2011 Hyundai Equus

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Hyundai is trying to pull a Lexus with its new Equus.

Back in 1989, Lexus kicked Mercedes and BMW in the nuts with the LS400 sedan. The LS was every bit as nice as a top-of-the-line Benz or BMW – maybe nicer. And best of all, it cost less.

A lot less.

On the order of $20,000 less than its Germanic rivals.

LS400 sales took off like a Saturn V rocket and within a very few years, Lexus was one of the dominant players in the high-end car marketplace.

That’s what Hyundai seems intent on doing with the new Equus ultra-luxury sedan. It’s a $60,000 car.

A $60,000 Hyundai.

And there’s the problem. While the Equus may be able to go toe-to-toe against Benz, BMW – and Lexus – on features and equipment, power, build quality, etc., it also goes to-to-toe with many of them on price.

The Equus is extremely nice. But the question is: Will people pay BMW/Benz/Lexus money for a Hyundai?

WHAT IT IS

The Equus is Hyundai’s new flagship model. It’s a full-size, ultra- luxury sedan meant to compete with similar models from Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and so on.

Prices start at $58,000 for the Signature and top out at $64,500 for an Ultimate.

WHAT’S NEW FOR 2011

The Equus is an all-new model.

WHAT’S GOOD

Lexus-level looks, amenities, equipment.

Powerful, smooth V-8.

Limo-like interior (especially the rear seats).

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

You can get a V-8 Mercedes E550 for nearly $10k less; Benz offers a wagon bodystyle and also a high-performance/33 MPG  turbo-diesel engine.

A Lexus LS460 only costs slightly more ( $66,230) and offers AWD as an option.

A BMW 550i ($60,200) has twin-turbos and more horsepower.

All of them have more status.

UNDER THE HOOD

The Equus comes standard with a a 4.6 liter, 385 hp V-8, six-speed automatic transmission and rear-wheel-drive. Its engine is slightly more powerful than the Lexus LS460’s (380 hp) and the Mercedes E550’s (382 hp) however the Hyundai is not as quick as either of these two competitors. Its 0-60 time of about 6.6 seconds is more than a second slower than the Benz E550’s 5.3 second time and about a second behind the Lexus (5.8 seconds).

The deciding factor here is heft, not hp. The Equus weighs a toe-crushing 4,449 lbs. vs. 4,034 for the E550 and 4,350 for the LS460.

Unlike some of the other models in this class, Hyundai doesn’t (yet) offer other engine choices – or drivetrain layouts. Shoppers interested in all-wheel-drive, for example, will be disappointed (Lexus and Mercedes offer this feature).

Gas mileage – not usually a major consideration in a car with a starting sticker price of nearly $60k – registers 16 city, 24 highway, exactly the same as the RWD version of the Lexus LS460 and slightly better than the Benz E550’s 15 city, 23 highway. But if you are concerned about fuel economy, you may want to consider the Benz, because it can be equipped with a 3.0 liter diesel V-6 capable of a very impressive (for a big luxury sedan) 33 MPGs on the highway and 24 MPG in town. The diesel also puts out an absolutely tremendous 400 lbs.-ft. of torque, too – vs. 333 lbs.-ft for the Hyundai’s gasoline-burning V-8.

ON THE ROAD

At this level, everything’s nice. Super nice. It’s like comparing one 5 star hotel suite to another 5 star hotel suite. What are you going to find to complain about? Ok, the Equus isn’t quite as all-out quick as some of the others in this class, but the distinction is largely meaningless because they’re all quick (that’s “a”) and (“b”) most people who shop big luxury cars don’t drag race. What they want is the feel of effortless, powerful thrust – and that the Equus surely delivers. (And if 385 hp and 0-60 in 6.6 is not enough, wait a little. Hyundai has a 5 liter V-8 on deck for 2012 that will fix any acceleration disparity between it and its rivals.)   

Ride quality is pretty firm, even with the adjustable suspension set to the comfort mode. Unfortunately – my opinion here – this is true almost across the board when it comes to modern “luxury” cars. They all want to be luxury-sport cars on the BMW model. The reason for this is simple. The car press loves BMWs, which used to be the main “sporty” luxury car. The car press wrote constantly about the great handling of “sporty” BMWs – and in short order, everyone else wanted to be “sporty,” too.

