PALO ALTO, Calif. — The car I’m driving — or, more accurately, being driven around in — will, says John Vernile, vice-president, marketing, only account for one or two sales in Canada. Not one or two thousand. Not one or two trim levels. Not one or two model variants, but simply one or two.
What’s most surprising about that statement is that the automaker Vernile represents is not some European boutique firm such as Bugatti, Ferrari or even Bentley but Hyundai, the world’s fastest-growing automaker and purveyor of ubiquitous econoboxes such as the Accent and Elantra.
The Equus, the car in which I’m being chauffeured, however, is an entirely different matter. I suppose it could be considered a simple lineal continuation of the march upstream Hyundai announced with the 2008 introduction of the full-sized Genesis. But, truly, the new Equus is another giant leap forward in Hyundai’s evolution from its Mesozoic Pony era.
Where the Genesis was designed to go head to head with anything from the Lexus ES 350 to BMW’s previous-generation 5 Series, the Equus mandate is far more ambitious. Competitors listed in Vernile’s marketing presentation ranged from the top-of-the-line Lexus LS 460L to the segment-dominating S-Class Benz.
So radically different is the Equus that Hyundai has introduced Canada’s first complete concierge ownership program. Call a special hotline and Hyundai Canada will dispatch an Equus-trained salesperson to your home, office or golf club so you can test the new land yacht at your leisure.
Buy an Equus and all maintenance, scheduled or not, can be arranged by appointment, the dealer arranging pickup and the return of your vehicle and supplying a loaner Genesis or Equus while you wait.
In fact, says Vernile, you could buy and own an Equus for five years (the duration of the concierge program) without ever setting foot in a Hyundai dealership. Even reading the owner’s manual is a different experience with this new Hyundai product. Instead of the oft-overlooked booklet in the glovebox, every Equus customer is supplied with an Apple iPad with the manual already downloaded.
However, all that is not the reason Vernile says the particular Equus I’m riding around in will remain so rare. No, what will make this specific sedan so unique is that it’s meant to be a chauffeur-driven Hyundai. Yes, you read that right — a chauffeur-driven Hyundai.
That’s because this is the Ultimate Equus, of which Vernile says Hyundai will sell but one or two of the 100 Equuses he sees coming into Canada next year. And what makes the Ultimate, well, ultimate is the aircraft-style reclining right rear perch that tilts back like an airline first-class seat.
Toggle one simple button and it is a perfectly matched choreography: The front passenger seat moves forward to provide more seat room, while the rear tilts and extends so that eventually you are stretched as regally as a sub-Saharan potentate. The seat can either, depending on your needs, heat or cool your sorry behind and, as if this isn’t enough, there’s a massage function that would make an S-Class Benz proud.
Oh, and there’s a thermoelectric fridge back there to chill your favourite beverage, presumably champagne as Hyundai owners’ tastes evolve along with their cars.
Of course, you can order the Equus in its lesser trim, essentially the same car without the diva-ish rear pew. What one is then buying is a big luxury sedan about the size of a Lexus LS (though, it must be said, it’s quite a bit shorter than the L version of BMW’s 7 Series).
Motivation comes from the same 4.6-litre Tau V8 that powers the Genesis, though in Equus guise it gains 10 horsepower for a total of 385. Ditto the ZF six-speed automatic transmission. The only issue for the sophisticated double-overhead camshaft V8 is that the Equus is significantly heavier than the Genesis, weighing in at 2,018 to 2,082 kilograms, depending on the equipment levels. It blunts the Tau’s forward charge, mainly at low speeds with the 4.6L’s relative paucity of low-end torque — 333 pound-feet, compared with the 391 of the Mercedes S550 and the whopping 450 lb-ft of the turbocharged BMW 750Li.
The engine is otherwise quite a charmer, utterly smooth and with a very pleasant growl. Mat the throttle and though its 6.4-second zero-to-100-kilometres-an-hour acceleration time is about half a tick behind most of its competitors, it feels just as sophisticated as any of them. The engine revs to 6,000 r.p.m. without fuss and the ZF’s shifts are speedy yet uncannily smooth.
The same avoirdupois is the only affliction of the chassis. Unlike the Genesis, which disguises its size on twisty roads, the Equus feels like a large car. Through wide-open corners, the competent suspension keeps things in check, but on sporty, twisty roads — where, admittedly, few Equus owners are likely to venture — the Equus’s steering can be a little lethargic and numb, at least from the driver’s seat.
Back in that sumptuous right rear perch, the Equus remained remarkably calm over California’s sinewy La Honda Highway with my compatriot, Eric LeFrancois, trying his mightiest to wreak havoc. Laid back in the fully reclined position, I might as well have been ensconced in an airplane or even a video game; the road outside the front windshield seemed to twist to and fro with alarming rapidity, but I felt precious little of it. For those who like to be chauffeured with élan, the Ultimate Equus is a very plausible alternative.
Both the Signature and Ultimate come absolutely loaded with such amenities as a 13-channel, 608-watt Lexicon audio system with 17 speakers, 12-way-adjustable front seats (with a massaging feature for the driver), Alcantara leather trim, dual-zone climate control air conditioning and rear and rear side window power sunshades.
As for ambiance, think Lexus LS and you’ve pretty much captured the essence of the Equus. Though the Hyundai hasn’t copied even one of the 460’s features, the two cabins feel remarkably similar. Ditto the exterior, though the Hyundai’s more dramatic fender flares and character lines add a bit more personality.
It’s obvious Hyundai studied its Japanese counterpart more closely than its European competitors. Little wonder, says Vernile, since most of the Genesis’ conquests came from previous Lexus owners.
And, in perhaps the greatest homage to the Japanese luxury automaker, Hyundai has taken a further page out of Lexus’s history. Like the original LS 400, the new Hyundai seriously undercuts the competition. The base Signature is likely to cost in the mid-$60,000 range and the Ultimate around $72,000, significantly less expensive than the rest of the full-sized luxury segment by quite some margin.
Methinks Vernile won’t have much trouble selling those 100 units.
— Postmedia News