First Drive: 2011 Hyundai Equus

The Ultimate Four-Wheeled Value Proposition

2011 Hyundai Equus - Click above for high-res image gallery

If the Genesis sedan was Hyundai's opening salvo to bring the pain to Lexus, the Equus is a set of leather-covered brass knuckles flying towards the jaws of Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. It's a bold move by an automaker riding high on the intoxicating fumes of increased marketshare and boosted brand awareness. But here's one thing the Equus is not: Phaeton Part Deux.

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Photos copyright ©2010 Damon Lavrinc / AOL

Yes, Hyundai is punching above its weight and public perception. And yes, it's bringing a luxury sedan to the U.S. that's enjoyed considerable success in its home market. But that's where the similarities to the ill-received Phaeton end and where Volkswagen and Hyundai's strategies part ways. Hyundai recognizes the Equus is a niche product that isn't going to transform the brand. It's a sales, pricing and service experiment. So before we get to the good stuff, let's take a quick look at the automaker's tactics.

On the retail front, Hyundai only expects to sell between 2,000 and 3,000 Equus sedans each year – about the same amount VW projected when the Phaeton was introduced in 2004. When the big V-Dub was yanked from the U.S. market two years later, a little over 2,000 Phaetons were sold in total.

The Phaeton's failure in the U.S came down to a number of factors, but astronomical pricing (for a VW) sat at the top of that list. For those who need a refresher, the entry-level V8 Phaeton started at just under $65,000 in 2004, with the range-topping W12 nearly nudging into six digits with a $94,000 sticker.

While Hyundai hasn't announced pricing for the Equus (official MSRPs should be out in a week, with sales beginning November 1), the standard Equus Signature is likely to carry a price tag somewhere in the high $50,000 range, while the executive-friendly Ultimate will come in north of $60k. Granted, the Equus is not one of the most innovative luxury sedans of our lifetime, but then again, it doesn't have to be. All the Equus needs to do is offer a metric ton of amenities at an unrivaled price point and provide a phenomenal dealer experience in the process. And the best way to do the latter? Eliminate the dealer. Well, almost...

Equus buyers want to mix it up with Accent owners about as much as Phaeton people wanted to get chummy with their Golf-driving neighbors, so Hyundai's sales and service strategy is two-fold.

First, bring the car to prospective buyers' houses for test drives and Q&A sessions. Depending on state laws, you can sign on the dotted-line right from the comfort of your kitchen table. After that, Hyundai President and CEO John Krafcik says, "If you never want to go to the dealership again, you don't have to."

When oil-change time comes around, pull out the Hyundai-supplied Apple iPad that takes the place of the owner's manual (a dead tree edition is included as well), dial up the service app and you can schedule an appointment through the tubes of the Interwebs. A few days later, Hyundai techs whisk your Equus away to the dealership and leave in its place either a similarly spec'd sedan or a Genesis loaner. No need to rub elbows with the proletariat or drink the caffeinated swill at one of the 250 Equus-approved dealerships. Hyundai knows you're special. And you only drink Starbucks anyway.

Sure. But do you want one?

Let's forget about badge snobbery and the "ownership experience" for a moment. Do you like leather? Alcantara headliner? Seats that cool, heat and massage your conference call-weary shoulders? Are you tired of asking passengers to remove their lower limbs before squeezing into the back seat? Do you hunt for "value" like Brett Favre pleads for attention? Is "bang-for-the-buck" less a guiding philosophy and rather something you pursue with religious zeal? If you answered 'yes' to most of those questions, than the Equus is a winner.

To begin with, it's a sharp looking sedan from nearly every angle. While the rear might not be the most eye-catching, the view head-on and in profile exudes executive, even if it is of the Kkangpae variety. The chromed grille, piercing headlamps and sculpted fascia are all aggressive without being over the top, it's just a shame the front-view camera (on the Ultimate) protruding from the Equus' snout looks like a symmetrical black zit. The KDM hood ornament hasn't made the trek to the States (thanks, pedestrians), and if you're counting how many Hyundai logos adorn the Equus, you'll need a single digit for the lone "H" on the trunk.

