If you’re a car company and your owner is not Ratan Tata, the only way to expand your offerings is by moving up. That’s because there’s no percentage in developing lower priced and less profitable vehicles.
Tata is the exception. His company in India builds the Nano, a minimalist car aimed at the masses that starts for less than $3,000, although the company also expanded upscale when it bought Jaguar and Land Rover, two luxury British brands, from the Ford Motor Co.
South Korea’s Hyundai is similarly involved. It sells one of the least expensive cars available in the U.S., the Accent, which starts at $10,735. But it also has been relentlessly reaching for the heights.
It started with the 2009 Genesis, a large, rear-drive luxury four-door sedan that aimed to mimic purveyors of popular cars like Toyota and Honda, which earlier had motored into luxury territory. The difference was that the pioneer, Honda, set up a separate brand called Acura 25 years ago, and Toyota followed and brought us the Lexus.
The Genesis came with the same leaning “H” emblem as the humble Accent. But like the original Acura Legend and Lexus LS, it undercut the competition, especially the Europeans, on price.
Fully loaded, the 2009 rear-drive Genesis carried a sticker price of about $42,000 and promised many of the same amenities as the Lexus GS, BMW 5-Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class.
You’d think that would be enough. But the Genesis had barely made itself known to American buyers than the company upped the ante by introducing the even more luxurious 2011 Equus. It is based on the same platform as the Genesis but is slightly larger, a bit more powerful and way more luxurious and expensive, though it still easily undercuts the Japanese and European competitors.
This one is aimed at the big guys like the Audi A8, Lexus LS, Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7-Series. Like the Genesis, it tickles most of the luxury-car erogenous zones with a more than competitive price tag.
Consider: the Equus starts at $58,900 for the Signature model and $65,400 for the Ultimate version tested here, both with 385-horsepower V8 engines. Competitors’ models have sticker prices tens of thousands of dollars more, and comparably-equipped versions have six-figure price tags.
The major concern in what appears to be an irresistible advantage is the company’s decision to huddle the Equus under the Hyundai blanket instead of going to the expense of establishing an independent nameplate and dealer network—as Honda did with Acura and Toyota with Lexus.
The only time that has been tried in recent years was when Volkswagen brought us the Phaeton, its ultra-luxury car. It was as capable as the A8 from VW’s luxury sister division, Audi, and competed handily against Mercedes-Benz.
But it flopped in the United States, with some analysts concluding that a major drawback was that it carried the VW escutcheon—the idea being that snooty luxury customers didn’t want to get oil on their shoes in service bays with plebeian Golfs and Jettas.
It’s an association thing. If you’re a member of the social set at the Boca Grande country club, you might recoil at rubbing fenders with the biker guys at the Milwaukee frozen-custard drive-in.
Hyundai thinks it has that one figured out. Elite customers will never have to stoop to actually setting foot in the dealership after they acquire the Equus. They will simply telephone, text or e-mail and one of the dealer’s minions will show up at the front door to pick up the Equus for servicing. When done, it will be delivered, washed and blown dry.
So you’re one of They Who Avoid Anything Unpleasant. Is the Equus worth consideration? If you can get past the Hyundai nameplate, the answer is yes.
And if you aspire to that status but have fewer resources, the answer is definitely yes, although you might be more in need of the aura conferred by the three-pointed star of Mercedes, four circles of Audi or spinning propeller of BMW.
However, if you have the self-confidence and fundamental frugality of earned rather than legacy wealth, you will not be disappointed at the reaction of the valet parking attendants at the local five-star spa and hotel.
The Equus starts off by being exclusive—annual U.S. sales of about 2,000 are expected.
Plus, with its prominent Mercedes-inspired grille and Lexus-inspired ambiance and amenities—hey, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery—it comes across as imposing, luxurious, powerful, competent and comfortable.
There are seats for only four, which makes sense because most cars are totally inhospitable to a center-rear passenger anyway. And it makes the back seat a welcome place for two. On the tested Ultimate, the right-rear seat is set up for folks who like to be driven by chauffeurs. It reclines and has back massagers, along with a switch that moves the right-front seat forward.
But it’s mostly an illusion. Despite the generous interior dimensions of the Equus, there’s not enough space to fully recline. But it’s of little consequence unless you habitually ride in stretch limousines.
- Model: 2011 Hyundai Equus Ultimate four-door sedan.
- Engine: 4.6-liter V8, 385 horsepower.
- Transmission: Six-speed automatic with manual-shift mode.
- Overall length: 16 feet 11 inches.
- EPA passenger/trunk volume: 110/17 cubic feet.
- Weight: 4,595 pounds.
- EPA city/highway fuel consumption: 16/24 miles to the gallon.
- Base price, including destination charge: $58,900.
- Price as tested: $65,400.