Wednesday, July 22, 2009

We Get a Ride in Hyundai's New S-Class Fighter

We hang a right and head west onto the 10 freeway in Santa Monica toward the beach. The on-ramp is downhill, two lanes wide and drag-strip straight.

Suddenly I'm pinned to the large leather seat as the 2011 Hyundai Equus downshifts from 6th gear to 2nd and its 368-horsepower 4.6-liter Lambda V8 yanks the big sedan toward the Pacific. I look at the tach. Its needle is sweeping quickly through its arc as a muted V8 rumble chases us from behind. At 6,500 rpm, the transmission delivers a quick but smooth upshift just as we reach the traffic lanes of Interstate 10.

"Is that floored?" I ask, one eye still on the dials.

"That's floored," says John Krafcik.

He should know -- he's driving. The left seat of the Equus is still off-limits to American journalists. But Krafcik is more than just our chauffeur; he's the president and CEO of Hyundai Motor America, and the man basking in the glow of the company's recent success. He's also the guy who's going to sell the Equus in the United States, taking Hyundai north of the $50,000 barrier for the first time.

On Sale in a Year
With John's right foot still buried in the thick carpet of the Equus, the sedan delivers another smooth shift at redline. I check the speedometer; it's reading about 140 and climbing. Can't be, I think to myself. The car feels quick, but not that quick. I clutch the door panel while my brain tries to catch up. Then I realize the speedometer is in kilometers per hour, so I start doing math.

Krafcik keeps his foot down and his mouth moving. "The car is still about a year away," he says, talking about the possible timetable for the introduction of the Korean-built luxury sedan in the U.S. "And we'll most likely sell it here as the Equus." Equus is Latin for "horse," and the car's entry into the U.S. market has been the worst kept secret since Henry Ford leaked word about the flathead V8 back in 1931. We're told the official official announcement of the car's sales future in the U.S. will come in mid-August.

At 160 km/h, Krafcik finally backs off. That's about 100 mph, and from the passenger seat I'm impressed with the ride and stability of the Equus. It's a bit firmer than I thought it would be. It's not quite as tied down as a Hyundai Genesis, but it's not the floaty Korean-market limo I was expecting. You definitely feel the road, although there's a little less rebound control than there should be.

Traffic is light as we reach the short tunnel that marks the transition from the I-10 west to the northbound Pacific Coast Highway. We enter the darkness and then quickly burst into the noontime California sunshine again. I ask about the suspension tuning. "It's not quite really ready yet," says Krafcik. "Right now our engineering team is on a cross-country drive with an Equus, an S-Class, a 7 Series and a Lexus LS. We're there with the interior, but they are fine-tuning the ride and handling. Make no mistake, our targets are those three cars and our ride and handling will be more in the direction of the LS 460 L."

Ballsy. The strategy, not the driving. Hyundai has decided to take on three of the best sedans in the world.

Priced Right
Still northbound on PCH, we're cruising within the 50-mph speed limit and past the Malibu beachfront homes of Hollywood's super-rich. This is S-Class and 7 Series country, and Krafcik knows it. All around us are the people he must convince to buy a Hyundai instead of a Benz, Bimmer or Lexus.

It'll be tough, and Krafcik hedges his bet. "Our goal with the Equus isn't volume," he says while passing a black Mercedes-Benz S550 on the right. "It's image. We want to show the world we can make the finest sedans in the world."

He's right about one thing, because the interior of this Equus is up to the challenge. The fit and finish is exceptional. The leather is soft. The seat is cush and comfortable, if a little flat, and the headliner is an acre of Alcantara suede, just like you get in an S65 AMG. There's even French stitching on the leather-wrapped dash. The metallic trim on the center stack and console is plastic and not real aluminum, though. It looks good, but should be the real thing.

No, it's not quite as nice inside the Equus as in the interiors of the luxury sedans it has targeted in the marketplace, but it's close, and the Equus should undercut those sedans by $20,000 or more. Krafcik won't get specific on price, but says enough for us to guess that the 2011 Hyundai Equus will start at $48,000 and top out at about $58,000.

"Our challenge is to make sure it doesn't become the next VW Phaeton," Krafcik notes. Keeping the price under $60,000 seems to be a key to achieving that goal. "There will be two packages," he continues. "A base car and one with all the backseat stuff."

