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January 13, 2014

Cargazing: Hyundai's full-size luxury car competes with world's best

Ten years ago, if you told me Hyundai would be selling a full-size luxury car to compete with the Mercedes S-Class, I’d call you crazy.

For one thing, Hyundai didn’t build anything even remotely Mercedes-like in 2004. The Korean company struggled to match Ford and Chevy products back then, much less a legendary, super-expensive German luxury car.

For another, I would have expected Hyundai to learn from one of the biggest flops in recent automotive history, the Volkswagen Phaeton. It was a similar S-Class fighter from a mass-market brand, and it resulted in embarrassingly low sales numbers in the United States — even though it’s one of the best luxury cars ever produced, in my opinion.

Despite the long odds, I find myself spending time this week in the 2014 Hyundai Equus, a spectacularly engineered luxury car that draws comparisons not only to the S-Class, but also the BMW 7-Series, Lexus LS and Jaguar XJ.

And unlike the disastrous Phaeton experiment, the Equus seems to be more of a sales success. 

Hyundai says the Equus is the top-shopped premium luxury sedan in the nation, well ahead of its exclusive competitors. Its $61,000 base price — thousands less than the competition — is surely a reason for that, but so is its long list of features that make you feel pampered like an 18th century French king.

I’m sure Versailles was a nice place to spend time. Don’t get me wrong. But it didn’t come with power-closing doors, a power trunk lid, adjustable air suspension, three-zone climate control, heads-up display, heated and cooled front and back seats and window shades that deploy at the touch of a button.

In other words, an Equus makes you feel like Louis XIV, with an entire opulent world right at your fingertips.

With the $7,000 Ultimate Package on my test car, even the back seat seems fit for a king. It includes two digital screens in the front headrests and a suite of buttons and knobs in the center armrest that let you control the navigation and entertainment systems while your driver wafts you from place to place. 

Everything about this car seems top-notch, from the soft materials and gorgeous stitching that make you feel like somebody special when you sit in the cabin, to the wild, thrilling sense of speed when you step on the gas pedal.

Power comes from a 5.0-liter V8 that makes 429 horsepower, enough to make this big, heavy car feel nimble when necessary.

And even better than that, the engine sounds spectacular. It’s the kind of car that warms your soul when you stomp on the gas pedal and hear that deep, rich exhaust note from the V8.

I see only two downsides to it. One, you can’t get it with all-wheel drive, so people who need or want that extra traction will have to look elsewhere. And two, I wish it were slightly quieter on the highway. It’s very quiet and smooth, but it doesn’t leave me in silent awe at 80 mph like the S-Class does. 

That said, the Equus is still one of the best, most opulent luxury cars I’ve ever driven — and that includes cars from Jaguar, Lexus and Mercedes that carried sticker prices well over $100,000.

The fact that Hyundai is playing at that level isn’t just remarkable. It’s almost miraculous.

Derek Price is an independent automotive columnist. Reach him at carcolumn@gmail.com.

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