2014 Hyundai Equus offers luxury at a discount
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Driving the 2014 Equus from Hyundai of South Korea, it's hard to imagine it's still an upstart.
It feels comfortably like any member of an exclusive peer group that includes the likes of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, BMW 7-Series, Audi A8, Lexus LS and Jaguar XJ.
They are the established high rollers in the large luxury sedan class, sought after not only for their overall excellence but also for their reputations.
On the market only since the 2012 model year, the Equus, a rear-drive V-8 luxury sedan, does not have the sort of instant recognition that give the establishment players instant credibility with status-conscious buyers.
That's the rub. The Equus is, after all, a Hyundai, which produces a range of vehicles including one of the lowest-priced economy cars, the Accent.
For luxury buyers, the idea of hobnobbing with hoi-polloi vehicles at the dealership's service bays can be a deal breaker. That may have been one reason a similar effort failed a decade ago when Volkswagen introduced its flagship Phaeton to the U.S. market.
The Phaeton, like the Equus, was a large luxury sedan with a middle-class name and emblem. Though the equal of its sibling, the Audi A8, and competitive with Mercedes and Lexus, it flopped. Sales started strong, with 1,433 in 2004, then dropped precipitously to 820 the next year.
Those sorts of numbers would prompt ecstasy at Rolls-Royce, Bentley and any number of cars in the high six-digit price category, but didn't cut it in the Phaeton's competitive set. So Volkswagen pulled the Phaeton from the U.S. after the 2006 models.
However, a return is planned, and just maybe the VW leadership took heart from the Equus experience. Hyundai has worked creatively to distinguish the Equus from its lesser siblings. It enjoys separate quarters at the 400 dealerships where it is sold, and dealer gofers will pick up the Equus for servicing and return it to the owner's home.
For buyers nervous about the leaning "H" badge on the trunk, dealers will substitute an Equus badge -- which they've already done for buyers of the less-expensive Genesis near-luxury sedan who didn't want the public to know they were driving a Hyundai.
Of course, the stigma is likely to fade as Hyundai establishes a reputation across the board, as seems likely. It is competitive in every segment in which it competes.
The 2014 Equus won't turn many heads. It basically is a refined version of its predecessor, with styling tweaks to the grille and front and rear ends, along with new turbine-design wheels.
More important is the interior's redesign to make it more driver-oriented, comfortable and connected, although the driver's seat massager and the rear recliner have been dropped.
On the road, the Equus has plenty of punch from its 429 horsepower, 5.0-liter V-8 engine. (That's with premium fuel; with regular, the horsepower drops to 421.) The eight-speed automatic transmission shifts imperceptibly, and the driver can both shift manually and select from economy and sport driving modes. Cruising is silent and effortless, though the steering would benefit from better straight-line tracking.
There are two Equus models: the Signature at $61,920 and the Ultimate at $68,920 -- tens of thousands of dollars less than comparably equipped competitors. The 2014 Mercedes S550, for example, starts just shy of $100,000.
The Equus approach is similar to the Lexus script back in 1989, when it introduced the LS as a mid-size alternative to the Mercedes E-Class and BMW 5-Series. Over the years, it crept up in size and price to compete at the top of the rung. The Equus is starting at the top but with lower prices. As it gains credibility, the price gap probably will narrow.
When the Equus was introduced in 2011, the company hoped to sell about 2,000 cars a year in the U.S. It sold nearly twice that in 2012, a total of 3,912. Only two cars, the S-Class Mercedes and the BMW 7-Series, had 2012 sales in five digits -- but fewer than 12,000 each. Though the Equus trailed all the establishment luxury cars, it managed 8.6 percent of the sales in the category.
Not bad for an upstart.
Model: 2014 Hyundai Equus Ultimate four-door sedan.
Engine: 5.0-liter V-8, 429 horsepower.
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic with manual shift mode.
Overall length: 16 feet 11 inches.
EPA passenger/trunk volume: 109/17 cubic feet.
Weight: 4,616 pounds.
EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 15/23/18 mpg.
Base price, including destination charge: $68,920.
Price as tested: $68,920.