James Riswick, New and Used Car Editor
Here at Hyundai's proving grounds in Namyang, South Korea, a little museum showcases the company's past achievements. We lean into the cabin of a 1976 Hyundai Pony to see that the odometer registers only 10 miles. The Pony is from another dimension in time, as is the 1986 Hyundai Excel, the first of the brand's cars to come to the U.S. It's impossible to believe that such cars could come from the same company that created the 2011 Hyundai Equus.
The Equus is a magnum opus: a crowning achievement that shows the world what Hyundai's engineers and designers can accomplish. This full-size, real-wheel-drive luxury sedan has the size, performance, ride quality and opulent interior to measure up against flagship sedans from the world's luxury automakers. A car that's on par with a BMW 7 Series might be a tough bowl of kimchi to swallow for those who can't get those early Hyundais out of their minds, but one drive in the Equus (either behind the wheel or in the limolike backseat) will change your perspective.
You're meant to say, "Just look how far they've come." Indeed commercial success really isn't the point here, as Hyundai readily admits that the market for a car in the mold of the Lexus LS 460 with a Hyundai badge is going to be a small one — even when the Equus' price tag is thousands and thousands of dollars less. Instead, the Equus is intended to further raise the perception of Hyundai as a brand, something that its Genesis luxury sedan has already begun to do. Unique showroom areas, dedicated sales staff and a complimentary Apple iPad that acts like a sort of interactive owner's manual and maintenance minder will further differentiate Hyundai's flagship from the humble Hyundai Elantra and practical Hyundai Sonata.
So while the Equus might never be so important that it warrants a place in the car museum here in Namyang, it certainly deserves to be put upon a pedestal.
The 2011 Hyundai Equus comes standard with the same 4.6-liter V8 that's optional in the Hyundai Genesis, and it's good for 385 horsepower and 333 pound-feet of torque. This is sufficient thrust to make the Equus competitive with the other cars in its class, yet the Hyundai engine seems conspicuously light on torque. You just don't get the immediate punch down low that you would from the 5.0-liter Mercedes-Benz V8 or the twin-turbo 4.4-liter BMW V8. On the other hand, fuel economy appears to be pretty good as this car is EPA rated at 16 city/24 highway mpg and 19 mpg combined.
Things should be better next year, when the Equus should get a 5.0-liter V8 that pumps outs 429 hp and 376 lb-ft of torque. A seven-speed automatic will replace the current six-speed as well. You'd certainly be happy with the current powertrain, but it might be a good idea to wait a year.
During our brief time behind the steering wheel while on the high-speed oval at Namyang, the Equus exhibited excellent stability at speeds touching 130 mph. At more reasonable velocities, the steering of the Equus exhibited a more linear response and a more natural feel than that of the Genesis. With that said, the Equus is unlikely to keep up with a BMW 7 Series or Jaguar XJ around corners. Even when driven in Sport mode, the Equus' adjustable air suspension feels intended for stately travel, which certainly seems appropriate given the car's badge and appearance. We'll have to wait for a full test-drive on public roads to illuminate the full breadth of this car's dynamic abilities.
The 2011 Hyundai Equus takes quiet to a whole new level of serenity. Wind noise is really only noticeable once you top triple digits on the speedometer, and road noise is nil regardless. It's a small detail, but even the power seat motors are noticeably silent.
With any full-size luxury sedan, comfort is a prized attribute; on this front, the seats in the Equus do not disappoint. Among the usual adjustments, the driver seat includes a power thigh extension for those of longer leg — just like in a Jaguar XJ or Mercedes-Benz S-Class. The four-passenger layout was inspired by the Maybach and heating and cooling is available for all outboard seats. Both rear seats recline, while the passenger-side one features a footrest that allows smaller passengers to take a load off (it doesn't offer quite as much sprawl space as the Maybach, though). A center console includes several storage bins, a cool box and myriad controls for the entertainment and climate systems.
There are even controls for moving the front passenger seat out of the way to achieve palatial legroom. Indeed, the 2011 Hyundai Equus is nice enough to drive, but you really want to be paraded about in its backseat.
The Equus' airy cabin is crammed full with high-tech electronic goodies. A large LCD shows all navigation, climate, vehicle and entertainment information, while a knob-and-button layout similar to (and, in many ways, better than) BMW's iDrive system controls most of it. The climate controls consist of remarkably simple knobs and buttons. In a segment in which vehicles can be hopelessly complex, the Equus does a good job of keeping its technology manageable.
The Equus will become another of the very few cars equipped with a Lexicon sound system, a brand already found in the Hyundai Genesis and the many varieties of Rolls-Royce Phantom. Though our iPod and CD collection didn't make the voyage to South Korea for this test, if the Equus' system is anything like the one in the Genesis, it's likely to be one of the best found in any car.
Design/Fit and Finish
The 2011 Hyundai Equus clearly isn't the most visually dynamic car on the road, but when painted in darker colors, there is an undeniable presence to it. It's no Jag XJ, but it's certainly no less interesting than the Lexus LS. And speaking of Lexus, it's hard not to notice a similarity the Equus dash design shares with those of the cars in Toyota's luxury division. It's not a rip-off, but it's not exactly original either.
There's no denying the Equus' interior is beautifully made. Materials are on par with those seen in a Lexus, and the fit and finish in our test car proved excellent, evidence that Hyundai has had almost a year of Korean market sales to fine-tune the car's production. If there is one drawback, it's that the switchgear doesn't quite exhibit the same finely crafted precision and feel of the European flagships. Keep in mind, though, that European competitors can cost $40,000 more.
Who should consider this vehicle
Comfort- and luxury-minded shoppers considering a midsize luxury sedan like a BMW 5 Series or Mercedes-Benz E-Class will find that for the same money, the 2011 Hyundai Equus will get them the space and equipment of a higher, more prestigious luxury class. At the same time, shoppers of such more prestigious luxury cars will find that the Equus can save them tens of thousands of dollars. In other words, the Equus offers great value. So maybe Hyundai hasn't really come so far after all, only in a good way.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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