The executive sedan ranks are populated by the likes of the Mercedes-Benz S-class, Audi A8, and the Lexus LS 460. Amongst these nameplates you would not expect to find Hyundai, but the Korean automaker has assumed the role of upstart crow, doing a lot of things that, given its brand history in the U.S., it should not be capable of doing.
Its latest foray into upsetting the status quo comes in the form of the 2011 Equus, a luxury sedan designed for the moneyed classes. But in typical Hyundai style, it will probably undercut its competition in price, without sacrificing features. Hyundai let us spend a day driving the Equus before it goes on sale in early November. Pricing had not been announced at the time of our drive.
Chauffeur not included
The Equus looks imposing, a big, meaty sedan where a chauffeur would not be out of place. Its grille and front end share design with the Hyundai Genesis sedan, Hyundai's next largest car. Hyundai's design language, Fluidic Sculpture, seen prominently on the new Sonata, also makes itself known on the exterior of the Equus, albeit in a subtle manner. Witness the slight arches over the rear wheels that disappear in the rear doors, or the contours on either side of the hood that drift down towards the bumper.
Similar to the Genesis sedan, the Hyundai badging is de-emphasized, not appearing on the front or inside the car at all. The only slanted H badge sits on the trunk lid. A custom Equus badge, a nice design with upraised silver wings. appears on the hood, steering wheel, and shifter.
The Equus and Genesis share the same rear-wheel-drive platform, Hyundai's first, along with the same 4.6-liter V-8 engine. The 385 horsepower and 333 pound-feet of torque move the big Equus easily, fed to the wheels through a 6 speed ZF automatic transmission. ZF makes excellent transmissions, but the Equus is outpaced in this area by the 7 speed automatic in the Mercedes-Benz S-class and the 8 speed automatics in both the Lexus LS and the Audi A8.
A sport mode in the Equus affects the transmission, air suspension, and electronic stability systems. Activating it, we immediately noticed how the suspension tightened up, the ride going from well-damped to slightly more jostling. There was less impact on the transmission. Whether in normal or sport mode, there was a definite pause between the time we stepped hard on the gas and the gears stepped down. Likewise, the transmission was not particularly aggressive in holding low gears.
Slewing the big car into a turn, the adaptive suspension did an excellent job keeping the car stable, probably one of the most important factors in attaining its luxury ride credentials. As the traction control was loosened up for sport mode, we felt the rear end get a little slippery, although not in the very controlled manner we've felt in BMWs.
Ultimately, the Equus' sport capabilities are not as strong as those in a car like the Audi A8. Its adaptive suspension acquits itself well in high-speed cornering, but the transmission's sport mode does not lend itself for high engine speeds. The transmission does have a manual mode, but the lack of paddle shifters means a long reach over to the shifter.
In normal driving, the slow step-down of the transmission was bothersome, but all else was well. The car moves forward comfortably and feels very solid. Hyundai used an electro-hydraulic power steering system, this hybrid component designed to offer the feel of hydraulic power steering but the efficiency of an electric unit. Hyundai tuned this system well, not overpowering it but still making for easy parking lot maneuvering.
The engine uses variable valve timing to optimize efficiency, but does not get into direct injection or forced induction. Hyundai estimates the fuel economy for the Equus will be 16 mpg city and 24 mpg highway.
While behind the wheel, we turned on the lane departure warning system and were treated to frequent chirps as we put tires on paint. This system does not go so far as to actively try and put the car back in its lane. Another driver-assistance feature on the Equus is adaptive cruise control. Unlike some systems, Hyundai's will not bring the car to a dead stop, cutting out at around 5 mph. Hyundai did not include a blind-spot warning system, a feature that would be useful on the Equus.
When reversing, we noticed the backup camera, which has trajectory lines that show where the car will go depending on how the wheels are turned. And similar to Rolls-Royce, Hyundai fits the Equus with a forward-looking camera, useful when rolling out of parking garages or maneuvering through a blind intersection.
Hyundai also hijacked Rolls-Royce's former audio brand, fitting the Equus with a Lexicon sound system from Harman International. This system produces very rich and detailed sound through 17 speakers. We watched DVD clips on the rear seat screen, well-placed on the rear of the console, and were very impressed by the 7.1 channel surround sound.
Live concert footage of Eric Clapton was so realistic and well-staged that the vocals seemed to be coming directly from his mouth. An action-oriented clip from Minority Report played with theatrical audio, the sounds of characters running and jumping around a factory creating an immersive experience.
Along with the in-dash CD/DVD player, the Equus has the expected audio sources, including iPod integration and satellite radio. There is also a Bluetooth phone system, which we were not able to test during this preview drive.
The hard-drive-based navigation system uses colorful maps with good resolution, although they only appear in 2D, with no 3D option. The navigation system also shows traffic, and will dynamically route around bad traffic. While under route guidance, the system read street names out loud.
Hyundai's interface is somewhat similar to Audi's MMI controller. A large click knob sits on the console, with buttons surrounding it for quick access to radio, media, navigation, and the phone system. In destination input mode, an oval racetrack graphic populated by letters appears on the LCD. Rotating the knob selects different letters. This type of system is a little tedious to use, as you have to turn the knob constantly to select new letters.
Hyundai plans on making the option choices very simple with the Equus. Customers will choose between one of two trims, Signature or Ultimate. The Signature Equus comes with all the cabin electronics and adaptive suspension, and even a driver massage seat. The Ultimate version adds a rear massage seat, rear seat entertainment system, and a refrigerator in the rear console.
When Hyundai unveiled the car at the 2010 New York auto show, it was widely announced that it would include an iPad for the owner's manual. We did not get a chance to look at the Equus' iPad during our drive, because Hyundai was waiting for Apple to approve its app. The Equus app will not only include the car's manual, but will also include a maintenance feature, with a button letting users schedule service appointments with Hyundai.