybe even less than the sedate Lexus LS.

Interior room and luxury features at a value price are the killer app with the Equus, which rides more softly and looks a bit more formal than anything in the competitive field. There are no paddle shifters or a sport package—but the back seat’s a pleasure palace, with available ventilated, reclining bucket seats that flank an 8-inch LCD screen and DVD player, and an available refrigerated compartment.

The Equus also comes with one more killer app: ultimate customer service. Hyundai dealers will come to owners to service the car, fetching it rather than having them drop it off. They’ll also deliver the new Equus with an Apple iPad that contains the owner’s manual, and an application to set up service appointments. It’s a plan that outflanks the coddling you’d receive from any mainstream luxury brand—and like its standard audio system, which it shares with the legendary British marque, Hyundai’s marketing plan has a little Rolls-Royce in it.

Hyundai designers are crafting a generation of cars aimed right at American buyers, but the Equus caters more to a home crowd, with its blend of Lexus and Mercedes themes and some particular Korean details. Not as arresting as the new Sonata, nor as contemporary as the Genesis that shares its architecture, the Equus actually looks more like Hyundai’s big Azera sedan. The side glass has the same gentle upkick, the trunk a similar sloping angle.

Some Mercedes and Lexus cues blend in for an international flair. The “ponton” line down the rear fenders calls up visions of the current Mercedes-Benz E-Class, or the Buick LaCrosse—while the big headlamps echo the units on the last-generation Lexus LS. The truly home-grown cues have been omitted for American tastes; there’s no winged hood ornament, less chrome detail and a more subdued grille. It’s a difficult task, even for established brands, to draw a car that looks emphatically “like a Lexus,” or “like a Mercedes.” The Equus is attractive, but doesn’t really nudge Hyundai any closer to that holy grail.

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.

You should feel right at home inside the Equus—you’ve experienced it before in more expensive sedans. The cabin is a fairly pure homage to the Lexus LS, from the big white-lit gauges to the wood-rimmed steering wheel. Glossy burled walnut trim takes up almost as much space as tightly grained plastic trim, and metallic-painted plastic shields the shift lever and a roller-wheel controller on the console. One touch that shows a bit of Hyundai character is the winged badge on the steering wheel, and the repeated motif in the air vents that flank a big LCD navigation screen. Almost nothing else belies the Equus’ Korean heritage—or shows it off.

Hyundai’s Equus can perform with the brisk acceleration of a Lexus or a Lincoln, but in prototypes we drove in South Korea, the sedan’s handling felt a bit less confident than the most dynamic luxury sedans in its class.

The Equus comes in a single configuration: a 4.6-liter V-8 with 385 horsepower and 333 pound-feet of torque, fitted with a six-speed automatic transmission that sends power to the rear wheels. As it does in the Genesis sedan, this combination launches the Equus from stoplights strongly, and lifts its voice only as it nears the top of its rev range. Hyundai estimates a 0-60 mph time of less than 6.5 seconds, in the ballpark of the Lexus LS and the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Drivers can select gears with a manual mode, but the Equus doesn’t offer shift paddles, which we like better than moving a hand to the shift lever. Fuel economy will be rated at about 16/24 mpg, very good in the class.

Hyundai’s planning on an upgrade in power, shortly after the Equus goes on sale. A new 5.0-liter V-8 with 429 horsepower and 376 pound-feet of torque will team up with an eight-speed automatic, which should dramatically boost straight-line performance.

The Equus’ powertrain rides atop an independent suspension tuned more for comfort than cornering. The dynamic sensations—the light electric power steering, the pliant air suspension—feel most like a Lexus LS 460 in their settings. In the test cars driven on a Korean test track, the Equus felt a bit less certain than even the Lexus LS in body motions and quick transitions, possibly a combination of soft air-spring settings and tire treads (though the 19-inch wheels wear 40-series tires). On the driving-pleasure scale, it’s well shy of the mark set by the latest 2011 Infiniti M56 or the BMW 750Li.

One more performance note: the Equus doesn’t offer an all-wheel-drive option like nearly all other luxury sedans. Those needing all-weather duty might need to look elsewhere.

