2011 Hyundai Equus

October 21, 2011

The Equus is arguably Hyundai's fourth luxury car, following the 2001 XG300/350; its replacement, the 2006 Azera; and the 2009 Genesis sedan — and each has been larger and more luxurious than the preceding one. If the Genesis straddled the line between midsize and full-size luxury sedans, the Equus is squarely in the full-size class, among the BMW 7 Series, Lexus LS 460 and Mercedes-Benz S-Class. For its price, the Equus is amazing. (See it compared.)

The Equus (pronounced ECK-wiss) is absolutely competitive with flagship luxury sedans from around the world, yet I suspect it will fail to truly compete — for the most superficial, intangible reasons.

The word "Equus" is Latin for "horse," and is also a genus that encompasses distinct species, including horses, donkeys and a range of zebras. Even though the Hyundai Equus is as impressive as a Lipizzaner, I predict it will be as common as a zebra, simply because it's named after a mule.

The Equus comes in two trim levels: the Signature and the Ultimate. We tested an Ultimate, which for another $6,500 adds to the base model's extensive standard equipment list a forward-view camera, a power trunklid and a series of backseat upgrades, including a refrigerator and split reclining rear seats that drop the seat count from five to four. (See the two trims compared.) There are otherwise no factory options.

Little is Missing

In terms of features and luxury appointments, little is missing from the Equus. It has a standard adjustable-height air suspension and adaptive shock absorbers, features that are optional on some competing models. The gauges are nice and bright, and the LCD screens between the gauges and on the dashboard are high resolution with appealing graphics. The leather is high quality, and the trim includes textured genuine aluminum. Even the multifunction controller knob — which competitors took years to get right — works quite well.

The 2011's 4.6-liter V-8 generates 385 horsepower, and though I believe that's more than adequate, Hyundai has announced that the 2012 model will have a 429-hp, 5.0-liter V-8 now that the updated 2012 Genesis sedan's higher trim level has adopted the 4.6-liter. The transmission will also change from a six-speed to an eight-speed, which could improve efficiency, though mileage estimates aren't yet available for the 2012.

The 2011 Equus' six-speed was well-behaved, and the car accelerated authoritatively and quietly. With a combined city/highway estimate of 19 mpg on premium gas, the Equus matches the LS 460 and beats the S550 and 750i by 1 and 2 mpg, respectively. One shortcoming is that the Equus comes only with rear-wheel drive, while its German and Japanese rivals offer optional all-wheel drive.

Minor Complaints

My complaints are relatively few. The biggest one is that the steering needs more power assist at highway speeds; I found it fatiguing to keep the car centered. I'd make the same complaint about a sporty car, but it seems particularly out of character here. Some peculiar wind noise emanates from the moonroof at 60 mph and higher, though a solid shade can be deployed to block it. The Ultimate trim's front-view camera is quite effective, but unfortunately, in addition to looking awkward when viewed from the outside, it collects the slightest bit of precipitation so effectively you'd think it was designed to do so.

On the upside, this feature is standard on the Ultimate, which is priced thousands to tens of thousands of dollars lower than some competing models on which the feature's an option. A similar story: Some competitors' adaptive cruise control is designed to resume even after a complete stop, while the Equus' quits at 1 or 2 mph, handing responsibility back to you — but it comes standard.

Safety

The Equus comes with nine airbags, including side curtains and seat-mounted side-impact airbags for all window seats. Antilock brakes and an electronic stability system are also standard, as are collision and lane departure warning systems. See all the safety features here.

So What's the Problem?

If you're like me, you'll find no overall problem with the Equus. I'm so Vulcanlike that I would rave about an excellent car if it came from Yugo. The product is its own entity, and this product is great. Unfortunately, American consumers aren't Vulcans (though apparently some are Kardashians), and they won't be flocking to buy a luxury car from Hyundai.

Technically, Hyundai isn't the problem. American consumers are finally getting over their decades-old perception of Hyundais as inferior vehicles. Slowly and diligently, the company has added high quality, progressive styling and improved mileage and crash tests to its trademark value and generous warranty. Hyundai is seemingly unstoppable in the U.S. and world markets, and that success is as deserved as was Toyota's historic ascension decades ago.

So what's the problem? Modest brands fail to make a dent with luxury vehicles. BMW, Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz are singular luxury enterprises, and there's a reason Toyota has Lexus, Volkswagen has Audi, Ford has Lincoln and GM has both Cadillac and Chevrolet. History has proved that luxury cars must come from luxury brands. In our evaluations, we struggle to comprehend and relate what a luxury name brings, and to parse what makes one brand appeal more to one consumer than to another. It's intangible, unquantifiable and utterly unpredictable, but it's definitely there, adding value through nothing more than perception and reputation.

Hyundai has taken steps to mitigate this with the Equus, mainly through programs whereby you interact with a salesperson at your home, and once you buy a loaner car can be dropped off in exchange for your Equus so it can be brought in for maintenance. The owner might never see the inside of a Hyundai dealership. Sadly, that won't be enough. The Genesis sedan — despite being the winner of Cars.com's Best of 2009 award — has sold in modest numbers. As I point out at every opportunity, Hyundai did itself no favors by naming its affordable sports car the Genesis Coupe — different buyer, different price range, different ... everything, except the name.

Ultimately, the resulting consumer confusion isn't the main obstacle. It's the fact that Hyundai is attempting to do what others have failed to do. Selling luxury cars requires a luxury brand, and that calls for a separate distribution channel — no cheap endeavor. As I said of the Genesis sedan, the Hyundai Equus is a great car for buyers who thought they could never afford a car of its ilk. If I were the operator of a car service, I'd order a dozen of the things. But until they're sold under a luxury name, the Genesis and Equus will both be here, proving what Hyundai is made of and satisfying the Vulcans among us.

Snapshot

$58,000 – $64,500

EPA Fuel Economy:

City: 16

Highway: 24

Available Engines:

385-hp, 4.6-liter V-8 (premium)

Available Transmissions:

6-speed automatic w/OD and auto-manual

New or Notable

• All-new Hyundai flagship

• Slots above Genesis sedan

• Standard 4.6-liter V-8, six-speed automatic

• Available massaging seats

• Available reclining rear seats, extending ottoman

What We Like

• Luxury features

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