Monday, November 08, 2010

2011 Hyundai Equus test drive - Hyundai isn't horsing around

We can all learn a lesson from Hyundai. They don't sit around and wait for others to define their vehicles: They tell us who the competition is, and thus define their vehicles. Witness the latest new Hyundai: the 2011 Hyundai Equus. Hyundai tells us to compare it to the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, the BMW 7-Series and the Lexus LS. Hmm... we'll see. The 2011 Hyundai Equus will arrive in two different configurations, Equus Signature ($58,900) and Equus Ultimate ($65,400), each with a 5-year/60,000 mile basic warranty, a 10 year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty, and EPA fuel economy estimates of 16 MPG city/24 highway.

First Glance: Haven't we seen you somewhere before?

I have to get this out of the way first. I think that the name "Equus" is a terrible mistake. "Equus" is Latin for "horse," which is how we come to the English words "equestrian," "equine" and others. Fine so far. But "Equus" is also the title of Peter Shaffer's iconic 1973 play about a young man who blinded six horses with a spike after they witnessed his sexual failure in a barn. The play's Broadway production won a Tony Award in 1974. A 1977 film adaptation directed by Sidney Lumet featured Richard Burton. The play has been revived many times over the years, usually as a star turn. In 2007, Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) played the troubled young man to much acclaim on London's West End. My point is that this is not some obscure little play. This is a major work, and it has a perverse, violent, psychosexual context that no car manufacturer would want to attach to their new vehicle. I know that the Equus name is revered in South Korea, as the previous version of this executive sedan was been a big success over there. But bringing a new vehicle to the US and ignoring the literary and cultural context of the name strikes me as insensitive. One big demerit before I even drive your vehicle, Hyundai.

Walking around the outside of the Equus, it's easy to see the designers' inspiration. There's some Mercedes-Benz in the front end (link goes to photo), some Maybach in the haunches, a little 7-series in the trunk lid. 19" wheels fill each fender well. The whole look is elegant, if a little generic. The Hyundai flying "H" logo only appears on the trunk, not on the hood, where a new Equus ornament faces the world.

In the Driver's Seat: Home, James

In South Korea, the Equus has been Hyundai's flagship executive car since its first generation in 1999. True Type A businessmen use drivers, so that their commute time can be work time. As such, the back seat of the Equus Ultimate is set up like an executive jet, with two cushy seats separated by a large center console. The right side seat is the power seat -- it even has a fold-out footrest. The front right side seat powers far forward to allow for maximum comfort and space in the rear. Every luxury option is standard on the Ultimate trim level, including heated and cooled seats, a refrigerator, rear-seat entertainment system and gold bullion storage compartment (or is that a glove box?).

The driver's and front passenger seats are not bad, either. Everywhere you look and touch, you are rewarded with quality materials, assembled with care and skill. I'm not generally a fan of wood trim in cars, but the wood in Equus is nice, even if its buried under a thick layer of clear coat.

The interior is so polished and elegant that complaints are few and minor, and I have only one: I'm not crazy about the font that they use on the controls and dash buttons -- it's not as sophisticated as the rest of the design.

Lexicon provided the audio and video technology aboard the Equus, and it's really great. You get home theater quality sound inside the cabin, with the new Lexicon Discrete LOGIC7 Surround Sound audio system that delivers 600 watts through 13 channels. Particular attention was paid to the sound quality in the rear seat, where the executive might be riding.

On the Road: Floating through life

Hyundai is great at benchmarking other successful brands, and engineering toward duplicating or bettering their results. Lexus has been the industry leader in cabin quietness -- until now. Equus's interior sound levels are the quietest that I've ever perceived. Road noise doesn't sneak in, no matter how pebbled the path. Very impressive.

Under the hood you'll find a great big 4.6 liter V8 engine with up-to-date technology like continuously variable valve timing and variable induction. Recognizing that its buyers might be thriftier than most luxury buyers, Hyundai has tuned the V8 to perform with either premium or regular gas, with only a slight performance penalty for the cheaper stuff. A ZF-sourced six speed automatic transmission sends power to the rear wheels. The Equus weighs in at just under two and a half tons, about what I expect for a big luxury sedan, and acceleration and performance are grunty, but not overwhelming.

The Equus' air suspension provides a smooth ride, especially when paired with the continuous damping control that adjusts shock-absorber performance. A newly developed electro-hydraulic power steering system provides excellent feel when turning. Some electric power steering systems feel numb, but the interaction of electric and hydraulic systems keeps the steering feel live in most driving situations.

Call it a gimmick, but it will probably sell a few Equii: the vehicle's manual will be loaded on an Apple iPad, instead of printed on paper. I love the idea, I've never had to worry about the batteries running low on my Toyota's paper manual when I was trying to figure out how to use the jack. Is this a smart use of technology, or too smart for its own good?

Journey's End: Who's zooming who?

Equus is significantly less expensive than comparably-equipped competitors, which Hyundai names as the Lexus LS 460 L ($70,925), Mercedes-Benz S550 ($91,600) and BMW 750Li ($86,400). I don't expect Equus to compete with the S-Class and the 7-series, no matter how much Hyundai believes that it will. A buyer who is considering a $90,000 S-Class is buying something more than an executive sedan -- they're buying into the Mercedes-Benz brand experience.

Hyundai has some great ideas about how to improve the brand experience for Equus, like delivering the vehicle to potential buyers' homes for test drives, specially-trained Hyundai dealers providing sales and service, and valet service for maintenance and repair. Hyundai has been preparing its buyers for a luxury experience for years, with the vast improvement in the Sonata and the introduction and success of the Genesis. But Hyundai is not Mercedes-Benz or BMW. Hyundai isn't even Lexus... yet.

I think the real competition for Equus is price point where you can get more for your money with a Hyundai: The BMW 550 Gran Turismo ($63,900) and the Mercedes-Benz E550 ($57,100) had better look out, because buyers looking for luxury and space might find the sweet spot in Equus long before they approach the $85,000 - 90,000 mark.

Bottom line: Equus represents another major step forward for Hyundai. I can't wait to see what's next. -- Jason Fogelson

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