RYE, NEW YORK—My drive started at an old-fashioned barber shop in Manhattan and ended at a castle in this upper-middle class enclave. Like the Mercedes S-Class, the Hyundai Equus—the top of the line for this Korean automaker, facelifted for the 2014 model year—is happy in both suburban and urban environments. It’s a spare-no-expense luxury automobile and a full-on assault on the best from Germany and Japan.
If $61,000 for the base Signature model sounds like a lot of money, that’s because it is. But if your last car was a $100,000+ S-Class or BMW 7-Series, and the Equus answers them feature by feature, it could seem like a bargain. You could save $30,000 up against some Euro models, the company says. About the only thing you don't get is that prestigious BMW or Mercedes name. Car Talk's Doug Mayer wonders if Hyundai could offer a three-pointed star logo package (licensed from Benz, perhaps?).
This is a low-volume model: Hyundai only sells about 4,000 U.S.-spec Equus cars a year, and only half of its 823 American dealers have built the exclusive showrooms necessary to offer them.
The Equus is probably not a profit center, but as an indicator of Hyundai’s huge ambitions in the American market, it’s exemplary. According to spokesman Chris Hosford, Hyundai now has approximately five percent of the American car market, but (with the Equus and Genesis) nine percent of the luxury market. “It’s not bad for a company not associated with luxury, and with brands that nobody has ever heard of,” he said.
In the city, the Equus proved adept at both shutting out the urban roar and insulating occupants from bumps and potholes. The 429-horsepower five-liter V-8 is whisper-quiet but offers plenty of stump-pulling acceleration when you need it. The penalty is fuel economy that clocks in at 15 mpg in the city, 23 on the highway (18 combined).
On our drive up to Rye, we averaged just 16.4 mpg. Hey, how about a hybrid Equus? Hyundai evidently built and tested a hybrid-lite start/stop system for the car, but decided not to offer it, in part because of a poor take rate when other companies made it optional. Maybe people who buy the Equus are saving so much money over the competition that they don’t mind spending extra money for gas.
As I said, the 2014 model is a facelift, and the powertrain wasn’t touched. Most of the new stuff is techie, because that’s what Hyundai’s buyers want, according to company research. There is a new front fascia, LED fog lights, turbine blade wheels, power door closure (for people too rich to close their own doors), and—one of my favorites—a smart proximity card that will unlock the car when you approach. Keep it in your wallet, and give up on carrying keys forever.
Blindspot detection is now standard, responding to surveys that indicate 74 percent of luxury buyers want it. Since 71 percent want smart cruise control that will apply the brakes when you’re about to slam into the car ahead, that’s here too. And don’t forget the head’s-up display, which will place ghostly images of the most commonly accessed information—including that front collision warning—on the windshield ahead of the driver.
Hyundai is really playing to the luxury customer, for whom, spokesman Brandon Ramirez pointed out, time is money. The showroom comes to you for a product demonstration. There are free loaner cars during valet service appointments. And for three years/36,000 miles, all routine maintenance is complementary.
On the way back to Manhattan, I got to sit in the back, which was a nice place to be--the master of all he/she surveys can control the radio, climate, even move the front seats from a perch on cooled/heated seats with a multitude of adjustments. The legroom is cavernous. Fuel economy expert Dan Gray drove on the return trip, and he was determined to beat my 16.4 mpg performance. It should have been an easy target, but we ran into bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Henry Hudson Parkway so he did even worse, 15.8 mpg. The moral seems to be that fuel misers should look elsewhere, but the Equus—still largely under the radar—is becoming a serious upmarket competitor. Here it is on video: