Hyundai is on a mission. It wants to not only dispel the perception that it just manufactures economy cars, but to inform the world that it is now building top-tier premier-class automobiles on a par with anything else in the world.
Thus the Equus, the company's newest flagship sedan, and scheduled to be sticker-priced well into the high $60,000-low $70,000 range, although prices haven't yet been firmed up for Canada.
"The Equus is meant to strengthen the perception that Hyundai builds top-quality automobiles," says Hyundai Canada's vice-president of marketing, John Vernile. "The role of the Equus is not sales volume, but to prove that we can build premium quality automobiles."
Hit or Miss: Hyundai Equus
Vernile says his company will be happy if it moves 100 cars in its first year; it goes on sale this October.
He's being modest. Aside from the lingering stigma of the Pony, Stellar, and Excel, there is no reason for the Equus not to match competitors from Mercedes, BMW and Lexus, all of whom are direct competitors in this market. Especially if Hyundai's concept of "valet sales" catches on.
It'll work this way: the customer phones a Hyundai dealership, the dealer sends a sales rep and an Equus out to the customer's home, the customer drives the car and listens to the sales pitch, and, if he/she likes what they hear and see, they choose the colour and options level, and buy the car on the spot, with all the paperwork being done in the customer's home. After the money changes hands and everything is processed, the purchased automobile is delivered, and the customer goes about their business.
Any after-sales service and maintenance is handled in the same way, and, theoretically, you could buy an Equus and never have to go to the dealership. The whole "let me take your offer to the sales manager and see if it'll fly" scenario is basically taken out of the equation.
And, oh yeah; you get a free Apple iPad when you buy the car, with the owners manual and product information loaded into it. So far, 27 Hyundai dealers across Canada have signed on to sell the Equus, with the majority of these in Ontario.
As to the car itself, it will come in two trim levels: Signature and Ultimate. Both are full-size, ultra-refined prestige saloons loaded with all the mod cons and luxury items we've come to expect in this market.
As well as the usual climate control, leather interior, navi system, pollen filter, wood trim and other goodies, it'll have adaptive cruise control, air suspension and lane departure warning system. This latter feature will not only beep at you if you get into the wrong lane, but will also cause your seat belt to vibrate.
Should you choose the top of the range Ultimate version, you get a massaging rear passenger seat that reclines and is ventilated.
The Ultimate also changes the seating configuration of the Equus from five to four, with a miniature fridge/cooler located between the two rear seats. Hyundai expects that more than a few of these vehicles will be chauffeur-driven, and it will be sold in various markets around the world. It's already been on the market in South Korea for at least the past four years, albeit in a different form.
Power is supplied by the same 4.6-litre V-8 engine found in the Genesis sedan, with an additional 30 horsepower on tap, bringing it up to 385. Transmission is a six-speed automatic with manual shift mode, and the Equus will have an electronic stability control system, ABS, brake distribution system, electronic parking brake and back-up camera.
Hyundai is claiming a 0 to 100 km/h time of just over six seconds for the Equus, and it's a lively automobile for its size. A quick sprint through the back roads and hills behind San Francisco and Palo Alto revealed a surprisingly stable ride with predictable - if a titch unresponsive - steering, prompt braking and unflappable suspension.
You could be put blindfolded into an Equus and not be able to tell it from a BMW, Lexus or Mercedes when it comes to performance and handling. Indeed, the NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) levels were astonishingly low and you'll look long and hard for a quieter automobile, luxury or otherwise.
Hyundai is banking on the "new normal" in terms of its customers sensibilities. It's hoping and assuming that people won't go "on autopilot" and instinctively look at German and Japanese nameplates when they go shopping for a prestige sedan. "People these days are much smarter with their money," adds John Vernile. "And getting the most for your buck is cooler than just automatically buying something that's expensive."
Whether his company can shake the ghosts of the past remains to be seen, however. When I returned home from the California launch, the guy at Canada Customs asked me what I'd been doing down in the States, and when I told him I was driving the new Hyundai Equus with its $60,000-plus price tag, his response: "Sixty grand for a Hyundai? You gotta be kidding me!"
Hit or Miss: Hyundai Equus
2011 Hyundai Equus
Type: Full-size premium sedan
Price Range: Not available
Engine: 4.6 litre V-8
Horsepower/Torque: 385 hp/333 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/ 100 km): N/A; premium or regular gas
Alternatives: BMW 750Li, Mercedes S550, Lexus 460L, Audi A8, Cadillac STS 4.6