SAN FRANCISCO -- Hyundai's hulking Equus sedan, which thrusts the brand into $60,000 prestige-class territory this fall, is being measured against two previous leaps of faith in the luxury-car wars -- one a big winner and the other a loser.
So how does the lavishly equipped Equus stack up against those other gambles by volume brands -- Toyota's Lexus LS 400 in 1989 and Volkswagen's Phaeton experiment in 2003?
Favorably, by most accounts. Hyundai has modest volume goals for its big luxury sedan and a plan for getting around the brand's mass-market dealerships.
Also, there's less of a price gap between the Equus and Hyundai's Genesis (which is selling well) than there was between the Phaeton and the VW Passat or between the LS 400 and Toyota's top-of-the-line Cressida sedan back in 1989.
Hyundai's sedan is designed to go head to head against the Lexus, Mercedes and BMW flagship autobahn barges. Its 4.6-liter engine has the appropriate V-8 snarl, the ride is sumptuous, the steering in "sport" mode is precise, the interior controls have the proper soft-touch tactile response, and occupants are swaddled in a herd's worth of hides.
What it boils down to is whether a mass-market Korean brand and its dealers -- just a decade removed from selling low-quality econoboxes and on the brink of abandoning the U.S. market -- really merit consideration as a $60,000 purchase.
"The brand works against them, of course," said Jack Fitzgerald, a multiline dealer in Rockville, Md., who saw the Phaeton flop at his VW store and now will sell the Equus at his Hyundai outlet. "It hasn't become fashionable to drive a Hyundai yet, but it's getting there."
Still, some Hyundai insiders admit to nervousness, fearing it may be too much, too soon. Hyundai actively pursued the notion of opening a separate luxury channel for the car. Some within the U.S. sales arm fought Korea tooth-and-nail to keep the Equus out. Then again, there was a camp within Toyota that didn't want Lexus, either.