When I was a kid, cars were cars. They weren't mobile living rooms.
But times change. And few things exemplify our changing world more than Hyundai's new Equus, a premium sedan that poses a challenge to the popular conception of Hyundai as a poor man's Honda.
Upping the ante on the luxury Genesis line the South Korean manufacturer introduced two years ago, the Equus is outfitted with a shocking and surprisingly refined array of comfort, technology and safety features for its price point, which hasn't been officially announced. A Hyundai spokesman estimates it will cost $56,000 to $60,000 for the base model and $63,000 to $67,000 fully loaded when it comes on the market in November.
Before passing my body over the driver's-side scuff plate that had the name "Equus" glowing with high-intensity light, I thought the terms "Hyundai" and "luxury" weren't merely an oxymoron but an audacious attempt by a budget manufacturer to re-imagine itself as a Korean Mercedes.
After a week of driving the Equus, it's still an oxymoron. It's also an extremely well-rendered knockoff of its competition, even if there are a few slight glitches.
A reverse-engineered hybrid of the Mercedes S550 and Lexus LS 460, the Equus doesn't pioneer new technologies. Its most pioneering aspect, in fact, is its brazen spirit for demonstrating Hyundai's capabilities — one that shows the Koreans are even more adept at copycatting than the Chinese.
To see exactly how adept, I drove the Equus to the dealerships of its competitors and cross-tested the models it's pursuing.
Like the Mercedes S550, the Equus Ultimate I'd been loaned was decked out with massaging, heated and ventilated leather seats and power sunshades for the windows. There are also cameras, front and rear; an 8-inch display screen; active head restraints; pre-tensioning seat belts; door-panel seat controls configured to mimic the seat's shape; an analog clock in the center stack; and a knockoff rear end complete with trapezoidal dual exhaust.
Unlike the Mercedes, the Equus lacked pneumatics to fully seal doors that haven't been closed all the way, a panoramic moon roof or a 5.5-liter V-8 with a seven-speed automatic transmission. It also lacked the solid-as-a-tank ride feel, Mercedes status and $112,000 price tag.
Like the Lexus, the Equus was equipped with a heated, wood-and-leather-wrapped steering wheel; leather seats; a push-button start; an electronic parking brake; memory seats; voice-activated steering-wheel controls; rear seats with illuminated overhead vanity mirrors; a lookalike dark metallic center stack; and a similar sleek and sculptured front end.
Unlike the Lexus, the Equus was two speakers shy of the LS 460's 19-speaker audio and two speeds shy of its eight-speed automatic transmission. It also lacked a nameplate synonymous with both luxury and value and an $84,000 price tag.
The Equus, however, holds the potential to change Hyundai's nameplate presumptions, if Americans buy in. While sixty grand is steep for any car, let alone a Hyundai, the Equus, like all the models in the manufacturer's 2011 lineup, includes a 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty.
Boasting annual sales of 50,000 units globally, the Equus has been available since 1999, mostly in Asia and the Middle East. Just 2,000 will be brought to the U.S. for the 2011 model year.
The U.S. Equus is second generation, outfitted with the same 4.6-liter six-speed automatic powertrain as Hyundai's Genesis.
I found that the Equus engine, with its 333 pound-feet of torque, easily joined the 80-mph flow of traffic on free-moving highways. The transmission was also unobtrusive and smooth.
The ride quality was exceptional. Its electronically controlled air suspension with continuous damping control was cloudlike in its cushiness. And, aided by acoustic-laminated glass on the windshield and door windows, as well as vibration damping in the roof and underbody, the cockpit was so quiet it was as if I'd donned noise-canceling headphones.
At least it was until my son and his pal insisted I load a movie into the DVD player, at which point I could hear, in all its explosive and crisp 608-watt glory, exactly what sort of damage said movie was doing to their young minds.
Unfortunately, it only took one glance at the dash to also register what sort of damage I was doing to the environment and to their futures. The Equus averaged 14.7 mpg in the 200 miles I drove it.
At least they were safe. The Equus is outfitted with ABS, electronic brake-force distribution, cornering brake control, brake assist, traction control and nine airbags, including bags for the driver's knees and passengers in the rear seat.
There's also a front-end camera, an absurd safety feature that was annoyingly overprotective. Designed (ostensibly) to give drivers a better view of what's in front of them, it beeps whenever it thinks the driver is in danger of truncating the legs of an approaching pedestrian, even when there is none in sight.
Since I have two working eyes, like, presumably, most licensed drivers, I found the front camera more irritating than helpful, because it made objects appear farther away than they actually were and distorted them with its fish-eye lens.
Other than the front camera and the fuel economy, I loved almost everything else about the Equus — everything but the fact that it costs so much and is still a Hyundai.