Thursday, August 15, 2013

Test Drive: 2013 Hyundai Equus Signature

Hyundai has had a brand resurgence like no other in recent years, with the tremendous magazine comparison successes against the segment stalwarts, the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Other big successes in the form of the Genesis Coupe and Sedan, the Elantra, and the cool looking Veloster. Each of these vehicles made a splash when they were introduced and continue to be treated as darlings of the automotive magazine editors, but Hyundai was not satisfied and wanted to set the bar even higher. With the success of the Genesis Sedan, Hyundai set its sights on BMW, Mercedes, and Lexus with its homegrown full-size luxury sedan, the Equus. Targeted squarely at LS, S-Class, and 7-series, the Equus was out to try to repeat the same splash that the Sonata had made. Unfortunately, things did not go so well this time...

Update: We heard back from Hyundai on Twitter about our review. See their response after the break!

Of course, this was not for a lack of effort on Hyundai's part. They did a lot of things right to try to set the Equus up for success. Starting with the test drive and all the way through the ownership experience, Hyundai changed the way things were handled. If you are interested in the Equus, you do not need to go to a Hyundai dealership for a test drive; instead, an Equus-certified dealer representative brings the car to you. The process was impressively painless, requiring nothing more than a phone call to the Hyundai dealer to schedule a time for them to bring the car by. They would call a couple of days ahead of time to confirm. When it comes time to have the car serviced, Hyundai will send someone out with another Equus or Genesis loaner car and pick your car up at your home or office and return it to you when the service is complete, all at no additional cost. This kind of white-glove service is intended to set itself apart from all of the other manufacturers as it goes above and beyond even what many luxury brands are able to provide.

For our test drive, a gleaming black 2013 Equus Signature, the "standard" version of the car, was brought to our door. This is a car that I have been encouraging our father to look at and, this being Father's day, my brother and I took the opportunity to have the car brought specifically so that our dad could take a spin in it. Before getting in, the Hyundai rep went into great detail about the car's specifications, providing the three of us a treasure trove of information to ponder when we finally stepped in for the drive. On the outside, the car definitely does not lack for presence and is absolutely enormous looking. The chrome everywhere shone brilliantly in the warm California sun and the paint was polished to a mirror like finish. Say what you will about this car having derivative design cues, but in the flesh, it is imposing and definitely feels special enough. Even our dad, not usually one to be impressed by cars, had an awestruck expression on his face as he walked around the car admiring it from all angles.

Stepping into the car, the smell of leather fills the nostrils, and nearly all of the surfaces that one can touch below the window line are covered in either leather, or very convincing looking fake hides. I climbed into the back, opting for the "executive experience" while West Brother sat up front and our dad did the driving. I must say that I am hugely impressed by the sheer vastness of the cabin. In just about every dimension, there is more space than I knew what to do with. The seats themselves were insanely comfortable and offered a range of adjustments that I would never have thought to include on the back seat of a car. While certain things like the reclining feature were gimmicky (it basically just slides the seat cushion forward instead of being a genuine recline), the range of controls and absolute comfort were definitely appealing.

Firing the car up, if not for the little musical ditty playing from the speakers (a very Korean characteristic and something that I am told can be shut off upon request), it would be difficult to tell that the motor is running at all. The tomb-like silence is reminiscent of the last Lexus LS I spent time in and makes the environment a very relaxing place to be. While this certainly would not appeal to the enthusiast, it does appeal to my ego. Rear seat room is downright enormous, with room to stretch out and get all sorts of comfortable, even with the front passenger seat set pretty far back. The one thing this interior is not lacking in is comfort.

On the road, the 5.0-L Tau V8 motor is silky smooth and never feels like it struggles to move the massive black sedan. No one would call this car quick, but one never gets the impression that it cannot get out of its own way. Even in motion, not much noise is produced by the engine and driving the motor hard creates a pleasing mechanical symphony at higher revs, but never rises above a unobtrusive din. Conversations are easy enough to have between the backseat passengers with it being possible to carry on a debate without raising one's voice. The ride is equally smooth, with the car absorbing the road imperfections gracefully and providing a fairly serene experience, even with some pretty cracked roads. Larger bumps, however, can be a bit jarring if run over too fast, so there is still some room for improvement here. Handling is comfortable and safe at sane speeds, though with the amount of heft in question here, no one should expect to be tossing this thing around corners like a sports car.