That "stuff" includes a reclining rear seat, fold-out tables, and radio and climate controls built into the rear armrest. The Lexus LS 460L offers a similar package, although it's really only for those who would rather be driven than drive themselves.

Wider Than S-Class
Stopped at a red light, I take the opportunity to look around a bit more. The odometer reads 1,792 km (a little over 1,100 miles). The A-pillars are carved carefully to permit a panoramic view ahead. There are heated and cooled front seats with three-level temperature adjustment. There's a power tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, wood on portions of the steering wheel rim and an elegant clock on the center stack. I can't hear the engine, which is idling at 600 rpm. The window switches, shifter, iDrive-like interface controller and navigation system are all plucked right from the Hyundai Genesis. The gauges are similar to the ones in the Genesis, as is the four-spoke steering wheel. And there's a "Sport" button just to the right of the shifter.

I also notice that the car feels spacious. Nice and wide, which it is. In fact at 74.8 inches wide, the Equus is the same width as a BMW 7 Series and a full inch wider than the Lexus LS and the Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

The light turns green. Krafcik accelerates away, only part throttle this time. And the Equus moves off like an upscale luxury sedan powered by a V8 should -- with authority. Upshifts from the six-speed automatic are nearly imperceptible and the V8's flat torque curve gets the Equus back up to 50 mph well ahead of Malibu's afternoon traffic of surfers.

We're not surprised. The Equus features the same powertrain we've praised in the Genesis, and it feels just as good in this larger package. What is surprising is that the larger Equus weighs only 200 pounds more than a Genesis, which makes it easy to calculate some educated guesses about its acceleration times.

The 2009 Hyundai Genesis V8 we last tested hit 60 mph from a standstill in 5.9 seconds (5.7 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and finished the quarter-mile in 14.1 seconds at 101 mph. After some 'rithmetic on our part, we expect the Equus to hit 60 mph in 6.1 seconds (5.9 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and cover the quarter-mile in 14.3 seconds at 99 mph. Not slow, yet certainly slower than an S550, a 750i or an LS 460.

Also from the Genesis0 are the rack-and-pinion steering with old-school hydraulic assist (still our preference over electric-assist systems) and four-wheel disc brakes. The Equus also has air suspension, although only Genesis sedans sold in Korea are equipped with this feature.

Looks Like a Lexus
Just past the Malibu Country Mart (made famous by TMZ), a guy in a Porsche 911 Turbo pulls alongside us. He's checking out the car. Our car -- the Hyundai. And he's not the only one. Since we hit Malibu, there's been no missing the ability of the Equus to make people look. Even the tourists in their rented Grabber-Blue Mustangs know this Hyundai is something special.

It may be a dead ringer for a Lexus LS from the rear, but the Equus certainly has enough street presence for valets to keep it up front. "The two character lines in the side are from the California studio," says Krafcik. "In fact, there's more U.S. influence in the design of the Equus than the Genesis." There's certainly enough chrome on its flanks to back up that statement.

And it looks larger than it is. At 203.1 inches long, the Equus is just a fraction of an inch longer than a Lexus LS 460 L and nearly 2 inches shorter than a Mercedes S-Class. Meanwhile, its 119.9-inch wheelbase falls between the dimensions of the long-wheelbase LS and the short version. Even the short-wheelbase 7 Series has an inch-longer wheelbase than the Equus.

Full Speed Ahead
Once we reach Pepperdine University, we flip around and head south toward Santa Monica again. It's now that I realize how quiet the Hyundai's interior is. At 100 km/h (about 60 mph) over the smooth asphalt that is PCH, all I hear is some tire slap from the 18-inch Hankooks.

Time to ask about that Sport button. "It's for the suspension," says Krafcik. "Push it, see what happens."

I do, and suddenly the Equus is the floaty Korean-market limo I was expecting. "Wow, big difference," I say, pushing the button again and getting the air suspension back into Sport mode. "Don't go there."

Krafcik first came to Hyundai Motor America in 2004 as the company's vice president of product development and strategic planning, and his home garage is stuffed full with a Porsche 911 C2S (997) and a Caterham 7, so I know he knows what I mean.

And at that moment Krafcik nails the throttle and redlines a couple of gears. "Feels good, huh?" he asks.

Yeah, he knows.

By Scott Oldham

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