By Chris Haak
It’s time to take Hyundai seriously as an automaker. Akio Toyoda certainly knows this, as much of Hyundai’s current lineup takes direct aim at his company’s products, and often manages to top Toyota in a number of areas, while undercutting the Japanese company’s prices.
The Equus is certainly no joke. It is a credible competitor for the established luxury brands at a price thousands of dollars below the asking price of those other cars. GM, the once-and-future “world’s largest automaker” makes no product even close to what the Equus delivers.
Hyundai’s global flagship is an impressive car. It cuts an imposing presence on the road, with its stately proportions, large size, and large headlights accented by LED running lights. It’s also an extremely comfortable highway cruiser. On the spec sheet, no corner cutting is apparent; the Hyundai seems to match the Lexus LS 460feature-for-feature. To wit: adaptive cruise control, Alcantara headliner, leather wrapped dash, 4.6 liter DOHC V8, 17 speaker Lexicon audio system, genuine wood trim, power reclining rear seats, etc. Still, something feels a bit off with the Equus.
In terms of design language, it’s speaking another language. While the rest of the Hyundai lineup has gone in the direction of the brand’s so-called “fluidic sculpture” design language with dramatically sweeping curves and low rooflines, the Equus looks more like a hypothetical Buick flagship than any other car Hyundai sells. It’s a big, imposing car in a get-out-of-my-way-in-the-left-lane sort of way, and I am genuinely puzzled by the car’s sweep spear, which seems to be nearly a carbon copy of the one on the Buick LaCrosse. The rest of the car’s exterior is kind of a mish-mash of cues cribbed from other brands’ cars. Audi called and wants its LED running lights back.
The car’s profile shows a fashionably short front overhang and rear wheel drive dash:axle ratio with a huge trunk hanging out past the rear wheels. Unlike the Elantra and Sonata, the Equus has a tall roof and isn’t afraid to show it off. Take the badges off a BMW, and you can easily tell the car is a BMW. Take the badges off the Equus (actually, it only has a single Hyundai badge on its exterior, on the decklid), and someone who’s not in the know would have no clue who builds this car.
Inside, there’s a nice feature set. I’m not terribly fond of the giant airbag cover on the steering wheel, but the fact that this car has a leather-wrapped horn buttondoes score major bonus points. Seeing as how the driver is touching the wheel almost 100% of his time behind the wheel, it’s wise to have that wheel make a good impression. There’s the same French stitched leather covering on the upper dash, console edges, and nearly all plastics are soft to the touch. Everything that looks like wood is claimed to be wood, although after spending a week in an Audi A7 with its more naturally-finished dead tree trim, I’ve sworn off excessively polished and treated wood interior trim for good.
Despite its large size, the rear seat accommodations are not exactly cavernous. It’s still large, but in order to take advantage of the Equus Ultimate’s footrests (not included in this Equus Signature tester), you’d need a long wheelbase model or a very short front seat passenger. The latter is not available in the US, and the the former is not available in the Haak family.
Like the rest of the car, the driver’s seat is comfortable, but not firm or supportive. I wasn’t a big fan of the leather on the seating surfaces, which was probably two or three grades below the buttery softness under your rear end in an LS 460. It’s perforated to allow the seat ventilator to do its work (and, unlike in the Genesis R-Spec, bothfront seats are ventilated, not just the driver’s seat). The standard navigation system works pretty well and has a reasonably clear screen, but it’s all but identical to the system found in more pedestrian Hyundais; certainly nothing state-of-the-art as Audi is providing in its higher-end models.
There’s an iDrive-like knob for controlling navigation functions, and although it doesn’t quite feel as solid as one might expect, it’s reasonably easy to use thanks to shortcut buttons surrounding it. The 17-speaker Lexicon audio system (as Hyundai is keen to point out, the Rolls Royce Phantom also has a Lexicon audio system) sounds great, with plenty of power, no distortion, and strong highs and lows.
If you want to impress your neighbors and friends with the Equus, you should just skip the front seat and show them the rear accommodations. Granted, it’s not quite as spacious as one might suspect with a car that casts such a large shadow, but it’s still really nice back there. The leather is the same stuff used in the front, but even in the Signature trim (which is the base Equus), the rear seats have a power recline feature. The driver can operate the seats, as can the rear passengers using controls stowed in the fold-down rear center armrest (thankfully, it’s also possible to lock out rear controls, which is a necessity when chauffeuring a three year old and a five year old). Rear seat passengers can also control radio and climate settings from their perch, but again, this feature is defeatable by the driver.