Our favorite exterior elements are the pinched creases above the front and rear fenders, the latter of which stand out in the late-afternoon sunlight and divert your attention from the LS460-like exhaust tips, Maxima-style tail lamps and acres upon acres of chrome trim. While we understand the need for bling, the mirror finished 19-inch wheels are simply a step too far and Hyundai isn't offering an alternative at launch.

However, avoid sunburning your shins on the way inside, and the exterior's overwrought elements are replaced with a staid, restrained cabin that – on looks alone – comes across as both demure and palatial. Once again, the Koreans have taken a hard look at what luxury buyers are after (kudos to Lexus for the research) and replicated their desires with exacting precision.

At 109.3 cubic feet, the Equus is packing more interior volume than nearly every luxury flagship on the market, and comes equipped with all the amenities you'd expect (or deserve, depending on your point-of-view).

Real wood accents are inlaid into the dash, doors and steering wheel, the latter equipped with power tilt and telescoping. Both front chairs are heated and cooled, while the driver's seat benefits from 12-way adjustability and several massage settings.

Situated in front of the driver is your standard array of gauges, with a high-resolution 3.5-inch display showing gear selection, parking assist, trip information, stability management, lane departure warning system (lights, chimes and haptic feedback through the seatbelt) and the radar-assisted cruise control settings.

Nestled into the center stack is an eight-inch display (the Driver Information System or DIS) that controls Bluetooth phone operation, MP3 player, CD, AM/FM/ XM audio, dual-zone and rear HVAC settings, parking assist (front and rear) and the vehicle dynamics system. The main input is a rotary knob aft of the shifter, surrounded by buttons for each accompanying system. The blend of dedicated controls is a welcome change from other all-in-one arrangements, even if the graphics – from the climate to GPS displays – are a generation or two behind what's being offered by Audi and BMW.

While fit and finish are easily on par with anything from luxury marques hailing from Japan or Germany, the overall premium sensation you get from a Lexus or Mercedes is notable by its absence. The materials just don't have the same refined and crafted sensation – something that Genesis buyers moving from another luxury marque have noticed in the past. The brushed aluminum trim adoring the center stack looks nice, but feels slightly flimsy. The double-stitched leather on the dash is nice to the touch, but doesn't give, hinting at a hard plastic tray underneath. The buttons on the steering wheel, center column and instrument panel lack the solidity we've come to expect in something costing over 50-large. In short, if Audi is a tactile "10", M-B a nine and BMW an eight, the Equus is somewhere between a six and seven – well above average, but more aspirational than class-leading.

But many of these gripes aren't an issue once you're out on the open road. So let's talk sound, or rather, the lack thereof.

With a coefficient of drag of 0.27 and acoustic-laminated glass fitted to the windshield and both the front and rear doors, the Equus is crypt-quiet both over and under the national speed limit. Shut off the equally impressive 608-watt, 17-speaker Lexicon stereo with 7.1 discrete sound, and you're running nuclear submarine-style – silent and deep – with only a growling intake note permeating the interior when the throttle pedal meets the carpet.

Like its rear-wheel-drive platform mate, the Equus comes equipped with Hyundai's 4.6-liter D-CVVT "Tau" V8 putting out 385 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 333 pound-feet of torque at 3,500 rpm. The Tau is easily competitive with all the V8 offerings from established luxury marques, and even if you can't spring for premium fuel, the eight will happily chug away on 87 octane with only a slight decrease in performance.

With power transmitted to a six-speed automatic gearbox with a sport-shift system for tapping between the gears, our seat-of-the-pants estimate for a 0-60 mph time is in the mid-six-second range, and Hyundai figures fuel economy at 16 mpg in the city and 24 on the highway. During our time behind the wheel, we averaged far less (like damn-close to single digits) on account of Hyundai's drive route – easily the most technical we've experienced in years – through the hills and valleys that separate Silicon Valley from the Pacific. As always, these kind of loops can cut both ways. And it did.

V8 power is almost a necessity to motivate around 4,500 pounds of steel, leather and electronics, and the Tau V8 succeeds with aplomb. Power delivery is linear and smooth, with intake noise easily eclipsing any exhaust note out back. The transmission is equally up to the task, delivering crisp shifts and predictably – if slightly lazily – reaching for a lower gear when maximum thrust is called upon.