This is why almost all modern luxury sedans have bucket-type seats, “cockpit” dashboards, 150 mph-rated tires… and ride like sports cars.

This is fine, if that’s what you want. But I bet there are plenty of people out there who’d love some old-school luxury: Soft seats, plush ride; quiet and dead-calm smooth.

Too bad no one makes a car like that anymore.

AT THE CURB

The Equus has that high-dollar look. It’s massive; it’s ingot-looking – and it has a cool, almost early Studebaker, stylized eagle-looking ornament on its prow. At 203.1 inches (almost 17 feet) from stem to stern it is about 10 inches longer than a Benz E-Class sedan (191.7 inches) and about three inches longer than the Lexus LS460. To get bigger, you’d need to go S-Class and even then, the $91,400 (to start) S-Class only gets you an additional three inches.

Inside, it’s a similar story.

There are what appear to be hand-fitted (and hand-stitched) leather sections for the dashpad and door panels; a wealth of high-tech gadgetry – and Donald Trump-style spreadin’ out space, especially for the backseat occupants. The Equus boasts 38.9 inches of rearseat legroom vs. 35.8 for the LS460 and Benz E550. That’s a big difference, one people back there will definitely notice. The Hyundai’s long rear doors hint at the spaciousness that awaits. And once you’re back there, you’ve got your own fully-equipped center console (in Ultimate trims) just like up front. There’s a swivel-mounted LCD display/DVD player, separate climate and audio controls for the backseat passengers to adjust things to their preferences, plus a mini-fridge.

The key thing is, Equus comes standard with all that backseat real estate. Lexus and others offer it – but not in the standard version of their big barges. In the case of Lexus, you have to upgrade to the extended wheelbase LS600 L – which starts at $111,350.

You also get more front seat legroom in the Equus (by about 2-3 inches) plus a much larger trunk (16.7 cubic feet vs. 15.9 for the E550 and an almost-Miata-ish 13.9 cubic feet for the LS460.

The Equus’ more-spacious-than-most interior is a definite strong point.

It also matches the competition on bells and whistles.

For example, the car comes standard with a massager for the driver’s seat (heaters and coolers, too, of course), plus 10-way power adjusters, a 17-speaker Lexicon premium audio system with GPS and (really) a factory-supplied iPad. There’s also an electronic parking brake, a Lane Departure Warning system that beeps if you inadvertently cross the yellow line, Adaptive Cruise Control that adjusts your following speed in relation to the traffic ahead, and the previously mentioned air-adjustable suspension (including a “raise up/kneel down” feature you can use to gain ground clearance when needed).

The “base (if that word has any meaning here) Signature model also includes 19 inch wheels, multi-zone automatic climate control, auto-de-icing wipers and keyless ignition. Order the Ultimate and backseat passengers get massagers, too. Plus power-actuated footrests. And those backseats recline as well.

It’s the Hyundai Maybach!

THE REST

But – and here’s the rub – it’s still a Hyundai.

When Toyota decided to move uptown, it created the Lexus brand. This put distance between the mass market stuff (Toyotas) and the new high-line stuff (Lexus). 

Hyundai may have made a big mistake by not doing something similar – and learning from VW’s mistake. Remember the Phaeton? Yeah. No one else does, either. Even fewer bought this six-figure VW. Though it was as nice as as a six-figure Benz or BMW or Audi, it was still a VW. A people’s car. And most rich people weren’t willing to pay six-figures for a people’s car. 

Will they pay $60k for a Hyundai?

I dunno… . 

THE BOTTOM LINE

Equus is a ballsy gamble. That alone deserves praise. Hyundai may end up kicking Lexus and the rest of them in the nuts. The Equus is a damn nice car and compares very favorably to some uber-expensive stuff.

Or it might shortly discover it kicked itself in the nuts by reaching too high, too soon – and under the wrong nameplate. 

Time will tell. 

Throw it in the Woods?

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