Driven: 2012 Hyundai Equus

Home of the 64-roll package of toilet paper and the 40-pound tub of honey, Costco is famous for saving shoppers money by selling in bulk. But another major aspect of the Costco experience is its Kirkland Signature house brand items, which promise features and quality similar to name brands, but for less.

With the Equus, Hyundai brings that idea to the high-end luxury-car market.

This grandly proportioned sedan mimics the dimensions and the features of established high-zoot rides like the Lexus LS, the Audi A8, the Mercedes-Benz S-class, and the BMW 7-series. And it does so for thousands less.

At just a shade under $60,000, the Equus is nearly $9000 cheaper than an LS460 and some $14,000 less than an LS460L. (At 203.1 inches overall, the Equus is closer in size to the LS460L but its wheelbase is about midway between the two LS models.) Compared with the European-brand luxury cars, the Hyundai's price advantage is even greater.

The Equus is offered with a single powertrain, and it's impressively strong. The 429-hp, 5.0-liter direct-injected V-8 is new to the Equus for 2012 (it's also available in the Genesis sedan) and is paired with an eight-speed automatic -- Hyundai's own, not the oft-seen ZF unit. The combination has all the creamy smoothness of higher-priced competitors. All-wheel drive, however, is not on the menu.

In its chassis tuning, the Equus trails the best competitors by a nose. As is common in this class, Hyundai uses air springs, with two modes, standard and sport. The standard mode offers a plush ride but very relaxed control of body motions -- it's fairly Lexus-like. The sport mode is more tied down, but the firmed-up setting has trouble absorbing sharp ridges and frost heaves, which can cause the car to hop. The electrohydraulic power steering feels a little loose on center and doesn't inspire confidence the way the big German sedans do.

The Equus interior has every imaginable amenity, although it's largely a style-free zone. Still, you can't argue with the way things work. Hyundai's rendition of the center knob controller to operate the navigation, stereo, and the like is extremely well done. Similarly, the oversize color screen has attractive, modern graphics.

The limo-like rear seat is properly sybaritic, with seat heaters, power reclining, and switches on the fold-down armrest to control the audio system, plus a button to move the front passenger's seat forward. The Equus Ultimate (which is a relatively modest $7000 over the base model, Signature) takes things several steps further, with two individual rear seats and a center console with a refrigerator compartment. The right-side seat has an extendable footrest and a massage function. Both seats are heated and cooled, and there's an LCD screen for the standard DVD player.

As impressive as all that is, the Hyundai Equus plays in an arena where prestige has always been a factor. Hyundai tries to amp up the mystique with badges that feature a spread-winged bird rather than its plain-old "H" logo. (Given the name Equus, though, shouldn't it be a horse?) Even so, there's no getting past the fact that Hyundai is a brand that also sells economy cars like the $15,000 Accent -- and none of the other players in this field can be found slumming in such an inexpensive neighborhood. The only other mass-market brand that has ever tried to compete on this lofty level is Volkswagen with the Phaeton, and we all know how that turned out. But in today's cheap-chic environment, where even luxury shoppers want a deal, it could be that the time has come for the Kirkland Signature luxury sedan. Maybe it should be sold in a 3-pack.

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