The 2011 Equus fills out its luxury-car frame with great interior space for front and back-seat passengers—four or five of them.

Riding on the same architecture as the Genesis, the Hyundai Equus has nearly the same interior space as the new BMW 7-Series and Audi A8, with a few cubic feet more than either the Lexus LS or the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. It’s in evidence all around the Equus’ big, comfortable front seats, where there’s room in all directions for even large adults.

Still, you’ll want to ride in the back seat more often—or be driven in it. The standard Equus sports even more leg room and a nicely angled backrest, all nestled in leather-trimmed seats underneath a sueded headliner. Order the Ultimate package and the rear seats turn into first-class airline chairs; the twin buckets get heating and ventilation, power reclining and headrests, and massaging functions for the right-side seat. The back seats in this version are separated by a refrigerated bin for drinks, and by a DVD entertainment system with an 8-inch flip-up screen, and they’re shaded by a power rear sunshade and pull-up side shades.

Hyundai's 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.

The 2011 Hyundai Equus has not been crash-tested yet by either the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). We’re giving it a preliminary safety score of 8 based on Hyundai’s recent track record for producing five-star safety ratings, and for its long list of standard safety equipment.

That list includes a total of nine airbags–including dual front, front side, rear side, curtain and a driver-side knee airbag. Anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control are standard as well, along with adaptive cruise control, a lane-departure warning system, front and rear parking sensors, and a rearview camera. Forward cornering cameras are optional, and the whole array of exterior visual assistants is welcome—though visibility is good from the driver’s seat, even to the rear

The 2011 Equus is meant to be an exclusive piece. Only a couple hundred dealers will be allowed to sell the car after extensive training, and they’ll offer personal service—picking up and delivering cars for regular maintenance calls and in other instances. Owners will receive a free Apple iPad (16GB WiFi model) which stores the car’s owner’s manual, and has an app for scheduling maintenance. White-glove service is easily the Equus’ most important feature, though it also includes a wealth of high-tech gadgetry that’s becoming the norm in the over-$50,000 range.

On other points, the Equus scores extremely well with standard and optional features, in the ballpark of the heavily equipped Lincoln MKS. The Equus comes in two flavors: Signature and Ultimate. The entry-level car gets all the powertrain and safety gear we’ve mentioned, plus luxury amenities like a 608-watt Lexicon audio system with 17 speakers; leather and suede interior trim; a massaging driver seat; power reclining rear seats; heated and ventilated power front seats; a sunroof; and a navigation system, satellite radio, iPod connectivity and Bluetooth.

Opt up to the Equus Ultimate for an undisclosed base price (maybe $65,000?) and the sedan carries standard cornering cameras; that first-class rear seat, with power recline, power headrests, and ventilation, and massaging control for the right side; the refrigerated bin; and a rear-seat entertainment system with an 8-inch LCD screen.

One last touch: Hyundai will bring an Equus to potential owners for a personal sales appeal—no need to head to the dealership even for the spiel.

Buying Tips:

The Equus has more than ample power, but Hyundai’s planning an upgrade of its V-8 engine to 5.0 liters and 429 horsepower. The uprated Equus will arrive in showrooms by mid-2011.

Other Choices:

  • 2010 Lexus LS 460
  • 2011 Lincoln MKS
  • 2011 Infiniti M37

Reason Why:

If the Hyundai Equus piques your interest, you’re probably also studying a few other luxury sedans for good measure. The clearest alternative is the Lexus LS 460. The long-wheelbase edition has nearly the same luxuriant space and bona fides as the Equus; the Sport edition gives a bit firmer response than the Equus, and while the Hyundai’s fit and finish are very good, the Lexus’ quality is outstanding. The Lincoln MKS has some of the softness of the Equus, but there’s no V-8; a turbocharged six-cylinder provides nearly the same performance. The MKS doesn’t have some of the upscale fittings, though. The new 2011 Infiniti M is priced in the same tier as the Equus, but it’s a ravishing style statement and a thrilling performer, hustling its curb weight around with BMW-like verve—and one of our highest-ranked luxury sedans.

The Bottom Line:

The 2011 Hyundai Equus trumps Lexus and Infiniti on service, and all luxury brands on value—but falls shy on dynamics and distinction.

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