On The Road Review: Hyundai Equus

{youtube}1llSNESBbF8&feature?ref=0{/youtube}If you could have any luxury sedan that you wanted, which one would it be?

After Cadillac’s reign, and during the go-go 1980s and beyond, that choice (for all but the super rich) was the Mercedes S-class — a German masterpiece that was the industry benchmark sold all over the world.

However, buyers rapidly left the established Mercedes in 1993 when the upstart Lexus brand debuted a new model called the LS. This premium sedan offered more features than the Mercedes, had ample luxury, decent power, better fuel economy and a price that shaved thousands off the Mercedes’ elevated list while looking like a high-end sedan should. The LS400 propelled Lexus past Mercedes while destroying the perceptions of what luxury cars should and should not be.

In 2009, Korean automaker Hyundai fired the first shot across Lexus’s bow with a déjà vu moment — the introduction of the Genesis premium sedan. Winning North American Car of the Year honors, the Genesis proved that everything runs in a circle and that you needn’t reinvent the wheel to produce a great car. You just need to buy a copy of the brand that you want to replicate — and then produce their car, better.

This is certainly the case with the Hyundai Equus, the largest, most expensive car that Hyundai has ever produced for sale in the American market. Basically a larger version of the Genesis — with a whole lot more features — the Equus is almost a perfect copy of the current top Lexus, the LS460 sedan.

At 203 inches long, the Equus is 7 inches longer than its Genesis sibling, or, the exact same length as the Lexus. The Lexus has a 122-inch wheelbase — 2 inches more than the Equus. The Lexus weighs 40 pounds less and has 1 more cubic foot of cargo room in the steamer-sized trunk — 18 to 17 cubic feet, plus the Lexus offers an all-wheel-drive option on two trim levels, while the Equus remains rear drive in both trim models.

However, the upstart Equus counters with two distinct advantages. In the engine room, the big Hyundai offers a 5.0-liter V-8 engine — standard — that packs an awe-inspiring 429 horsepower. This is 15 horsepower more than a Mustang GT, and only one less pony pulling for you than a stock Chevy Corvette. It is a whopping 72-hp advantage over the base Lexus plus 49 hp more than the optional 5.0-liter V-8 found in the LS460. To match the Equus’s power output, the Lexus buyer has to purchase the LS460 Hybrid — and that car costs over $100,000.

Mated to an ultra-smooth eight-speed automatic — built by Hyundai, and the same number of gears used by Lexus — the Equus literally steamrolls down the road with more authority than you’ll usually need to summon. Rest your Gucci loafer too heavily against the right pedal and the Equus whooshes down the road like a Saturn rocket upon lift-off. Don’t even think about turning off the traction control, unless you really don’t like your rear tires, because they will vaporize. And highway cruising becomes an exercise in restraint, or, just too much time to play with the 17-speaker audio system because if you ignore the rushing scenery you will surely attract way too much official attention. This cat has some serious get-up-and-go, baby.

Of course this much playful power would be a waste if you arrived for your foursome with ruffled clothes and sweaty palms from man-handling such a brute. Thankfully, of all of Hyundai’s recent car debuts, the Equus packs the chassis that best suits it mission.

Smooth, almost dreamy, the Equus soaks up the road with ambivalence to its surroundings. Chassis compliance is first rate and accomplished without sacrificing any degree of handling agility due to the adjustments of the automatic electric air suspension and continuous damping control. There is even a sport setting to tighten things up a notch — and it is notable — but either suspension setting lets you arrive refreshed and with a beaming smile on your face.

So far, Hyundai makes this all work with an Equus list price of $58,750, almost $9,000 less than the Lexus LS460. If not for a studious eye, 99 percent of drivers can’t tell the difference between the Lexus and the Hyundai, as the styling is strikingly similar, the handsome profiles so close and the paint schemes so alarmingly professional that you’ll have to look for the lone, discreet Hyundai emblem to note the difference. The Hyundai Equus is simply the Dolly clone of the Lexus — without the high-priced surgeons.

Considering the retail prices of the Audi A8, BMW 7-series, the Mercedes S-class, plus the Porsche Panamera, the Equus might lack some sophistication, however the price/value/performance quotient has to favor the Korean-built infant.

Once inside, the variances are more apparent in some areas yet the execution and performance of driving functions and day-to-day livability are also impressively close to the top-selling Lexus.

This is accomplished via Hyundai’s unending efforts to include a LOT of features. Sense the similarities to Lexus yet?

Buyers here expect nine airbags, pre-collision warning system and laser-guided Smart-Cruise control with their lane departure warning system and stability control, plus rear-view camera and parking guidance. Push-button ignition, Passive security with proximity key, electronic parking brake and a power rear sunshade are de riguer too.

Equus trumps its rivals (including, in some regards, the Cadillac XTS and Lincoln MKS) with a 12-way power driver’s seat that includes heating and cooling, plus four-way lumbar massage action that is just irresistible. You also get a heated wood and leather power tilt and telescoping steering column, while a Lexicon 17-speaker surround-sound audio system eclipses the Lexus system quite handily.

Rear seat passengers are not ignored either, as the Equus has power reclining rear seats with their own console for controlling climate and audio, as well as their own seat-heaters. Leg room is enviable. The Equus also is every bit as quiet and composed going down the road as the Lexus, leaving little to distinguish the two.

Committed luxury buyers will note that the rear passenger windows are missing sunshades (oooh!) and some of the front switchgear is surprisingly common looking (Sonata anyone?). Yet the selected leathers and suedes are top-rate in the Equus and belie a certain air of distinction not previously available in any Hyundai.

From the brilliantly contemporary LED turning lamps on the Equus, to its attractive chrome wheels and handsome profile, the Equus is a one-two punch to the gut of Lexus and easily raises the status of Hyundai among premium buyers…just like the blow that Lexus delivered to Mercedes 20 years ago. The Equus is surely causing heartburn in Tokyo.

While Hyundai has not established a separate luxury car division to retail these premium cars, I don’t think dollar-conscious luxury car owners will mind visiting a showroom where all of the metal is stylishly attractive and each car features a 10-year warranty.

Kudos to Hyundai; this is an impressive automobile.

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Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.