My roommate – bless her heart – is about as much of a car enthusiast as the BMW X6 is a coupe. She puts forth an honest effort to hold conversations with me about autos, but 90 percent of the time, it just doesn't work. You have to understand, in her eyes, a Cadillac Escalade is the pinnacle of luxury, the fastest car in the world has to be a Ferrari and the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution is fitted with "those squeezy seats." She's still amazed by the power of Bluetooth and always gets wide-eyed whenever I plunk a car into Reverse and a rear-view camera comes on.
That in mind, it will come as no surprise to learn that when the 2011 Hyundai Equus Ultimate arrived at my door, she beckoned from the other room, "Hey, I think your Lexus just showed up."
It's like she had already drank the proverbial Kool-Aid. Hyundai wants everyone to believe that its new luxury flagship is capable of doing everything that a Lexus LS does, but at a much lower price. And while there are a few swing-and-miss things to note about the Equus experience, what Hyundai has done here is create a truly bona-fide luxury car capable of standing toe-to-toe with its Japanese competition and coming pretty darn close to the likes of its lofty German rivals.
But will we simply boast that the Equus – Hyundai's most expensive car to date – is a good value, or does it possess enough content and engineering prowess to truly stand out amongst its highly regarded classmates? Follow the jump to find out.
The Equus uses a stretched version of Hyundai's rear-wheel-drive BH platform – the same one that underpins the smaller Genesis sedan. At 203.1 inches long, the Equus adds 7.2 inches to the length of a Genesis, riding on a wheelbase that's been stretched by 4.3 inches. Width hasn't changed in creating the longer-wheelbase flagship, but the Equus is 0.4 inches taller than its little sister and rides on 19-inch chrome rollers as standard stock.
From the side profile, the Equus is a relatively modest-looking, yet attractive sedan. There's a strong horizontal character line that stems from the front wheel well and fades just before the C-pillar, where an arched line draws your eye up over the rear wheel, accenting the upward slant of the greenhouse.
We must say, though – there's a whole lot going on from the dead front view. The hood and grille shape references that of the smaller Genesis, but the bug-eyed HID headlamps, large LED turn signal strips and added chrome trim are a bit off-putting at first. After a while, you get used to the flashy face. It's an interesting contrast to the car's rear, which is sedate yet handsome, with LED taillamps, chrome strips to match the ones up front and large exhaust ports that are nicely integrated into the lower valence.
Interior refinement on the Equus is exactly what you'd expect for a proper luxury flagship, though there are a few small omissions. We aren't talking about big stuff here – little amenities like power lumbar adjustment for the front passenger seat, side bolster adjustments for the front chairs or a one-touch close feature for the sunroof, for example. Still, our Ultimate-spec tester's cabin arrived positively lousy with bells and whistles – niceties like a heated steering wheel, heated and cooled seats all around, a refrigerator in the rear console, power sunshades and a rear entertainment system.
What separates the Ultimate from the base Equus is its rear seating configuration, ditching the three-passenger bench seat in favor of two chairs with a fixed center console. The rear passenger-side chair – the one we've named the "executive throne" – even has massage and recline functions. If you ever have the chance to sit in a four-passenger Equus, we highly recommend spending no less than five minutes exploring the features of the royalty seat. Be warned, though – even with the Equus' longer wheelbase over the Genesis, those rear seats don't offer as much legroom as you might think.
Check it out in our Autoblog Short Cut video below:
The thing we like best about the Equus' interior is that it isn't as overwhelming as some of its competitors. There's no second-guessing of buttons, there's no scanning for control knobs and there aren't so many different levels of functionality that the whole setup needs to come with an instruction manual. Take the infotainment system, for example – it is controlled by a single knob on the center console, sort of like BMW's iDrive or COMAND from Mercedes-Benz, but because of the added layer of buttons around the large dial, it's easy to operate. Still, the graphics look a little outdated to us, especially when you consider the beautifully colored displays from Audi or BMW.
Fit and finish is superb, though the Equus often feels more like a big Genesis than a wholly different level of exclusivity. Sure, the Genesis' interior is plenty good, but the cabin – especially in front – still has the feeling that it was designed for Korean tastes and not American sensibilities. The switchgear is exactly what you'd expect to see in every other Hyundai, and other minor details like the relatively flat-bottomed seats and thin steering wheel are more proof that the automaker targeted cushier bogeys like the Lexus LS and not sportier offerings like the 7-Series.
The only available engine for 2011 is Hyundai's 4.6-liter Tau V8, pumping out 385 horsepower and 333 pound-feet of torque in this application. It doesn't quite put its power to the ground with the same level of grace or involvement as the European-engineered cars, but unsurprisingly, driving the Equus is similar to the experience you get in a Lexus LS. It's buttery smooth, refined and is more concerned with being comfortable than engaging.
Things will likely change once the Equus receives Hyundai's new 429-hp, direct-injected 5.0-liter V8, but even with the current 4.6-liter powerplant, we never once wished for more grunt. The Equus is indeed at a disadvantage against its German rivals, only because the majority of them now use turbocharged eight-cylinder setups that are super-torquey down low.
Unfortunately, there's a whole lot of numbness when it comes to steering and braking. When moving the tiller from side to side, we wish there were a lot more on-center feeling that doesn't correlate to the random bouts of heaviness felt as you really pull into a turn. It's very non-linear in this regard, and if Hyundai wants to truly compete with all of the globe's luxury sedans someday, it had better work on improving this behind-the-wheel experience.
For the majority of non-enthusiastic drivers, the Equus motoring experience will be pleasant. It's eerily quiet while moving down the road, the six-speed automatic transmission does a fine job of firing off shifts with a sense of urgency and the suspension damping is soft yet appropriate in this sort of barge. The adjustable air-assisted suspension is one of the best parts about the Equus experience – not only because it does things like automatically tweak the suspension damping based on road condition or lowers the car when cruising over 70 mph, but that you don't have to push any buttons for the adjustments to happen.
There's a Sport mode, activated by a button just to the right of the gear lever, but its adjustments to the transmission's shift schedule aren't great for around-town cruising. Even on the highway, when left to its normal devices, the six-speed tranny has no problem kicking down for high-speed passing.
"So, what is it, like, 80 grand?"
Far, far less. Even in the fully decked-out Ultimate trim, the Equus' price tag will go no higher than $65,400, including destination and delivery charges. You want a Lexus LS 460? Add over $5,000 to that tag. And if you insist on shelling out for German engineering, be prepared to spend anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000 more for comparably equipped cars.
What's more, we can't overlook the benefits of Hyundai's exclusive dealership (or lack thereof) experience for Equus owners. When routine maintenance is needed, reach for the included Apple iPad in your glove box, queue up the service app and wait for technicians to collect your Equus from your home or office, leaving you a different Equus or Genesis sedan as a loaner car. When the work is done, the dealership will swap the cars back again. None of the competitors – German or Japanese – offer that.
If Hyundai continues on its current pace, it will only be a matter of time before it is widely regarded as highly as other major automakers in every segment in which it competes. Will my roommate ever tell me that my Hyundai has arrived when a Lexus LS shows up at my door? Probably not. But as long as non-enthusiasts can be convinced that the Equus is up to snuff to take on the Japanese big guns, Hyundai's path to righteousness will continue to be paved.