Driving demerits come in the form of a mushy middle pedal when braking, traveling a good third of the way down before the stoppers begin to scrub off speed. It takes a few moments to adapt, but afterward, pedal pressure remains constant, with only the slightest hint of fade after a particularly grueling stretch of switchbacks and 90-degree bends.

Far less adaptable is the steering, which lacks any kind of feedback on center and weights up unpredictably mid-bend. The electro-hydraulic power steering tweaks feel and boost based on vehicle speed and inputs, which works well around town, in parking lots and blasting down the freeway. But anyone looking for a sense of Sport to go with their Lux would do better to look elsewhere. However, the one faint light is the electonically-controlled air suspension that continuously adjusts damping force in 10 millisecond increments to suit the road and driving mode. Switching from Normal to Sport supposedly tweaks the damping, steering and transmission shift schedule, but we only noticed the latter's affect. Regardless, the system can raise the Equus 30 mm when traipsing across rough roads and automatically lowers the sedan by 15 mm when you crest 70 mph. At this price-point, it's an impressive system most notable for doing its job with transparency.

On the safety front, the Equus benefits from the normal smattering of high strength steel, along with nine airbags, electronic active front head restraints and its five-pronged approach to Electronic Stability Control (ESC) and Vehicle Stability Management (VSM). Yup, get ready for the acronyms.

Naturally, ABS and traction control are included, but the ESC and VSM systems also incorporates the electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), cornering brake control (CBC) and the brake assist system (BAS). They all do their jobs well, working together to create a safe, hoon-free experience. However, while being pitched into two high-speed bends on separate occasions we did experience a notable amount of oversteer, accompanied by the seatbelt tensioning system clutching our chest, then followed by a quick grab of the inside rear tire – as if the Equus' electronics were delayed in reminding us that "Hey, this is a big sedan. Watch it!" Also, sliding sideways in the rear VIP seat with the massagers at full blast should be a requirement on all test drives.

Which neatly brings us to the best part of the Equus experience: the Ultimate's rear thrones.

If you stick with the Signature spec Equus, you get the same lengthened wheelbase and a folding center console in back to accommodate five passengers. But forget about that. If you're going drop the kind of coin normally required for a luxury mid-sizer on a full-on flagship, you've got to go all the way, and the Ultimate trim is where it's at.

If you're fortunate enough to be driven, make your way to the right rear seat. In Ultimate trim, Hyundai calls it First Class, and the accommodations live up to the name.

To begin with, you've got the normal heated and cooled seat, along with a highly adjustable massage system. From there, you can also enjoy a power headrest that tilts inward to comfortably ensconce your cranium, a seat the reclines so deeply you'd swear your spine is going to hit the luggage, and an ottoman that rises up as a footrest. If you want all this luxury to be heaped on you at once, press a button on the permanent center console, complete with HVAC and infotainment controls, and the right front seat moves forward a foot and tilts to accommodate your expansive dimensions. An eight-inch LCD display rises from behind the front passenger's center armrest, and yes, that's a fridge to your left. You can almost hear the tween screams about who gets the royal throne on road trips.

And they'd better be tweens.

As our five-foot, 10-inch frame found while spending the better part of an hour in the right-rear seat, while it's luxurious, there's not too much space to stretch out. Scuff marks from our shoes coated the backing of the front seat, making us momentarily question Hyundai's decision not to import the longer-wheelbase version available in Korea. The execs we talked to said it looks odd and disproportionate, but if we really wanted to get comfortable (or productive), those extra nine inches would be a necessity.

But tactile and driving compromises aside, the level of luxury for the price is completely unmatched. Actually, that's an understatement. It's simply unheard of. There's absolutely nothing in the new car market that matches the Equus on the amenities front for a similar price-point. Add in the (admittedly, yet-to-be-tested) ownership and service experience, and you've just coated a very compelling cake in Valrohna ganache. Then sprinkled some gold leaf for effect. The Equus isn't just the ultimate Hyundai – it's the ultimate four-wheeled value proposition. And while taking that tack might have failed for Volkswagen, in this day and this age, something with this level of luxury without the weight of a traditional luxury badge could be an asset. Hyundai's about to find out, and its dedication to experimentation can only make the automotive world the wiser.

Photos copyright ©2010 Damon Lavrinc / AOL

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