Test Driven: Hyundai Equus, Nick’s Take (6.5/10)

Hyundai Equus

Hyundai has transformed itself over the last decade, going from the stereotype maker of cheap jalopies to a company that is now taking on the biggest names in the luxury market. The Equus you see here is the culmination of those efforts, a car that claims to strike directly at the standard of the world, the Mercedes S class.

It is really crazy to think that the same company which makes the economy-minded Elantra can also produce this posh luxury bruiser. Other companies, like Honda and Toyota, created whole new brands (Acura and Lexus) for their upmarket efforts in the US, but Hyundai has decided to keep everything under one flag.

This does beg some questions: Can the Equus really work as a Hyundai in a country where people are obsessed purely with their own self image? And furthermore, if we put the Equus up against its claimed competitors, will it stand up to the challenge?

Appearance

Hyundai Equus Hyundai Equus

As said above, most of the American luxury car market is solely concerned about the image a car projects. People wear their cars like jewelry or clothing. It is not so much what model you are driving, but what brand’s logo is on the front of it. Why do you think Mercedes-Benz is coming out with the CLA for the same price as a loaded Toyota Camry? Because all that most buyers care about is saying “I drive a Mercedes.” The substance of a car is usually entirely cast aside by the average buyer — a study even showed that most BMW 1-Series owners thought their cars were front-wheel drive.

The Hyundai Equus is a car with some substance, but it is undoubtedly held back by the Hyundai name. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had to defend Hyundais in conversations. The second I mention “The Genesis is really good, or the Equus looks really solid”, most people just go, “Yeah, but I could never buy a Hyundai.” That “cheap brand” image is difficult to shake, but if anyone has shown ability to do it, it’s Hyundai.

The Equus itself is a bit uninspiring in terms of style. Hyundai very obviously set out to make a “bargain S-Class”, but they damn near copied the design of the, rather beige, Lexus LS. It’s not an ugly car, but they really needed to make something more unique that would stand out. Instead they made an imitator, and we all know that cover-bands can never match the original, no matter how good they are.

Inside

Hyundai Equus Interior

Inside the Equus was precisely what I expected, heavy on features with only passable quality for 60-70 grand. I will give it to Hyundai, their product development people did do their homework, matching the car’s competitors feature for feature. This car has an iDrive-like interface, 360 degree view parking camera, reclining and massaging rear seats, and the expected entertainment features. On paper it looks very appealing, and in practice, everything works well.

Hyundai Equus Interior Hyundai Equus Interior

The materials in the interior are nice, make no mistake, but nicer fit and finish can be had for this price if you are willing to go with a slightly smaller Audi A6 or BMW 5 Series. The Hyundai has all the wood and leather you could want, but there just isn’t the same sense of craftsmanship that you find in the european cars. Also, some of the plastics are noticeably sub-par for this class, but usually in areas that are somewhat hidden away. The Equus has a very nice interior, but it is obvious that they cut some costs. It definitely does not have the same rock-solid feel as an S-Class or a 7 Series.

Hyundai Equus Interior Hyundai Equus Interior

In terms of practicality, the Equus is right on par with its German rivals. It’s got a big trunk, and will comfortably seat 5 people. The seats in the Equus, both front and rear are like sofas. They are soft with thick cushioning, and you sink into them nicely when you get in the car. Room is what you’d expect of a car this size, and it has plenty of room to stretch out.

 Hyundai Equus Interior Hyundai Equus Interior Hyundai Equus Trunk

Overall, the interior of the Equus is quite nice in its own right. If it weren’t claiming to take on the best of the best, I’d have much less to gripe about in terms of the quality. In relatable terms, I’d say its interior is about on par with that of a Lexus ES300. It’s nice enough for most people’s tastes, but those who know the quality of top-tier Mercs and Bimmers will be underwhelmed.

On the road

Hyundai Equus

My biggest hat-tip to Hyundai has to be how smooth they’ve made the Equus. I had driven a Rolls Royce Wraith earlier the same day, and over bumps the Hyundai was not too far out-classed. I think that is about the highest bit of praise I could give this car in terms of its ride, because nobody in the world does it better than Rolls Royce.

The low-speed smoothness comes from the Equus’ air suspension, 8-speed transmission, and V8 engine that has a lot of low-end torque. If you are just cruising around, this car is in the same league as any of the German cars when it comes to comfort.

The steering was heavier than I had expected, but it was also a bit loose by modern standards. Not too much road feel makes it through, either. The car does well to insulate you from the outside world. I suppose this isn’t a bad thing in a big luxury car, but these days, the European cars play the game a bit differently.

In truth the Equus is really a luxury car for drivers who only care about comfort. It doesn’t have the same “Jekyll and Hyde” character to it like the European cars do when it comes to summoning up some dynamic performance.

