Review and photos by
Jil McIntosh, Autos.ca
If the idea of a $70,000 Hyundai sounds too odd for words, just remember: there was a time when a high-end Toyota sounded pretty strange as well, until people got used to the idea of Lexus.
That’s pretty much the type of success Hyundai is anticipating with the Equus, its high-end luxury model that’s new here for 2011. The company only expects to sell about 100 of them this year (skater Brian Orser has purchased one), but it could be the beginning of an entirely new direction for a company that’s moved almost all of its models to new heights of refinement in the last little while. In addition to top-line features, the new sedan also comes with an equally new “owner experience” that includes Equus-specific service, a dedicated line to the company’s head office, and even an iPad that holds the owner’s manual. It’s all part of the company’s plan to target such marques as BMW, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz, but at a considerably lower price.
My tester was the five-passenger Equus Signature at $62,999. There’s only one step up, the Equus Ultimate, which seats four and rings in at $69,999. My “base” model, if that term applies, includes such items as heated and cooled seats, driver’s side massage, real wood accents including the heated steering wheel, heated rear seats, climate control with automatic defogging, air suspension, navigation system, power sunshades, rain-sensing wipers, adaptive xenon headlamps, lane departure warning system, adaptive cruise control, power-folding auto-dimming mirrors, and a very impressive stereo system by Lexicon, whose only other automotive client is Rolls-Royce.The Equus – the name is Latin for “horse” – is based on a lengthened platform from the Genesis sedan. It uses that model’s 4.6-litre V8, tuned for the Equus’ heavier weight, producing 385 horsepower and 333 lb-ft of torque and mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. Those figures are rated with premium fuel, but the Equus can run comfortably on regular-grade fuel with a power drop to 378 horsepower and 324 lb.-ft. of torque. For next year, the Genesis and Equus will trade in the 4.6-litre for a 5.0-litre V8.
The Ultimate moves even closer to its high-end rivals by adding a wide-view front camera, power-operated trunk, rear vanity mirrors, power-operated rear head restraints and cooled storage box. Rear-seat passengers enjoy heated and ventilated seats, eight-inch monitor, power lumbar, and for the right-hand passenger, a seat that folds out like a La-Z-Boy lounger and includes a shiatsu massage function. Only one passenger can enjoy the laid-back position because the right front seat has to be slid forward almost to the dash for the rear seat to unfold.
Some 27 dealers are carrying the Equus, in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec. If it needs service, someone comes to your house to pick it up and then deliver it later, giving you a Genesis as a loaner vehicle in the meantime. If you’re serious about buying one but don’t have the time to come by the store, Hyundai will even bring one to you to test-drive.
It’s a handsome car which, in Hyundai fashion, bears some resemblance to other models. Depending on the angle, I could see strong hints of Lexus and Buick in its styling, and one friend thought it might even be a Maybach by its grille. Only the stylized “H” logo on the trunk lid gives any hint of its parent company; nowhere is Hyundai’s name written on the vehicle. It’s also quite a nice unit inside, with good-quality materials and just enough wood trim woven into the clean design. It’s especially beautiful at night, with well-appointed theatre lighting and full white backlighting on all controls. Even the door-mounted buttons for the seat adjustment are surrounded with a thin white illuminated line.
The 4.6-litre V8, known as “Tau” in Hyundai-speak, deserves the spot it earned on the Ward’s 10 Best Engines list. It’s deliciously smooth and powerful, although it’s so quiet that it can be unnerving to look down at the speedometer and see how far over the limit you’ve unwittingly strayed. Gentle, gradual pressure produces linear results, but if you hit the throttle hard, you’ll feel a slight, momentary resistance to the pedal. According to Hyundai, that’s because the car – lifted pretty much straight from Korea with only a few changes for our market – is primarily meant as a chauffeured vehicle in that country, and it reminds the driver not to jostle the passengers. The transmission shifts smoothly and pretty much unnoticeably, but while there’s a manual mode on the shifter, there are no paddles on the steering wheel. The official fuel ratings are 13.4 L/100 km (21 mpg Imp) in the city and 8.2 (34) on the highway. In combined driving, I averaged 12.5 (23).
While the car doesn’t feel as heavy as it is, the softly-sprung suspension can be a bit wallowy, and the undercarriage can be noisy on broken pavement. There’s a “Sport” button, which is where I kept it most of the time: it tightens up the undercarriage to where I’d expect it to ride normally. You definitely won’t mistake it for an Audi A8. It’s rear-wheel drive only; all-wheel is not available. The air suspension can be raised via a button, but it automatically returns to normal height over 70 km/h. The steering is accurate but, similarly to a large Lexus, there’s very little feel or feedback to it. The car is extremely relaxing to drive, but there’s no emotion. You turn the wheel, the car quietly obeys, the seat massages your back, and all is good and right with the world. It’s the automotive version of Prozac.
The controls are a combination of a central screen operated by a joystick, and several buttons for commonly-used items. The designers have put it all together the way these things should be properly done. Functions you don’t use as often, such as vehicle settings and navigation systems, are accessed through the screen. Buttons are used for such tasks as climate control, seat temperature and window defogging, which shouldn’t require you to page through computer screens while you’re driving. A separate set of controls in the rear seat pull-down armrest allows passengers back there to handle several functions as well, including the stereo, sunshades, climate and their heated seats.
Every so often you come across something that reminds you of its more humble beginnings, though. The base model doesn’t come with a power-operated trunk, and the lid doesn’t spring up when you press the key fob, which makes it tougher when your hands are filled with groceries. Some of the hardware feels a bit fragile, too, including a hinge on the centre console box that developed a clicking sound when it was opened.
On the other hand, it doesn’t have the cachet of those nameplates, which means a great deal at this level. Volkswagen found that out with its top-end Phaeton, and Hyundai is, after all, the company that recently advertised its Accent as the cheapest car in Canada.Where this Equus will end up in the market remains to be seen. On one hand, the fully-loaded version is $70,000 against the starting prices of such targets as the Lexus LS460 at $83,100; Jaguar XJ at $88,000; Audi A8 at $99,200; Mercedes-Benz S-Class at $107,800; and BMW 7 Series at $110,300.
My unproven theory is that the big story behind the 2011 Equus isn’t the vehicle itself, but its role in the company’s future. According to a Hyundai rep, the automaker didn’t spin off a separate higher-end brand, as Toyota did with Lexus, due to the high cost and length of time it takes to establish a new company. Each of the 27 dealers selected to carry the Equus had to invest a substantial amount of money and time into it. With only about 100 cars expected to sell across all of Canada for the year, it really doesn’t seem like a smart investment if this model is all there is. Instead, my speculation is that Equus will grow from a single car into the company’s high-end brand, gradually branching out rather than starting from scratch.
On the whole, standing in the showroom right now, I’d spend $49,999 for the satisfying Genesis 4.6 Sedan and keep the extra $20,000 in my pocket. The Equus is pleasant to drive, but still has some edges that need to be smoothed out. Some tweaks to its handling and suspension are needed to move it closer to the top of its game.
But that’s right now, and I fully expect that at some time in the future, Hyundai’s high-end models – whether they’re known as Equus, as I suspect, or something else – will one day be named as full competitors to the top-end brands the company has in its sights right now. I’ve seen this company go from the Pony to this. I think there’s still room to go from here.
Pricing: 2011 Hyundai Equus Signature
Base price: $62,999
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $64,859
Crash test results