PALO ALTO, Calif.—After a long, hot day, I wanted nothing more than to relax. So, when the silver car sat ready for the drive back to the hotel, driver already behind the wheel, I eyed the front passenger seat and the right rear seat.
It took no more than a second of indecision before I opened the rear door and slid into the back seat. The first thing I did? Opened the center console, grabbed the remote control and set the seat to a Mode 1 massage.
With cool air pulsing from rear vents and gentle rollers sliding up and down my back, I turned on the seat heater, reclined, activated the foot rest and added a seat vibration to the active massage. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and sank into the seat, feeling the day melt away.
Then I promptly forgot my role as navigator and caused my driving partner to miss our first turn.
Back to reality in the 2011 Hyundai Equus, I picked up the route sheet and perked up to pay attention. I did not, however, turn off the massage.
Before my trip to Palo Alto, Calif., I would have sworn the scene I just described was only possible in the likes of a Mercedes-Benz or Maybach. But Hyundai once again raises the bar and presents an impossibly luxurious car at an impossibly accessible price point.
While the official pricing hasn’t been released yet, the starting price for the “base” Signature trim level is expected to be in the $50,000 to $60,000 range. I put base in quote marks because, with all the standard features included on this car, “base” is hardly a proper descriptive.
Surprising standards on the Equus include a heated steering wheel, heated and cooled front seats, a driver’s side front seat massager, a lane departure warning system, smart cruise control, an excellent navigation system and a superior premium Lexicon audio system with 17 speakers.
Oh, and did I mention that the owners manual is on an iPad, which just happens to come with the car? Or what about the valet service program? No more dealership drama–they pick up your car, leaving you a loaner and then return your car when service is complete.
There are only two trim levels for the new Equus. Other than the Signature model, you have the top-of-the-line Ultimate, which is downright glutinous.
As John Krafcik, president and CEO of Hyundai Motor America, put it: The Ultimate model adds features “you didn’t realize you were missing, but once you see them, you’ll want them, too.”
The Ultimate model includes features like that previously mentioned heated-and-cooled, massaging rear seat and leg rest. And a refrigerated compartment in the rear center console. And the rear-seat entertainment. And the forward-view cornering camera.
That’s a lot to pack into a car that will probably top out under $70K.
Equus builds on the success of recently introduced Genesis. With sales of that large sedan exceeding all expectations, Hyundai thought the time was ripe to bring its successful luxury sedan—already in its second generation in Korea—over to the US in a limited run. With this all-new entry in the American market, Hyundai is seeking to reengineer the ownership experience. And the automaker thinks that with a sales target of 2,500 per year, it can offer premium amenities and a premium individualized experience that volume automakers like Lexus, BMW and Mercedes cannot.
But does the car live up to the hype? In a word: Yes.
Equus comes equipped with a sublime 4.6-liter V-8 engine that delivers 385 horsepower and 333 pound-feet of torque. This is exactly the right amount of power for this car, providing the right amount of grunt for fast acceleration and highway passing maneuvers. Gear shifts with the 6-speed automatic transmission are virtually seamless, and if I didn’t know better, I would almost think there was a continuously variable transmission (CVT) in there.
The drive route during the press preview was very technical with tons of swooping curves, elevation changes and tight corners. The Equus took it all in stride. For a large car, body roll was minimal and taking the curves, sans shoulder, was effortless.
I toggled the sport mode on and off during the drive, and I discovered you really can tell a difference. The sport mode gives a greater connection to the road, stiffer suspension and more responsive gear changes. So, after switching modes a couple times, I put it in sport mode and left it there.
Between the engine and the ride and handling, I thoroughly enjoyed driving this car. Almost as much as I enjoyed that rear-seat massage.
The exterior of the Equus creates an austere facade. The lines are long, and the design is somewhat nondescript. It’s attractive without being flashy and has several visual cues, such as the grille, that scream “Mercedes-Benz.” The artistic winged Equus symbol is emblazoned in chrome on the hood and wheels of the car, but rather than leaving you guessing who makes this car, Hyundai proudly displays the large circle H logo on the back.
On the inside, Equus is far beyond anything that you might expect from a Hyundai. The graceful analog clock on the center stack, the beautifully marked shift knob, the silky leather seats, the Alcantara suede roof liner and driver’s side seat massager are premium amenities that usually cost an arm and a leg. Yet, Equus offers them standard. On every vehicle.
Fit and finish is excellent, and the seats—even without seat massagers—were quite comfortable. The 12-way power adjustable driver’s seat allowed me, as well as my 5-foot 11-inch driving partner, to find an optimal position.
The one main critique I have actually centers around my favorite feature: the rear reclining and massaging right seat. This seat is absolutely perfect. For me. Score one for the 5th percentile female. But I’m going to assume that most executives in the US who would want this car and the features highlighted in the Ultimate model would be somewhat taller than 5 feet. So, while I could fully recline the seat to take advantage of a near horizontal position, my driving partner could only raise the foot rest a little bit. And that was with the front passenger seat in the far-forward position.
Another thing to note: Equus is not a highly customizable vehicle. There are only 12 build combinations, which include four exterior paint colors and three interior leather/wood combos.
Hyundai, the brand once associated with cheap and unreliable, has proven they’re an automaker on the rise with product people want. Hyundai car sales have steadily risen over the last 10 years, and according to Krafcik, its retail market share has hit an all-time high of around 5 percent.
Plus, their 2011 Sonata was the top-shopped model market wide in both May and June. When asked why this all-new midsize sedan isn’t the best-selling vehicle, Krafcik responded with a smile and this simple sentence: “We can’t build Sonata fast enough.”
Every vehicle I’ve seen from Hyundai over the last couple years has been a pleasant surprise—both in terms of standard amenities and base price. Equus is no different. Whether the American market is ready to bite remains to be seen. But with the current recession, the idea of getting a car on par with an $80K luxury cruiser for about $20K less is definitely appealing.