Hyundai Equus Hyundai Equus 5.0L V8

Having said that, the Equus’ performance is still plenty competent. Its 5.0L V8 makes a healthy 429hp, but it remains naturally aspirated while the rest of the world has been turbocharged. There is plenty of accelerative performance for real-world duties like merging or passing, but I wouldn’t deem is all that fast in relative terms. This is in part due to the fact that the Germans have been under-rating the horsepower of their cars. Their “430hp” is usually more like 500hp these days, and that is why the Mercedes S550 will roast an Equus in a test of speed.

While the Equus is nice and smooth while putting around, the 8-speed automatic gearbox is not very good when you ask much more of it. It doesn’t really want to downshift when you get on the gas pedal, and that leads to lazy performance. It also still has to hunt for gears a lot, and in this day and age, where ultra fast transmissions are the norm, that is just unacceptable. Hyundai was clearly focusing on keeping the car smooth and postured at low speeds when they did the transmission programming, and it does hurt the car’s performance. That said, I would take lazy and smooth over fast and jerky any day in a luxury car, so it could be worse.

When it comes to handling, its best just to take a chill pill and keep things comfortable. The Equus is competent when pushed, but it doesn’t inspire confidence from the driver. There is a lot of body roll, and as said above, the steering is pretty loose and pretty vague. If carving corners is something you enjoy, spring for one of the Europeans.

Hyundai Equus Hyundai Equus

Overall the Hyundai Equus actually feels pretty dated from behind the wheel. It reminded me a lot of the mid-2000s S-Classes, BMW 7s, and Audi A8s that I drove when I worked at a dealership back in high school. Its 5.0L V8 would’ve been a great engine ten years ago, but now it is just behind the 8-Ball. The Steering and the chassis also just feel sloppy by modern standards, and that transmission is totally unbecoming of a modern car in this range.

As I said above, this is a car that does luxury really well. If you keep things calm and relaxed while you drive, I’m sure the Equus is a car you will love. However, many drivers will find themselves wanting for more.

Dollars and Sense

Hyundai Equus

“Bargain” is the Equus’ obvious calling card, and if you look at it compared to an S550, BMW 750i, Jaguar XJ Supercharged, etc, then it is quite a bargain. My problem is that, in the end, price is the deciding factor of what really competes for buyers. The simple fact is that someone with $70k to spend cannot get themselves an S550 or a BMW 750i, so it’s impossible for them to be cross-shopping the Equus with them.

Conversely, you could argue that many people who can afford to buy the german cars would be attracted to the Equus as a bargain. I’m sure there is a decent percentage who would make that consideration, however Mercedes and BMW have immense brand loyalty from most their customers, and I don’t see any of them seriously considering a switch to Hyundai. I can see the Equus stealing sales from the Lexus LS, but car for car, the Equus would be outmatched on quality, and would have to rely solely on its price advantage.

In a nutshell, yes, the Equus is a fantastic bargain if you are actually trying to pit it against cars that are way out of its price range. The real question for me, though, is what else can be had for $70 grand? In my mind, those will be the real competitors.

Hyundai Equus

If you are willing to go with a slightly smaller car, the Audi A6, BMW 5 Series, and Mercedes E Class will all give you top-notch european quality for the same money. If you want something of the same large size, then Cadillac may be the Equus’ worst nightmare.

You see, back when I drove the first iteration of the Cadillac XTS, I was unimpressed. I even said something along the lines of, “Why would you buy this car over a Hyundai Equus?” Now, however, Cadillac has brought out a turbocharged version of the XTS called the Vsport, and it looks like it should fix all of the car’s issues. It is even priced right with the Equus, both start in the low $60K range and end up in the mid $70k range. The difference is that the XTS is 400lbs lighter then the Equus, gets slightly better fuel economy, and grants you the safety and control of all wheel drive (The Equus is rear-drive only). If it were my $70 grand, I’d have the Cadillac for sure.

Verdict

Hyundai Equus

Hyundai has done really well with the Equus, and if you look at it alone, it is quite a solid car. The problem is that they just singled out the biggest and baddest contenders in the world, and said “I’m gunning for you!”, but then they pulled out a knife while the others all pulled out guns.

As I said earlier, the Equus feels like it should have come out a decade ago, then it would’ve been phenomenal. Here in 2013, though, it just doesn’t cut the mustard for the top-tier luxury class. Such cars need to be modern, they are the ones that spearhead new technology that will one day become the norm among all cars.  The Equus, while it does match up well feature-for-feature, still has the sense of being a follower, not a leader.

WoM Score: Hyundai Equus

Primary Function: Luxury: 2
Secondary Functions: Performance(1) Practicality(2) MPG(1): 1.5
Visual Appeal: 1
Build Quality: 1
Value for Money: 1….. Bargain S Class, but best car for $70k?

Final Score: 6.5/10

-Nick Walker

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