For motorists in the UK, Hyundai and the government scrappage scheme are indelibly linked; trade in your old banger, get some cash to put towards a cheap and cheerful Hyundai hatchback. There’s more to Hyundai than that, though, it’s just that Brits have never been able to sample its impressive rear-wheel drive coupe and saloons.
But at the Geneva Motor Show, the Korean firm announced that its BMW 5-series-rivalling Genesis saloon will be sold in limited numbers in the UK as a brand-building exercise. Can Hyundai operate with credibility at that end of the market? Well, it already operates one level higher in the US, so we borrowed its range-topping Equus in California. The Equus goes head-to-head with such titans as the Audi A8, Jaguar XJ, BMW 7-series, Lexus LS and, of course, the top-of-the-class Mercedes S-class.
Weird name. Tell me more…
Equus means ‘horse’ in Latin, and it’s a name that’s been attached to Hyundai’s flagship since 1999. We’re driving the second-generation car, which was launched in 2009 and facelifted in 2012. With no Hyundai badge on the car, Equus acts as a halo nameplate without the expense of launching a luxury brand, a la Lexus.
The spec is impressive: a 5.0-litre V8 feeds 429bhp and 376lb ft to the rear wheels via an eight-speed automatic transmission. That makes for a relatively punchy dash to 60mph in under 6 seconds.
Advertising in the US is equally punchy: ‘Get a fully loaded Equus for less than their base price,’ says the website, highlighting pricier, less well equipped rivals. It lists the Equus Ultimate’s price at $68,500, compared with $72,140 for a Lexus LS460 and $92,900 for a Mercedes-Benz S550, and standard Hyundai features that are optional extras elsewhere. They include: blind-spot detection, land-departure warning, powered rear sunblind, 19-inch alloys, radar cruise control with stop/start, a heated steering wheel and cooled seats. And in truth, this is a very well specified car.
At 5169mm, the Hyundai is longer than a standard wheelbase S-class and Lexus LS, and those adverts claim there’s more interior space too.
It certainly looks the part…
It does. I remember taking a picture of the last-generation Equus in Korea a few years ago because it looked so awful, but the latest car doesn’t appear the odd man out in this company: it morphs Lexus and Merc S-class styling cues in a confident, stately and convincing package.
Inside, there’s acres of space in the back seats, a large boot too and echoes of S-class abound: the electric seat adjusters that are positioned on the door cards, the Comand-style rotary controller for the infotainment system, the metal fillets in the indicator stalks, the elegant swoop of the dash and the leather and fake-wood steering wheel.
The seats are comfy, the leather-trimmed dash well-finished, the stereo system’s sound quality excellent… it’s only the selection of buttons that appear pinched from lesser Hyundais that let the side down. Oh, and the sat-nav that wouldn’t zoom out for more than a few seconds, nor sometimes accept street names that existed the last time we checked.
How does it drive?
Very well, and again those S-class comparisons spring to mind: the Equus rides on air suspension, and has a similar loping quality, and the steering has a similarly striking numbness to the last-gen S-class. This is a very comfort-focussed car: road-, engine- and wind-noise are all very well suppressed, the gears shift smoothly, and everything feels designed to soothe and relax.
You can tweak things if you need more excitement, however, by switching from the default Eco mode to Sport or Snow. Sport sharpens everything up, giving a crisper throttle response, enhanced body control and an unnaturally sticky and heavy response to the steering. It didn’t snow during our California test drive, but the Snow setting did prove the best way to manoeuvre into a garage – throttle tip-in in the other modes can be a bit aggressive for such delicacy.
Performance is perfectly adequate rather than stand-out quick: the direct-injection V8 is naturally aspirated, and its relatively puny 376lb ft (this car weighs over two tonnes, don’t forget) is delivered at a peaky 5000rpm, so you need to work it to get the best from it. Do that and the soundtrack intensifies, but it’s a distant musclecar thrum rather than a strained thrash.
The Hyundai Equus does what Lexus did back in 1989 with its first LS: undercuts the German opposition with a slightly generic design, bags of standard equipment and excellent refinement. It’s a very impressive car with an attractive price tag and some genuine desirability. The interiors of German rivals might be nicer, but the Equus is far from a disappointment.
Drive it as intended – ie in a relaxed manner – and the Equus is incredibly comfortable and refined, and it’s only when you turn up the wick and ask for more from both the chassis and the V8 that things become less satisfying. A Jaguar XJ, for instance, balances sport and comfort more expertly.
But really, just as Kias and Hyundais tempt customers to switch from Toyotas, but not the premium Germans, we suspect that it’s the luxury Japanese brands that’ll looking over their shoulders when the Genesis – younger sibling to the Equus – launches here.
Hyundai Genesis versus Lexus GS and Infiniti Q70? Now there’s a triple test.