Equus Is Steadily Winning New Believers In Hyundai Luxury

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38337_1_1Hyundai may be capacity-constrained and so not chomping up market share in the United States as it was a couple of years ago, but the company continues to be practically unsurpassed at doing interesting things.

Witness American CEO John Krafcik’s declaration at the Los Angeles Auto Show that Hyundai will leapfrog the plans of both Toyota and Honda and introduce a retail fuel-cell vehicle next year. There may only be a dozen hydrogen-filling stations in all of California at this point, greatly limiting the practicality of a consumer fuel-cell car, but Hyundai’s aim is to go hard and establish an unassailable foothold in fuel-cell technology as Toyota did over a decade ago with Prius to gain early dominance of the hybrid segment.

And while Hyundai has had doubters all along about its strategy to stretch its single brand across a lineup of vehicles that ranges from just $15,000 to as high as $69,000, there’s no doubting the credentials that it already has established at the high end with Genesis and Equus. Hyundai largely has managed to come through on its promise to field U.S. luxury cars that could stand up to high-end competition but do so on a more-affordable basis.

In fact, Equus just achieved the highest overall score and the best in the luxury segment in the annual Total Total Value Index compiled by Strategic Vision for the study’s 18th year. The research looked at nearly 46,000 new-car buyers for 2013 models between September 2012 and March 2013, and their ownership experiences, as well as customers’ views on their purchases.

Hyundai overall scored well, too, ranked as the leading brand for Total Value and getting special notice for Sonata, Genesis and Elantra in addition to Equus.

The 2014 Equus represents the ultimate truth-telling in what Krafcik has been saying for years, as he and his Korean bosses have pushed Hyundai into ever-pricier segments of the U.S. market: The brand will create new benchmarks with vehicles that provide competitive quality and appeal but at more-than-competitive prices.

Many reviewers have argued that Equus, with starting prices at around $61,000, comes very close to providing an equal match to competitors such as the Lexus Lexus LS460 that are priced at least $10,000 higher.

Spending a week in an Equus lends plenty of reasons to come to that conclusion. It’s not very distinctive in design, though it’s clearly a luxury sedan. But there are indications even before you’re in the car that Equus is something special. For example, its 16.7 cubic feet of trunk space is more than respectable, and when the trunk cavity is empty, it looks like it’ll take several big pieces of luggage and maybe a bag of golf clubs to come close to filling it up.

And once a driver is in the seat, Hyundai’s argument for this car unfolds convincingly. The power provided by its 5.0-liter, 429-horsepower V8 is superbly available and propels Equus forward with exquisite smoothness as it builds. Handling, too, is comparable to that provided by Lexus and other Japanese competitors.

And Hyundai has done a good job of appropriating touches that have worked for some of the luxury rivals it wants to emulate. Its seat-position controls high on the side doors of Equus for both front passengers are configured in a seat shape in which each individual button corresponds to the appropriate part of the seat, an innovation that has been led by Mercedes-Benz Mercedes-Benz.

Equus is no Volkswagen Phaeton when it comes to creature comforts. But some of what it provides is close to what VW briefly brought to American drivers several years ago in a car that could easily push a $100,000 pricetag. Take the rear seats of Equus, for instance.

In Korean business culture, the back seat is especially important because executives are often chauffered. So Hyundai has loaded up the back seat of the Equus Ultimate version with a dual-screen entertainment system and very comfortable heated, cooled and reclining outboard seats. By pressing a button in the rear, a passenger can collapse the front passenger seat, opening up huge legroom. There are powered sunshades. And infotainment controls in the rear armrest are equally capable with those up front.

Equus buyers no longer receive a free iPad as they did a couple of years ago when Hyundai was introducing the nameplate. But since its long-ago, pioneering promise of a 100,000-mile powertrain warranty on its cars, the brand has emphasized the importance of customer service, and that’s certainly the case with Equus. Buyers get three years or 36,000 miles of free maintenance, and owners don’t even have to go to the dealership: Hyundai will dispatch valets with a complimentary loaner to pick up and drop off the car.

Krafcik said a few years ago that the quality of the customer experience would be key for Hyundai to make its brand and cars credible to upwardly mobile luxury buyers with Genesis and Equus. And at least so far, Hyundai has counted that as a strength.

 

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