The 2014 Hyundai Equus is the kind of flagship sedan some Lincoln dealers want in their showrooms.
BRADFORD WERNLE

As Lincoln dealers yearn, Hyundai's flagship rolls

Bradford Wernle covers Ford for Automotive News.
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Since the demise of the Town Car, Lincoln dealers have been pining for a big, flagship sedan with real presence, an automobile to evoke the great motorcars from Lincoln’s illustrious past: the Zephyr or the Continental.

Lincoln hints that such a car is in the works, but there’s no word when it might arrive. To many dealers who stuck with Lincoln through thick and mostly thin, the ongoing brand reinvention seems to be taking a long time. The largest current Lincoln, the MKS, is a warmed-over Taurus, and it’s very long in the tooth.

Last week, I test drove a car that would seem to fill that flagship bill nicely. It’s a rear-wheel-drive sedan with sumptuous business class accommodations in the front and rear seats, loaded with the latest technology.

Under the hood is a 5.0-liter, 429-hp V-8 combined with an eight-speed automatic transmission that powers the big machine effortlessly down the highway riding on an electronic air suspension that’s more compliant than sporty.

Inside, passengers waft along in vaultlike quiet, cosseted in plush, heated and air conditioned seats. There’s ample rear seat legroom, plenty to satisfy an American or Chinese customer. Each rear-seat passenger can watch videos on a 9.2-inch video monitor. Sound is delivered via a 17-speaker system.

When a colleague pulled up to the curb to pick me up, I thought for a moment he was driving a Mercedes-Benz S class. But no three-pointed star was evident -- only a pair of spread wings above a horizontal chrome grille that doesn’t look all that different from Lincoln’s own split-wing grille.

Nameplate, not brand

After a couple of walk-arounds, I noticed a small version of the Hyundai “H” logo on the trunk.

Oh yeah: Hyundai’s flagship Equus, the word Equus in large letters. Hyundai isn’t exactly trumpeting its own brand here. It’s nameplate first.

“I think it would make a great Lincoln,” says the owner of a large dealership group that has both Lincoln and Hyundai franchises. “It’s a great car. It’s got what people are looking for and all the latest bells and whistles. It’s great driving and very comfortable. It’s the perfect size. If it said Lincoln, it would be 25 percent more successful.”

The Equus version I drove, the 2014 Ultimate, was priced at $68,920 including shipping, a steal of a deal for a customer looking for Mercedes S-class or Lexus LS style and comfort at a comparatively bargain price.

Not perfect

Oh, the Equus is not perfect. The styling is a trifle generic, the interior very nice but a cut below the German class leaders. And the electronic lane departure warning chirped annoyingly every time I drifted even slightly out of the absolute center of the lane.

The dealer I spoke with said many of his customers really like the Equus, but balk at writing the word Hyundai and $68,000 on the same check.

In the One Ford world of today, Lincoln isn’t about to buy a sedan off the shelf from another carmaker anyway. When Lincoln delivers a flagship sedan, it will come straight out of Dearborn product development, which is only appropriate for an all-American brand.

Like other large luxury sedans, the Equus hasn’t exactly been flying out of showrooms, selling 1,203 units so far this year, up 12 percent from a year ago. The Equus suffers from the same kind of image problem the Volkswagen Phaeton did a few years ago.

As the dealer said: “Hyundai has the product but they don’t have the image, and Lincoln has the image but they don’t have the product.”

It’s a problem that might take both carmakers a while to sort out.

You can reach Bradford Wernle at bwernle@crain.com.

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