As enjoyable as this car is, it is not without some faults. Key among my personal complaints are the feel of the switch gear in the cabin and the look of the instrument cluster. The switch gear gets a major knock for both looking plasticky and feeling cheap. It lacks the well-damped action that sets so many luxury cars apart from their more pedestrian counterparts and shows that the engineering effort that companies like Mercedes, Lexus, and Audi put into making their switches emulate high quality actions of expensive luxury items really pay off in the end user experience. On the Equus, pressing a button feels just like pressing a button. It lacks that feel of precision or care that makes owning a car of this caliber special. To pile on, the materials used for much of the switch gear do not feel quite fitting for a marquee vehicle. Too many metal-flaked drenched plastic bits fill in for things that should just be honed from real metal and the lack of real wood keep this car from quite matching up to its stated competition. As for the instrument cluster, I understand they were shooting for simplicity, but I think they may have gone just a tad too far in the wrong direction.

Returning the keys to our kindly Hyundai rep, I personally had mixed feelings about this massive sedan. In many ways, it is the perfect car for someone who does not mind some of the minor faults and is more interested in getting an intimidatingly proportioned, insanely comfortable, and exceedingly well-equipped executive sedan. However, it is really not a sedan for the serious luxury sedan buyer who has more money than they know what to do with. There are details that simply cannot be skimped on that Hyundai chose to ignore, most likely in the interest of keeping the car to the price it had targeted. That is not to say that the car is not a great effort, and certainly Hyundai has reset the bar for expectations around the ownership experience, but the buying public seems to agree given the low sales numbers over the lifetime is has been on sales in the US.

That said, our father thoroughly enjoyed the car and was really impressed with how well it drove and how comfortable it was. He, very much, is the right kind of value-minded buyer for whom this car is a perfect match and who would likely enjoy this car tremendously. I, on the other hand, would likely hold out to see what 2014 has in store, with a revised version of the Equus just starting to hit our shores with even more electronic wizardry, some new tactile surfaces, but the same great ownership experience. Stay tuned as we are definitely looking to score a test drive of this latest version, hopefully soon!

West Brother's Perspective

Cars like the Lexus LS460, the Mercedes S-Class and the BMW 7-Series do not usually pop up on my radar. I am just not into cars that big, and would probably only considering buying one if I lost the ability to drive and needed to hire a driver. When the Hyundai Equus came out though, I was quite intrigued. A $60,000+ Hyundai designed to compete with the established luxury brands, and has the performance and amenities to match? It sounded too good to be true, and like they say, "if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is." Fortunately for Hyundai, the Equus is real.

The version of the Equus that the Hyundai salesman came to pick us up in was the Signature version. This version of the Equus is missing features like reclining rear seats and rear drink cooler, but despite missing those luxury features, the Equus was still very well equipped for its price. Leather surfaces were soft and supple, the wood trim almost looked like real wood, and plastics did not have that hard and hollow feel that some manufacturers choose to have these days. From a quality standpoint, it would seem that the Equus uses materials comparable to its German and Japanese competition.

Though I opted to not drive the Equus, I was still able to experience its ride quality. Just like the other cars in its class, the Equus offers a soft, quiet, and comfortable ride. The Equus' tomb like silence is only broken by the rumble of the 5.0 liter V8 under acceleration, which makes quite a nice sound. There is a sport mode on the Equus, which supposedly tightens up the suspension and increases throttle and transmission response, but considering that our father was driving the car, I doubt he would ever use it anyway.

There are currently two downsides to the Equus that I can think of. The first downside to the Equus is its exterior. Yes, the Equus is quite a handsome vehicle, but it does not really stand out in any particular way. From the rear, it seems to try too hard to look like a Lexus LS, and from the front, it looks like a mash up of the Mercedes S-Class and BMW 7-Series. In fact, the car's overall profile looks a lot like the BMW 7-Series. This sort of "me too" design actually makes the car blend into the crowd instead of stand out. I suppose for a inconspicuous person hauler, the Equus fits perfectly. If you are looking for something that stands out from the rest of the crowd, the Equus is definitely not going to be it.

The second problem Hyundai will have with the Equus is the fact that it is a Hyundai. American consumers still view Hyundai as a Korean, mass market, econobox builder. Hyundai has made quite a few leaps and bounds in the luxury market with the Genesis coupe and sedan, and now the Equus. Just as with the Genesis, the buyer can opt to have all the Hyundai badges removed and replaced with the "Rolls Royce wannabe" Equus badges. Despite the badge swap though, you tell people the Equus is a Hyundai and most will respond, "I don't want to spend $60,000 on a Hyundai!"