When Hyundai introduced their flagship Equus last year, I asked Jason Fogelson to write the review. While put off by the name -- if you're familiar with the play called Equus, you'll understand why -- Jason was favorably impressed, although he rightly pointed out that "Hyundai is not Mercedes-Benz or BMW. Hyundai isn't even Lexus... yet."
A lot has happened since then: Hyundai has introduced the Sonata, the Elantra, and the Accent, cars that trounce their Japanese rivals on style and value. And in a way, that makes things a bit worse for the Equus.
Why are we doing this again?
Before I go on, let me explain why we're reviewing the Equus again: Because Hyundai's changed it a bit. New for 2012 is a 5-liter, 429 horsepower V8 engine (link goes to photo) with direct fuel injection (What's that?) and an 8-speed automatic transmission. Power is up significantly, although fuel economy has dropped by 1 MPG in both city and highway cycles. The new engine gives the Equus the urge that a luxury car ought to have, which is no easy trick considering that it weighs around 4,500 lbs.
Other than that, not much is different. The Equus was designed as an executive transport for the South Korean home market, where I assume there are a significant number of CEOs, CFOs, and COOs who wouldn't be caught dead being chauffeured around in a Mercedes. This is the finest that Hyundai has to offer, and it is pretty damn fine, with acres of soft leather upholstery, wood and metal trim applied with Germanic restraint, and carpets so lush they could qualify as lawns. From a tactile perspective, this car is nearly perfect; everything from the damping of the buttons to the closing of the doors to the soft ticking of the turn signals seems optimized so as not to jangle the nerves of a high-strung executive who is one bad earnings report away from a massive coronary.
The Equus' air suspension is tuned for an old-school-Korean ride: It's as soft and pillowy as a 1978 Lincoln, and it cruises so quietly that you could plow right though the middle of an AC/DC concert and never realize anything was amiss until you got home and found the bloody remains of a leather bustier hanging from the exhaust pipe.
The Equus is offered in two models, called Signature and Ultimate. The $59,900 Equus Signature has just about everything you'd expect to find in a high-end luxury car, including heated and cooled front seats with a massage function for the driver, navigation, a 17-speaker Lexicon surround-sound stereo, and dynamic radar cruise control, which detects cars ahead and matches their speed. The $66,900 Ultimate model adds heated and cooled reclining rear seats, a large center console with stereo and climate controls and a small refrigerator, as well as a DVD player with an 8" screen. And if that isn't enough, the right-rear occupant can fold the front seat forward (electrically, natch), raise his or her own legrest, and enjoy a multi-mode vibrating massage.
That's a lot of stuff for the money -- but as any Mercedes or BMW owner will tell you, a luxury car is more than the sum of its parts. And that's where the Equus loses its grip. Remember how I said the new Sonata, Elantra and Accent make things worse for the Equus? One of the reasons those cars have garnered so much attention is that they make a strong styling statement -- and the Equus doesn't. Inside and out, it's handsome but anonymous. Same with the driving experience. And same with the technology. I was surprised at how well the dynamic cruise control worked -- some other luxury automakers still can't get that right -- but this is not exactly cutting-edge technology, and neither is anything else in the Equus' cabin. Much as I appreciated the Equus' long feature list and low price, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was driving a brand-new 2003 Lexus.
Back to basics: Why do people buy luxury cars?
Let's face the facts: Nobody needs a luxury car. People buy them because they want them -- either because they want to be surrounded by the finer things in life, or because they want to show off. For people in the first group, the Equus does a great job -- but so do a lot of other cars that are smaller and less expensive. (One of which, by the way, is Hyundai's own Genesis Sedan.) As for group two... I mean, come on. I love Hyundais, but I wouldn't buy one to impress my neighbors.
The reclining, massaging seat in the Equus Ultimate is certainly a novelty, but I can't see many people who can afford to employ a chauffeur buying a Hyundai so they can save a lousy 30 grand. The first-class seating may be a big hit in South Korea, but here in the States, it's best suited to people who take other people to the airport for a living. (Having made countless trips to and from the airport in Lincoln Town Cars, I hope these people will take me seriously on this.)
I do think the Equus has the potential to be a truly spectacular car. All Hyundai needs to do is paint it with that same magic brush they used on the Sonata, Elantra and Accent. To be fair to Hyundai, I will say again that the amount of equipment the Equus delivers for the price is simply unbeatable. But Jason is right -- Hyundai isn't Mercedes or BMW (although they are getting close to Lexus). If I was going to spend $60k on a luxury car, I'd get an Audi A6, a BMW 5-series, or a Mercedes-Benz E-Class -- and I'd advise you to do the same. -- Aaron Gold
What I like about the Hyundai Equus:
- Fantastic value-for-money
- Exceptionally well-trimmed interior
- Novel reclining rear seat
What I didn't like about the Hyundai Equus:
- Lacks true cutting-edge technology
- Not particularly involving or enjoyable to drive
- No pedigree
- Equus is Hyundai's top-of-the-line luxury car, with a new V8 for 2012
- Price range: $59,900 - $66,900
- Powertrain: 5.0 liter V8/429 horsepower, 8-speed automatic, rear-wheel-drive
- EPA fuel economy estimates: 15 MPG city/23 MPG highway
- Observed fuel economy: 19 MPG
- Best rivals: Audi A6, BMW 528i, Hyundai Genesis