Luxury Cars: Test Drive of New 2011 Hyundai Equus

South Korea's Hyundai is suddenly hot. It has profited from Toyota's troubles, boosting its U.S. market share. Sales of its stylish mid-size sedan, the Sonata, have risen nearly 60% so far this year, while its value-priced luxury model, the Genesis, is prompting luxury brand trade-ins. Now with its new Equus, Hyundai aims to compete with top-end models of Audi, BMW, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz.

Why should you care as a car shopper? Well, if you have the taste and the pocketbook for big luxury sedans, the Equus, starting at $58,000 with one options-loaded version at $64,000, costs about $30,000 less than some of the models it is targeting. It goes on sale in December.

Is the Equus up to the mission? A recent drive up the Interstate north of New York City and through hilly, winding state park roads festooned with fall colors suggests that while the Equus may not be winning any titles immediately, it does deserve to play in this league. It is not be quite as sprightly through the curves as as BMW or as dead silent as a Lexus. But it has the power, responsive handling and quiet and comfortable ride high-end luxury shoppers expect.

Of course, if you are handing over around $60,000 for a car, chances are you want more than just a great ride -- you want to impress your friends and neighbors (or at least clients) as well. And Hyundai still has a ways to go in the image department -- the brand's reputation in some quarters is still the low-priced, reliability-challenged company of years past, not the stylish, reliable luxury contender that it has become. And let's face it: When you imagine a movie mogul tossing his keys to the valet, your mind's eye probably isn't conjuring an Equus.

Brand image aside, Hyundai wants to make sure that if you decide on a new Equus for Christmas, you get plenty of luxury stocking stuffers. Every Equus comes with an Apple iPad containing the owner's manual and a link for scheduling service appointments without calling the dealership. While your Equus is being serviced, you will get a luxury loaner -- another Equus or a Genesis. And the company is eager to get potential buyers behind the wheel: The salesman will bring one to your house for a test drive.

Here's a closer look at how the Equus shaped up during my test drive last week:

Performance and mileage The 4.6-liter V-8 engine delivers 385 horsepower and plenty of punch from a standing start. I didn't have a stop watch, but it looked like it could get from 0 to 60 mph in just under six seconds -- roughly similar to the Genesis time with the same engine. But Equus buyers probably won't be drag racing from stop lights. More relevant is that highway passing and lane changing was effortless, with just a touch of the accelerator. You're not paying for that kind of power with high gas mileage in mind. Hyundai believes the EPA rating will be 16 mpg in the city, 24 on the highway.

Driving and Handling On a rainy day, the winding state park roads slick were with fallen red and yellow leaves, yet the Equus maneuvered through the tight curves reasonably well for such a big car. (It is nearly 17 feet long and weighs about 4,500 pounds). The electro-hydraulic power steering has a light touch but still gives some road feel. On the highway, the steering was quick and responsive when changing lanes or maneuvering onto an exit ramp.

Ride and comfort Though it didn't quite attain the cloistered silence of driving a Lexus LS -- there was some tire and wind noise -- the Equus delivered an extremely quiet, comfortable ride compared with most cars. The acoustic laminated glass in the windows aids this sound damping and really did live up to its rain-repellent billing -- with no smearing after the windshield wipers swept by.

Inside, a luxurious leather interior, wood accents and an 8-inch screen in the center console for navigation and controlling the car systems live up to expectations for a competitor of the Mercedes-Benz S-class or BMW 7 Series. A driver's seat with 12-way adjustments ensures you can get comfortable for a long ride.

The back seat in the Equus really stands out. Originally designed for the home Korean market where many of the corporate buyers have drivers, Equus makes sure the owner can enjoy the ride. In the $64,000 Ultimate version, the two heated and cooling rear seats allow for major leg room. The right rear seat even reclines and massages you. And the rear seats have controls for the premium audio system. (Who wants the driver picking the play list?)

Safety Like its target models, the Equus has the latest in safety gear. That includes smart cruise control, which uses radar sensors to keep you a fixed distance behind the car ahead. There also are warnings if you are drifting out of your lane or if the system senses a collision is imminent. (Look for more shortly in this column on such new safety gear in this and other cars).

Hyundai isn't expecting to overwhelm the top rungs of the luxury market. It is targeting Equus sales of just 2,000 to 3,000 in 2011 while hoping to expand later. The car, and the premium service that comes with it, is likely to attract well off but still frugal buyers.

Photos courtesy of Hyundai Motor America

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