Perhaps most impressive about the Equus’ back seat was the slick integration of motorized window shades. Each rear door had two power window buttons, one for each side. If the window is closed and the shade is stowed, push the button down to lower the window, or pull it up to raise the shade – the same button handles both. Basically, the first press or pull does the shade, while the second does the glass. There’s also a power sunshade for the backlight glass; this isn’t anything terribly impressive, considering the Camry XLE also has a backlight shade, but the interface was nice, and I liked that the left-seat passenger could raise the right-rear shade without leaning across the car if the sun was in her eyes. Just as in the LS 460, there are buttons on the left side of the right-front seatback to move that seat out of the way from the back seat if there’s nobody sitting there. The rear armrest controls can also move the right-front seat, but – you guessed it – that feature can also be disabled by the driver to kid-proof the back seat.
Continuing our journey toward the back of the car, you’ll find a large trunk – 16.7 cubic feet – but one that falls short of the LS’ 18.0 cubic feet. It does, at least, top the Genesis’ 15.9 cubic feet. There’s really soft, high quality carpeting in the trunk as well as inside the passenger compartment of the Equus.
Power comes from the now-familiar 385-horsepower 4.6 liter V6 that the Equus shares with the Genesis. For the 2012 model year, the Equus gets the upgraded 5.0 liter direct-injection V8 that comes with the Genesis R-Spec trim. The new engine produces an impressive 429 horsepower – which, by the way, is 17 more than the Mustang GT’s 5.0 and 12 more than the Lexus IS-F’s 5.0. I spent about 50 miles in a Genesis R-Spec in July, and the engine – plus the new eight-speed automatic, which makes its way throughout the Genesis and Equus lineup as standard equipment – is strong and refined. This particular 2011 model year tester, however, had the old ZF six speed unit instead.
The Equus has adaptive air suspension that has both normal and Sport modes. However, even in Sport mode, it’s too floaty for my taste. Actually, there is not much of a perceptible difference between normal and sport modes in the Equus. We said yesterday that the 2012 Genesis 5.0 R-Spec is not really a sport sedan (despite the sporty-sounding name); the Equus has zero sporting pretension, aside from its giant tires (245/45R19 fronts and 275/40R19 rears). The car’s steering is light at all speeds, but communicates reasonably well with the driver. With the suspension tuned for comfort rather than handling, the car’s occupants were generally happy at all times, except on roads with lots of elevation changes, which made for a sensation not unlike seasickness among the non-drivers.
The Equus is able to do some cool tricks thanks to its air suspension. First, it is able to level the car regardless of the passenger or cargo weight held within. How many times have you seen a Nissan Altima with the tops of the back tires hidden inside the fenders because the driver dared put a passenger or two in the back seat (whenever I observe this behavior, it always seems to involve an Altima)? That doesn’t happen with the Equus. The other trick is that with a console-mounted button, the Equus is able to raise its suspension such that driveways and parking barriers are not a cause for concern. The suspension raises and lowers in a matter of a few seconds, but even in the lower setting, I didn’t scrape the front spoiler.
This car made its US debut for the 2011 model year, and it has exceeded Hyundai’s very modest sales goals of 2,500 units. It’s on pace to top 3,000 units. Part of the first-year strategy was to give buyers a free iPad as the car’s interactive owner’s manual. This $500 inducement is no longer included with the 2012 Equus (but the 2012 Equus does get the Genesis 5.0 R-Spec’s sweetheart big engine, and the extra power and fuel economy that comes with it). If you really want the Equus owner’s manual on an iPad, though, you can get it for free on App Store. I have it on my iPad, and I found the search function to be better in the paper version of the owner’s manual, which is still included.
The other part of the hook for the Equus – which is still included for 2012 – is the ability to buy and maintain the car without setting foot in a Hyundai dealership. Depending on state laws, you may have to step into the dealership past the Accents and Velosters to sign the final paperwork, but nearly everything else can be done via home pickup or online correspondence. Hyundai will give Equus owners a Genesis or Veracruz loaner for any service appointments as well.
The EPA rates the 2011 Equus at 16 MPG city and 24 MPG highway. For 2012, with the bigger, more powerful V8, ratings dip to 15/23. The one mile per gallon penalty is worth it, and pricing is fairly close between the two model years. My tester had a $58,000 MSRP, and the only additional charge was a $900 destination fee, for a total MSRP of $58,900.
That’s a ton of money for a Hyundai, no matter how luxurious, and when friends asked what I was driving and said a $60,000 Hyundai, they were in almost all cases incredulous. But when I pointed out that it’s the company’s global flagship, that it was a big, comfortable car, they understood more about what it was. If you buy an Equus, don’t expect it to occupy the front valet spot, and don’t expect quite the same attention to detail that Lexus offers its LS 460 buyers, but your payments will be smaller and the experience will be remarkably similar. A $10,000 price disparity might just make some buyers forget about refinement.
Hyundai provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.