Jan. 13 (Bloomberg) -- It’s bonus time, that season when some trade in aging Audi A4s or tired BMW 3 Series for something bigger and more grandiose. Rather than snapping up an Audi or Jaguar executive sedan, why not consider a Hyundai instead?
That probably depends if you’re a label monster versus a designer agnostic. It’s fair to assume that if you like Tom Ford suits and Piaget timepieces, the Audi A8 or Jaguar XJ will be more to your liking. Yet if you’re the type of dealmaker who finds duds at T.J. Maxx, the new Hyundai Equus might call your name.
The Korean brand has been winning territory from companies like Toyota and General Motors in the small- and mid-size categories. But luxury-sedan wars are bloody. Nearly a decade ago Volkswagen tried with the $95,000 Phaeton W12. It was a quick, painful casualty -- swiftly repulsed back to its homeland.
The Hyundai Equus is a savvy steal. The well-stocked Signature model is $58,900 and the kitted-out Ultimate is $65,400. Notably, neither is offered with extra-cost options. The major difference is the Ultimate has a rear passenger seat which reclines and has an automatic leg rest. There’s even a personal refrigerator.
Compare that to starting prices for the new Jaguar XJ ($73,575) and the cheapest Mercedes-Benz S-Class ($91,875) -- no fridges there! -- and buyers almost have to give it a moment of consideration.
From the Equus’s Xenon headlights, which adapt to corners, to the 17-speaker stereo system (both standard on the base), it’s obvious that a team of cold-eyed technicians made a “must have” list, benchmarking elements needed to entice jaded buyers. Trust me, this sedan is no study in privation.
Unlike the Jag, the Equus isn’t art. It lacks the flow and design vigor, the engineering passion. Technicians can’t reproduce personality, nor a long design and engineering heritage.
The Equus is big and slablike, announcing itself more through solidity than any sense of grace. At 203.1 inches, it’s longer than the 202.2-inch A8 and the 201.7-inch XJ, though they’re also offered as long-wheelbase models.
Its generically handsome grill seems vaguely Germanic. In an attempt to assuage those label mongers, Hyundai offers a new badge on the front, two intertwined wings. While there is the stylized “H” on the rear, you won’t find “Hyundai” anywhere on the skin.
The process of catching up but not overtaking is echoed in the interior, which has neither the techno glitz of the A8 nor cocktail-lounge comfort of the new Jaguar XJ. The gauges on the instrument panel and controls for the nav system are a study in simplicity. Not super innovative, but it’s nice to forgo a 30-minute tutorial to turn on the stereo.
Too bad the leather on the dash is hard to the touch and bits of dull plastic peek-a-boo from the door panels. At least the front pillars are sheathed in Alcantara and the wood accents and metal bits are the real stuff.
The rear passenger seat on the Ultimate model is worth mentioning. The business-class seat has everything from a vanity mirror to its own radio controls. Impressive, though I wonder how much use it would get after the first few months.
The trunk is big and opens and closes automatically, one of those tell-tale details which separate luxury from the not-quite.
None of which makes it a contender unless the Equus drives like a powerful and stealthy titan and not an elongated economy car. Mostly, it does.
The 4.6-liter V-8 engine is good for 385 horsepower, the same amount of kick as the Jag. By the late part of the year, it will be offered with a larger-displacement engine and an eight-gear transmission, versus the six-gear currently employed.
Library-quiet most of the time, the Hyundai floats over asphalt on a pliant air-suspension system. Shifts are barely noticeable. Back-seat passengers who dislike sports-car antics will be big fans.
If the Equus doesn’t exactly cry out for high-speed abuse, the V-8 will awaken when the driver deems it necessary, especially when you’re at 50 mph and suddenly prefer to be going 80. Drop the gas pedal to the floor and you’ll hear the thrum of heavy machinery.
It does not dance around corners like a BMW 7 Series -- a car I’ve actually taken on the racetrack. Nor does it have the heritage of the Mercedes, a vehicle so assured of its station that it passes a sense of prestige to its owners.
Yet in many ways it stands up to the Lexus LS. After all, Hyundai is using the same model the Japanese employed to muscle into the luxury market decades ago.
Buy the Equus and you may not impress all your high-flying friends -- just the ones who appreciate the bottom line.
The 2011 Hyundai Equus Ultimate at a Glance
Engine: 4.6-liter V-8 with 385 horsepower and 333 pound- feet of torque.
Transmission: Six-speed ZF automatic.
Speed: 0 to 60 mph in about 6.8 seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 16 city; 24 highway.
Price as tested: $65,400.
Best feature: Those many features come standard.
Worst features: Bits of interior plastic; ho-hum exterior.
Target buyer: The contrarian dealmaker.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com or follow on Twitter @JasonHarperSpin.
To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org.