The spell cast by luxury brand names such as Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, BMW and Audi was traditionally earned over long decades in hard-fought races on unforgiving tracks, and under the softly-lit red carpeted porticos of the world's classic eateries, hostelries and upper-crust cribs.
But Toyota, Honda and Nissan brashly sidestepped that process a couple decades ago with their Lexus, Acura and Infiniti brands, basically saying we don't have time for all that legend-building stuff, we want to be in the luxury business and we want to be in it now.
And it worked - they've successfully made the considerable step from providing cars for the masses to serving a more exclusive clientele. These badges are now recognized as part of luxury class heraldry, so who's to say the same strategy won't work for once-humble Hyundai?
The South Korean car maker, with its every-day-car reputation also well established, is making a similar move with the introduction of its new Equus sedan, which is aimed right at - but in typical Hyundai fashion priced aggressively below - the premium model end of the luxury market, and cars such as BMW's 7-Series, Audi's A8, Jaguar's XJ and the Lexus LS 460 and Cadillac's STS.
The Equus is sold here in two variants, the five-passenger Signature priced at $62,999 and the four-passenger Ultimate at $69,999. Or about the same as the Caddy STS and some $50,000 less than the Bimmer or Merc.
For Hyundai's asking price, you get a rear-wheel-drive car that very much looks the full-size luxury part - classy but with neat touches like bright LED lighting front and rear and 19-inch chromies - that outstretches the Lexus, is just a few millimetres shorter than an S550 and outpowers them both.
Hyundai is taking its step up-market rather tentatively though, as the Equus retains a Hyundai badge; and rather than being sold through a separate channel, it is initially being sold through only a couple of dozen dealers.
Sales goals are modest - maybe 100 or so here in 2011 - for a car created with wealthy South Korean buyers in mind and which in North America is just dipping a toe in market waters more often associated with Perrier and Evian than the plastic bottled stuff.
The Equus asks potential buyers to make a four-bar-gate perceptual leap from Hyundai's 1980s Pony past to a car they deem worthy of sharing stable space with the Lipizzaners of the automobile world.
But if the Equus lacks noble bloodlines - unless you count the very well-received Genesis sedan it's based on - and the cachet that comes with them, that's about all most luxury car buyers would find missing. Except perhaps those who like their full-size luxury sedans to have that hard no-nonsense/no-compromise engineering edge you still find underlying the Euro makes' character.
Despite a potent (385-hp/378-lb-ft of torque) 4.6-litre V-8 motor with six-speed automatic transmission and more than decent handling for a car of its size, that lends it a more than commendable confidence on the road, there's a sense it was designed to be driven sedately (possibly by someone wearing a chauffeurs cap) on the streets of downtown Seoul rather than flat out on the autobahn.
Which isn't necessarily a bad thing in Canadian terms, as we don't have autobahns either. And it's doubtful any Equus sold here will be driven by other than their owners, which means they'll get to settle into their 12-way adjustable heated and cooled seat (with massage feature), grab the heated, wood and leather-wrapped wheel rim and enjoy the driving experience.
Or they will if they remember to press the sport mode button first, to change the electronically controlled air suspension from too soft to not-too-bad and quickens steering and transmission responses a bit. Don't plan on racing for pink slips with a BMW 750Li on the Nurburgring, however.
In this roomy and quiet on the highway cabin, you'll find traditional leather and wood covering just about everything that doesn't have dials, displays, knobs or buttons on it - some of which control the great Lexicon surround sound system.
The equipment roster also includes Bluetooth, smart cruise control, lane departure warning system, stability control, nine airbags, automatic climate control, sunroof, rear and rear side window shades and all the usual power and convenience systems luxury car drivers are accustomed to.
The only "problem" with this car is the Hyundai badge - which the company should be proud of but likely won't cut it with class-conscious customers. They should be able to sell the first couple of years supply to all those well-off Hyundai dealer out there though.
2011 Hyundai Equus Signature
Type: Luxury sedan
Base Price: $62,999; as tested, $64,759
Engine: 4.6-litre, DOHC, V-8
Horsepower/torque: 385 hp/378 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 13.4 city/8.2 highway; premium or regular gas
Alternatives: Cadillac STS, Audi A8, BMW 750Li, Jaguar XJ, Lexus LS 460, Mercedes-Benz S-Class
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