My neighborhood loses power. A lot.
So when our post-New Year’s Storm from Hell dropped a foot of snow and sub-zero temps on us, my wife and I checked out the back seat of the Hyundai Equus I was testing as a possible refuge if the lights went out. Yes, it’s that comfortable.
Introduced to the U.S. market in 2010, the Equus’ posh proportions had already established it as a popular, chauffeur-driven car for Korean businessmen. This is old-school luxury, complete with ashtrays. Airplane-like video screens installed in the back of the front seats provide in-flight — er, in-car — infotainment. A full control console folds down in the backseat allowing passengers to take over the car’s audio and navigation controls. There are fold-down, illuminated vanity mirrors for grooming, and a motorized rear window shade adds privacy.
This car got more appealing to my wife by the second. “Henry! Time to drive me to my meeting!” She was disappointed to learn, however, that the massaging rear-seats, standard on the first imports to the U.S., have been discontinued for the 2014 year model.
The price for this Carnival cruise liner with 5-liter V-8? Just $68,000.
That’s 25 grand less than a similarly equipped BMW 750 or Mercedes S-Class, and $10,000 less than a Lexus LS460 (though the old-school Cadillac XTS hangs right with the Hyundai on price). A luxury bargain? Yes, if it was a $68,000 BMW Equus, or Mercedes Equus, or Caddy Equus. But it’s a $68K Hyundai, and therein lies the rub.
The badge matters in a segment in which brand is paramount. Luxury is image, and the German, Japanese and American brands speak volumes about their owners when they roll up to a five-star restaurant. Hyundai is not unaware of the image game. The Equus is for “the millionaire next door who wants to make the smart choice for a lot of car,” says Miles Johnson, product public relations manager. That’ll get you 3,500 sales a year in the U.S. — just 30 percent the number of its rivals.
Hyundai wants more and the Equus’ smaller sibling — the stunning 2015 Genesis introduced at this year’s Detroit auto show — promises the Korean automaker is poised for greater success. It’s all about the details.
Introduce yourself to the Equus and she looks a bit homely. A Hyundai Sonata has more sex appeal. The Equus’ front fascia is plain, devoid of BMW’s signature twin-kidneys or the sculpted grilles of the Audi and Caddy. The car is an echo of early Lexus cars, which themselves were echoes of Mercedes. Hyundai intends to address that in the next-generation model with its fresh “Fluidic Sculpture 2.0” design language. You can see it in the new Genesis’s inspired grille, slit headlights, and creased hips.
Back to the Equus.
Sensing the key in my pocket, Equus unlocks the doors and opens the side mirrors like sunflowers opening to the sun. A chime greets you as you enter the cabin. The interior is sumptuous with heated, ivory leather seats and real wood trim around the doors and dash. The digital instrument panel is reminiscent of Cadillac — its many options easily negotiated with a clever, right-thumb-operated dial on the steering wheel. A heads-up display hovers — hologram-like — above the hood, allowing you to monitor your speed without looking down at the dash. You reach for the 9.2-inch center-console screen, but it disappoints. Operated by a rotary dial, it’s not a touch screen as is standard in the class.
Equus is Latin for “horse” and this car has 429 of them. With that kind of power on tap, I found myself groping for steering wheel paddles to gain full control of the herd under the hood — but only the automatic shifter is offered. Never mind. Like a rhino pulling a stagecoach, the big Tau V-8 is more than enough power to motivate the two-ton Equus, though that smart, budget-conscious Equus buyer may blanch at the car’s 18 mpg (I managed just 14.7 on daily commutes). Still, put your boot in it and this big hoss can really stretch her legs ... until you encounter some twisty bits.
The big sedan feels more land yacht when cornering, its body less taut, its steering less precise compared to its German and Japanese competition. The rear-wheel-drive Hyundai is conspicuously missing an all-wheel-drive option in this option-loaded segment. I can see your arms crossing across your chest. Whaaaaat? Don’t RWD V-8s hibernate with the bears in winter time?
Nossir. This is 21st century. Indeed, there is no better illustration than the Equus of how electronics have utterly changed vehicle safety. I not only drove the Equus through the teeth of Old Man Winter’s January tantrum, I taunted him with it. Like a skier in fresh powder, I tackled southwest Detroit’s unplowed streets. I turned into corners hard. I stomped on it. I lived to tell the tale. In fact, I enjoyed it. The rear end would wag, but the Electronic Stability Control system would instantly bite, cutting throttle and wheel spin. No drama, no mess.
Even at full throttle, the electronics would virtually stall the engine, taming the beast. All hail the engineers.
'Elevate the brand'
In the late 1980s Toyota, Honda, and Nissan targeted the U.S. market with new name-brands — Lexus, Acura, and Infiniti — to sell luxury cars without the stigma of their more pedestrian parents. They made their mark, at huge marketing cost. By contrast, Hyundai has eschewed a high-cost strategy and launched its luxury models under the good ol’ Hyundai name. “We’re not pouring money into a establishing a new luxury channel,” says Hyundai’s Johnson. “We’re looking to elevate the brand.”
It’s a riskier strategy than Hyundai’s Japanese forebears, but the tactic is the same: Provide a quality luxury experience at an affordable price. Hyundai will deliver your Equus to your home. It’ll pick it up for maintenance. It’ll provide you a substitute while your car is being repaired. Heck, they may even bring you a massaging recliner if you ask. The result is that the Equus now out-Lexuses Lexus as the luxury bargain.
Can Hyundai become a top-selling luxury brand? Can Equus and Elantra both thrive under the same dealership roof? Time will tell. But one thing’s for sure: With Genesis styling and better attention to detail, the next Equus won’t take a backseat to anyone.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com Twitter @HenryEPayne