Funny thing about the 2011 Hyundai Equus is that it's ubiquitous. Crowding the entrance drives of the plushest downtown hotels, stuck in freeway gridlock, always two of them within sight at all times.
You see them all over the place, as long as that place is Seoul, South Korea. There, the locals have wholly embraced the home team's latest luxury sedan. If there's any skepticism there regarding the idea of a premium Korean rear-drive four-door going toe to toe with the mainstays of the segment, it's been overwhelmed by the momentum of everyone's pocketbooks voting all at once.
Now It's America's Turn
Parked conspicuously at Hyundai's Namyang proving ground during a visit there a few weeks ago, the Equus looks dignified. Its sheet metal could hardly be described as original and boasts nothing that could be called daring, but its anonymity is at best discreetly handsome and at worst not in the least offensive. Its long 120-inch wheelbase, punctuated by two creases down the body side, provides an understated sense of stature.
The Equus we're about to drive is a prototype that is about 80 percent representative of the final U.S. specification. There are a few Korean-market styling details such as the grille, wheels and hood ornament that will change on U.S.-bound models.
Hyundai has firmed up the suspension and retuned the steering for the U.S. market since it correctly figures that the Koreans' yen for wallowy softness won't go over well in the States. That's kind of a reversal from the way things usually go when cars are brought over the pond.
Feels a Little More Lexus Than BMW
Indeed, the 2011 Hyundai Equus' ride dispatches irregularities in the pavement with a confidence that's dead smack between the softness of a Lexus and the tautly damped response we typically associate with BMWs. And while the steering is of the electrically assisted variety, it is not lifeless, since the rack-and-pinion retains the hydraulic actuation muscle that makes steering feel natural.
We did a few runs through a set of slalom cones and the Equus' mission is confirmed, as it turns in with more alacrity than an LS 460 but is short of the out-and-out enthusiasm of a 7 Series. Then we clicked the Sport button to the right of the console shifter and didn't notice a lick of difference in its hunger for turns, or the ride quality. It's possible that this prototype's button was intentionally ineffectual, as engineers were still fettling the suspension calibrations.
Possibly only a G5 bizjet would provide a more coddling place to spend a cross-country jaunt. The Equus has every doodad you can think of, but the real luxury is the space. This is a large car — especially in the cabin, where it counts. Backseat accommodations, too, are vast.
It's quiet inside. Very quiet. At 130 mph on the high-speed banking of the proving ground's oval, you hear the rush of the wind and little else. The 4.6-liter engine makes a muted, distinctly V8 growl when you give it full throttle; otherwise you don't hear it. Its get-up-and-go is entirely acceptable, too, if not blazingly quick.
Korean Luxury Liner
Here's what we know about the 2011 Hyundai Equus that's coming to the U.S. In terms of features, dimensions and general comportment, it's intended to take on the BMW 7 Series, Lexus LS 460 and Mercedes-Benz S550. Naturally, the Equus will sport a more palatable price point. If this sounds familiar, it's because Toyota's Lexus division made the same bold move 21 years ago with its LS 400 sedan.
The Equus will be offered in two trim levels, a five-passenger Signature trim level and a range-topping four-passenger version called Ultimate. Signature models boast an extensive complement of equipment including (deep breath) air suspension, active cruise control, a lane departure warning system, a back-up camera, leather, heated and cooled front seats, a heated steering wheel, power-reclining rear seats, a massaging driver seat and a 600-watt, 17-speaker sound system.
Ultimate trim adds an elaborate rear-seat treatment comprising a console with a refrigerator, cooled and massaging rear seats, La-Z-Boy-style lower-leg supports, a front-mounted peekaboo camera and an 8-inch video screen.
At launch, the Equus will use the company's 385-horsepower 4.6-liter Tau V8 and six-speed automatic transmission. Sometime later, Hyundai will introduce a 5.0-liter, direct-injected variant of the Tau V8 that boasts 429 hp and 376 pound-feet of torque. A new eight-speed automatic transmission will make the 5.0-liter feel that much stronger.
The Sales Strategy
That the 2011 Hyundai Equus is to trickle into dealerships Stateside before the end of the year is well known. What's less well known is official pricing, as Hyundai is still finalizing the commas and decimals.
So here's our guess. The 2011 Hyundai Equus will start at a bit under $60,000 for the Signature version, while the kitchen sink, the Ultimate, will push the sticker up to a max of roughly $67,000.
It's easy to be skeptical about a $60,000 Hyundai. It's an ambitious flagship from a company not known for such lavish offerings.
But when it's there in the metal, and you drive it, the skepticism rings hollow. You begin to think that there really is a place for a car like this. You begin to think that maybe the Korean consumers are keyed into something that has more substance to it than mere national pride.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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