New Car Reviews

First Drive: 2011 Hyundai Equus

The 2008 introduction of the Genesis sedan has been the exclamation point to Hyundai’s rapid ascension from bargain brand to mainstream automaker. The premium, rear-wheel-drive entry showed the Koreans had the confidence and desire to take on more prestigious and more established brands by going head-to-head with the likes of the Lexus GS460 and the Mercedes-Benz E550. Hyundai isn’t slowing down, though. The company is continuing its ambitious march forward with the bigger, pricier, and more luxurious 2011 Hyundai Equus, set to arrive in August.

A familiar engine bay with room for growth
The philosophy and the competitive targets of the Equus aren’t far from those of the Genesis. They’re simply one size larger. Rather than aiming for an E-class or 5-series, think BMW 7-Series, Mercedes-Benz S-Class, Audi A8, Jaguar XJ, and Lexus LS460. At its launch later this summer, the Equus will utilize the same 4.6-liter V-8 found under the hood of the Genesis. It produces 385 hp and 333 lb-ft of torque on premium gas. Filling the Equus with regular fuel drops the output by 7 hp and 9 lb-ft. While it’s not the most potent engine in the class, Hyundai does have more power than many in the segment. Thrust is hearty from anywhere on the tachometer and Hyundai claims a 6.4-second 0-to-60-mph capability. In more relaxed driving, the engine and transmission are smooth and in sync. While the current V-8 seems plenty adequate, Hyundai will add a more powerful, 5.0-liter V-8 in the middle of 2011 capable of producing 429 hp and 376 lb-ft of torque. That new engine will also receive an eight-speed transmission. It’s unclear if the 5.0-liter will replace the 4.6-liter, or if Hyundai will offer a choice of engines.

It’s no BMW
The chassis features some fresh technology for Hyundai. Adaptive air springs allow the driver to select a firmer, sportier setting or stay with the standard, comfort-oriented suspension stiffness. All four corners use a multilink suspension setup and 19-inch wheels are standard. Whatever the setting though, the Equus’ chassis feels neither as composed nor as comfortable as those from the competitors. Around a small handling course and Hyundai’s Namyang, South Korea, R&D center, the Equus exhibited an extreme propensity to understeer. It’s here — in aggressive driving maneuvers — where you’ll really notice a difference between the Hyundai and the comparable BMW or Benz. The front-wheel-drive Sonata 2.0T that we drove just prior was far more neutral and agile. Weight, of course, plays a factor in that, but the Equus is no heavier than an S550, which handles much more gracefully. If nothing else, we wish the throttle would be a more helpful tool for controlling the Equus’ yaw.

The steering is also troubling, with artificial and lagging power assist from the electrically driven hydraulic pump. When spun quickly, the steering wheel floats freely with constant, pinky-effort assist levels. Once you’ve got the wheel pointed in the chosen direction, though, the effort curve catches up, allowing the driver to feel the faux resistance as it’s ramped up.

Still no style, still a great value
Much like the Genesis, the Equus lacks character and charisma in its exterior styling. Bland and derivative, the design doesn’t deliver the prestige that a vehicle in this class deserves. The inside, though, delivers on the luxury. Hyundai will sell the Equus in both five- and four-passenger variants. We only had time in the four-seater, but the experience was enough to convince us that this will be the Equus to buy. Passengers in the rear of the top-trim Equus Ultimate are treated to heated and cooled thrones with full power adjustment. The rear passenger-side seat even has a La-Z-Boy-like footrest, though it’s unusable for taller people. There are audio and climate controls, along with a rotary dial for navigating the entertainment screen between the front seats. A refrigerated cooler in the armrest keeps beverages chilled.

The Equus uses flat black plastic for radio and accessory controls rather than the silver buttons in the Genesis. Not only is the Genesis center stack more stylish, but it also has a much richer, higher quality appearance. While the fit and feel in the Equus is sound, the material looks like what you’d find in a $20,000 Sonata sedan. That’s a very bad thing in a car competing with the rich interior of an XJ or plush luxury of an S-class. While the small surfaces disappoint, the vast majority of the materials are nicely done. The leather is luxurious and the extensive spans of wood trim on the dash and center console look good.

With an estimated starting price around $55,000, the Equus will still offer traditional Hyundai value. The price is competitive on it’s own, but Hyundai is also loading the base Equus Signature with more equipment than its rivals, including high-intensity discharge headlamps, keyless ignition, front and rear parking sensors, a backup camera, adaptive cruise control, and lane-departure warning. Standard comfort-related equipment includes heated and cooled front seats, a massaging driver’s seat, heated rear seats, and a 608-watt, 17-speaker Lexicon stereo.

Less than the Genesis
Hyundai’s largest and most expensive car offers a great value for genuine passenger luxury and comfort. However, the execution hardly seems to move the brand forward, making the Equus a less impressive showing than the Genesis. The Koreans still have work to do in bringing the Equus’ styling and dynamics up to the standards of the large luxury sedan segment. Given Hyundai’s recent track record, though, we have no doubt that the company is up to that task.

2011 Hyundai Equus
On sale: August 2010
Base price: $55,000 (est.)

Engine: 4.6-liter DOHC 32-valve V-8
Power: 385 hp @ 6500 rpm
Torque: 333 lb-ft @ 3500 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Drive: Rear-wheel

L x W x H: 203.1 x 74.4 x 58.7 in
Wheelbase: 119.9 in
Legroom F/R: 45.1/38.9 in
Headroom F/R: 38.7/38.1 in
Cargo capacity: 16.7 cu ft
Curb weight: 4376-4621 lb
EPA fuel economy (city/hwy): 16/24 mpg