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2014 HYUNDAI EQUUS: Luxury you can bank on

Top-line Hyundai sedan stresses comfort over performance

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While it's chock-a-block with nifty technology, the Equus is something of a throwback to luxury land-yachts of yore.

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Trends, by definition, are cyclical. Evolution, on the other hand, is a one-way street. Evolution may be the science of continual development, but fads are nothing more than the regurgitation of something old in a new dress.

Which of those speaks to the changes in the luxury car segment over the past two decades should be of great concern to Hyundai.

If, for instance, the modern performance luxury sedan is just the start of a continuing evolution (as it is with BMW, Mercedes-Benz and, now, even Lexus) away from the big, comfy land yachts of yore, then Hyundai's recent foray into the high-end luxury market will be nothing more than a temporary tryst.

If, however, all this stiffening of suspension and turbocharging of engine that has been the trend in the ºberluxury segment of late is really nothing but a fad, then maybe, just maybe, Hyundai is onto something with its new Equus.

For, let's be absolutely frank here, the new Equus is something of a throwback. Oh, it is positively chock-a-block with technology, its powertrain is incredibly sophisticated, and the interior is rich in both decor and execution. But it's an old soul, an homage to what a top-of-the-line luxury sedan used to be (and, obviously, Hyundai hopes will be again).

The ride, for instance, coddles to the point that Molly -- whomever she might have been -- would have been in rapture. Hyundai's adjustable suspension does have a sport setting, but compared with the cars Hyundai dares to cite as targets for the Equus -- Mercedes-Benz's S-Class, BMW's 7-Series et al -- even this supposedly firmer damping would not be as earnest as the competitors' softest suspension setting. Normal bumps and creases pass under the Equus' wheels barely noticed; larger potholes that judder through other, more stiffly suspended cars offer precious little perturbance in the big Hyundai.

That's not to say the Hyundai's suspension, or its entire chassis even, is not sophisticated. While one could never label it sporty, neither could one honestly condemn it as floaty. Nor is it lacking in sophistication. Besides the adjustable damping, the suspenders are also controlled for height, the driver able to choose between two ground clearances. And the chassis itself feels enormously rigid with the iron-vault feeling of security so often attributed to Mercedes-Benz.

No, just because the Equus is not able to bend a corner as a 750i might doesn't mean it is lesser, only that Hyundai's focus is different from BMW's and, as I have mentioned earlier, most of the rest of the luxury segment.

Ditto the powertrain. Though powerful and quick (429 horsepower and just 5.6 seconds to 96 kilometres an hour), it is dominated by a sensation of buttery-like smoothness. Hyundai's 5.0-litre Tau V8 feels as creamy smooth as a previous-generation Jaguar V8, before the leaping feline discovered superchargers and (semi) straight-through exhausts.

That impression is only reinforced by the company's eight-speed transmission (yes, Hyundai has an eight-speed automatic when other, supposedly more advanced companies such as Acura and Infiniti, boast but five or six), which may be the smoothest-shifting autobox on the planet. It is neither the fastest shifting nor the first to kick down (having 376 pound-feet of torque means it doesn't really need to kick down all that often) when more gravitas is called for, but both upshifts and downshifts pass by largely unperceived.

Most of the updates to the 2014 Hyundai Equus, however, are in the cabin. Here, the previous model took its retro motif a chrome accent too far, the cabin looking dated stylistically and lacking the latest technology. The new-for-2014, on the other hand, may appear a little more dour (indeed, the decor looks something like a cross between a Mercedes and a top-line Acura), but it doesn't look old.

And the Equus hits all the requisite luxury sedan high-tech high points -- the gauge set is entirely Thin Film Transistor (TFT), there's a 9.2-inch LCD screen for the infotainment system and a Head-Up Display for speed, directions and warnings.

My favourite part is the steering wheel-mounted (first-generation) iPod-like thumbwheel to cycle through some of the dashboard's functions; it really is a doddle to use, although I think it's underutilized.

There are also all manner of safety electronics on board, including a lane departure warning system, backup camera, a rear cross-traffic alerting system and blind spot detection. That may not be as long a laundry list of safety nannies as the latest Mercedes-Benz, but the S-Class has become so festooned with electronics one can't help but wonder if the German engineers are simply developing make-work projects.

It is worth noting that, in a concession to North American tastes, Hyundai Canada has dropped the shiatsu-massaging, fully reclining airline-style right rear seat in the top-of-the-line Ultimate model. Virtually all North American luxury buyers choose to drive themselves (rather than being driven) and, according to Steve Kelleher, president and CEO of Hyundai Canada, there was precious little demand for the limousine-like seating.

More importantly, however, the interior's materials are top-notch. Oh, the leather isn't quite as good as an Audi A8's and the wood not quite as glossy as a Jaguar XJ's, but nobody is going to complain Hyundai cheaped out on the decor. Leather, wood and metal are all up to class standards. And by class, I mean the ºber-luxury segment -- where the competitors all cost tens of thousands of dollars more -- and not just the Acura RLX and Cadillac XTS segment, with which the Equus shares a price range ($64,799 for the base Signature model to $72,299 for the Ultimate).

Of course, despite its segment-matching quality and attractive price tag, the Equus is likely to remain a tough sell. Beyond its lack of pedigree, lack of all-wheel drive (only rear drive is available) and Hyundai Canada's reluctance to really push hard for sales, the Equus looks to occupy the space that the rest of the luxury segment has just left.

Right now, with momentum in the corner of those who see performance as the raison d'être of luxury sedans, that might not seem like the smartest plan. But if this march toward more performance proves to be more trend than evolution, Hyundai may be ideally situated to reap the rewards of producing a traditional luxury sedan.

Even now, if you're searching for a large, hedonistically luxurious four-door sedan that stresses comfort over comportment -- what used to be called a banker's car -- you could do far worse than parking an Equus in your driveway.

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013

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