Updated for 2014, the Hyundai Equus gives luxury flagships a run for their money — and at a handsome discount — but its brand remains a mammoth obstacle to its consumer appeal.
Hyundai officials point to the enormous cost of launching a separate premium brand as a reason for not doing it, but it's still a move the automaker could make at some point. If it were to happen today, it would have just two cars: the Equus and the smaller Genesis, both rear-drive luxury sedans. Hyundai keeping them under its own umbrella is a decision with a big downside for the Equus, whose near-$70,000 Ultimate edition — the car we tested — is nearly double the price of a base Genesis. Few buyers have taken the plunge: Since December 2010, when the Equus hit dealerships, just 10,228 shoppers have taken one home. Mercedes-Benz sold nearly as many S-Class sedans in the first 10 months of 2013 alone.
Still, Hyundai tries to stir interest. The Equus gets another update for 2014 (compare it with the 2013 Equus here): minor styling changes, a revamped dashboard, and updates to the chassis and electronics. It's two steps forward and a half-step back thanks to the loss of a few luxury features that the Equus used to offer. Trim levels include the well-equipped Signature and the optioned-out Ultimate. Compare them here.
How It Drives
The Equus' 429-horsepower, 5.0-liter V-8 and eight-speed automatic make a decent combo, with short gearing around town and smooth, powerful revving that should satisfy all the onramp charging and left-lane flying you'll ever need. It doesn't pin you back in your seat like the turbo V-8s in the Audi A8, Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7 Series, as Hyundai's naturally aspirated V-8 makes a comparatively modest 376 pounds-feet of torque. But the Equus' price is less than six cylinder versions of the BMW and Audi (stack them up here). Compared with those cars, this Hyundai is plenty speedy.
The drivetrain's mode selector offers Normal, Sport and — new this year — Snow modes. Normal elicits noticeable accelerator lag from a stop, sure to irk any lead-foot drivers. Sport cleans that up a bit, and it also calls up more immediate transmission kickdown on the highway. It changes firmness for the adaptive suspension, too, though it's more of a supple-to-normal transition than normal-to-sport. Ride comfort is impressive in Normal, with the sort of damping over bumps that evokes the previous S-Class' excellent Airmatic suspension. One editor likened the Equus to a sofa on wheels. But it also loses some refinement over bumpy lane changes or cloverleaf expansion joints, as the chassis allows road imperfections to disrupt stability. Our editors agreed it's an ungainly affair when wheeled hard through a corner, even in Sport mode: precipitous body roll, soupy steering, a tail that refuses to play along. The lone upside was our tester's Continental ContiProContact tires — P245/45R19s up front and P275/40R19s in back — which hugged the road.
Cabin materials are good, but a few things from last year — leather stitching across the steering-wheel hub, for example — are gone. Real leather and wood span the top of the dashboard, and cowhide covers the overhead grab handles, too. But the Equus Ultimate gets simulated gauges for 2014 that show some pixilation — an inevitable downside to most digital gauges, which we already noticed here. Hyundai toned down much of last year's silver plastic trim with a dashboard redesign that adopts classier center controls, but the door handles retain the wretched stuff. C'mon, Hyundai: Real metal is the price of entry here.
Backseat room is abundant, but larger drivers may wish the Equus had more room up front. A thick center console limits hip room, and the seats have modest adjustment range. I'm 6 feet tall, and I sat nearly all the way back.
It all goes to benefit rear-seat passengers, who have a standard power rear sunshade and heated seats with power recliners. The Equus Ultimate adds cooled rear seats with power lumbar, power-elevating head restraints and power side-window shades. But the curbside rear seat drops last year's power-deploying ottoman, backseat massager and refrigerated beverage holder — sybaritic extravagances, to be sure, but something many flagship luxury cars have. The same goes for massaging front seats, which are widely available among upper-crust luxury cars. Last year's Equus had a massaging driver's seat, but it's gone for 2014.
Ergonomics & Electronics
Also gone is last year's 8-inch dashboard screen, replaced with a 9.2-inch display; an intuitive knob controller still governs the action. The Equus Ultimate adds the simulated gauges, which span 12.3 inches. It also gets dual 9.2-inch screens behind the front seats, where passengers can catch a movie or operate aspects of the driver's navigation and multimedia screens — useful when those in back know the destination address, one editor found.
One miss: The column-mounted button and indicator for the standard heated steering wheel are all but impossible to see, and a redundant gauge indicator disappears after a few seconds. Our test car's wheel stayed on the last setting it was in, which means if you return on a warmer day, you'll wonder why the wheel is hot.
Cargo & Storage
Trunk volume is 16.7 cubic feet, which is competitive with other full-size sedans. The Equus lacks a folding backseat and center pass-through — features typically precluded by power rear seats.
In crash tests from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Equus earned top scores in front, side, roof-strength and rear tests. It's an IIHS Top Safety Pick, but the agency has yet to subject the car to its more challenging small-overlap frontal impact test (click here for more details) — a requirement for Top Safety Pick Plus status. Blind spot, lane departure and rear cross-traffic alerts are standard.
Value in Its Class
The Equus starts around $62,000, including destination charge — more than $10,000 less than the base LS, A8 or 7 Series and some $32,000 less than the cheapest S-Class. You can buy a loaded Equus Ultimate for less than the starting price of all four competitors, which top out well north of $100,000.
Hyundai's flagship has become a bit of a question mark among our editors. Many of us, including me, give the car high marks. But brand matters at this price, and carrying a badge that makes $15,000 economy cars — with a reputation tarnished by last year's gas-mileage flap (read more about it here) — is the Equus' top liability. Shoppers ought to consider the Equus against cars below the LS and its ilk, where it thumps the competition on premium features but drives like a bigger, less-athletic rival. Does that create a winning equation for Hyundai? So far, not really.
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