PALO ALTO, CA – Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd. is taking its formula for value-oriented luxury up another notch with the Equus sedan, based on an extended version of its Genesis luxury platform.

The big question in 2008 was whether U.S. consumers would pay as much as $40,000 for the Genesis. Skeptics doubted an auto maker best known in the U.S. for making economy cars could engineer a credible luxury offering.

The South Korean auto maker answered that question decisively. The Genesis was named North American Car of the Year following its U.S. debut; its Tau V-8 has been named one of Ward’s 10 Best Engines two years in a row; and Genesis sales have defied gravity during the worst recession in a generation.

What’s more, Hyundai officials initially predicted the take rate for the V-8-powered Genesis, with a base price of $38,000, would be 20%, with the majority of buyers opting for the $33,000 V-6. Instead, 40% of buyers pick the V-8. The average transaction price for a V-8 Genesis is $38,700, a Hyundai spokesman says.

Debuting at U.S. dealers in early November, the new Equus is expected to be priced between $50,000 and $60,000, and aims to challenge the flagships from Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz and Toyota Motor Corp.’s Lexus Div. costing almost twice as much.

Hyundai clearly wants to make a statement with the Equus: It plans to be the best full-line auto maker in the world.

Is the Equus up to the challenge? If the pricing forecast is accurate, then yes. The interior has similar volume and is superior in over-the-top opulence to a $97,000 Lexus LS 460L we tested, and it makes the inside of a $107,000 Mercedes S550 look drab.

From its rich Alcantara suede headliner, massaging seats and mind-bending entertainment system, the Equus interior takes a backseat to no one.

But like the Genesis, exterior styling appropriates design cues from other auto makers (such as Mercedes and Lexus) and blends them together. The combination produces an elegant car with a stately presence, but Hyundai gets no points for originality.

The Equus also gives up ground to Mercedes in chassis and vehicle dynamics. During a day of driving on the twisty roads around Silicon Valley and on the Pacific Coast Highway here, the big sedan handles like a much smaller car.

It’s easy to park and the electronically controlled air suspension keeps body roll in check during cornering and delivers a plush, controlled ride on the open road.

But the Equus can’t imitate the utterly nailed-down bank-vault feel of the Mercedes, especially when a driver delivers quick steering inputs at high speeds or on uneven pavement.

We did not get up to truly high speeds on our route in California, but Associate Editor Christie Schweinsberg drove the car on Hyundai’s high-speed oval near Seoul earlier this year.

’11 Hyundai Equus
Vehicle type Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 5-passenger sedan
Engine 4.6L DOHC all-aluminum V-8
Power (SAE net) 385 hp@6500 rpm
Torque 333 lb.-ft. (451 Nm) @ 3500 rpm
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 119.9 ins. (305 cm)
Overall length 203.1 ins. (516 cm)
Overall width 74.4 ins. (189 cm)
Overall height 58.7 ins. (149 cm)
Curb weight 4,449 lbs. (2018 kg)
Base price NA
Fuel economy 16/24 mpg (14.7-9.8 L/100 km)
Competition Mercedes S550, Lexus LS 460L, Audi A8 L, BMW 750Li
Pros Cons
Stunning interior No auto emergency braking
Modest price No 8-speed gearbox – yet
Superb V-8 No direct injection – yet

She found it perfectly composed at 120 mph (193 km/h). Even so, the Equus does not feel ready to go toe-to-toe with the S-Class on the Autobahn just yet.

The Lexus LS 460 also tops the Equus in its ability to deliver tomb-like isolation from road, wind and suspension noise.

Hyundai engineers made extensive use of sound-deadening materials, and the Equus body shell is very stiff and light, composed of 75% advanced high-strength steels.

But it’s doubtful the driver or passengers will notice any extraneous noise when the 608-watt Lexicon 17-speaker surround-sound audio system is on.

It is the audio equivalent of watching “Avatar” in 3D, with sounds and instruments tickling the ears and popping from nooks and crannies in the cabin, as if speakers are everywhere.

On the powertrain front, the Equus picks up the same superlative 4.6L Tau V-8 and 6-speed automatic transmission in the current Genesis.

The Tau outclasses most potential competitors with the exception of BMW AG’s high-priced turbocharged 4.4L V-8, which produces 117 lb.-ft. (159 Nm) more torque and 15 more horsepower.

The Mercedes’ S-Class 5.5L V-8 produces 58 lb.-ft. (79 Nm) more torque than the Tau and has a wonderfully throaty exhaust note. But with its large displacement and high consumption of 14/21 mpg (16.8-11.2 L/100 km) city/highway, the Stuttgart V-8 is starting to show its age.

And while the Equus’ 6-speed gearbox is extremely smooth, it is a little behind the technology curve. The S550 features a 7-speed automatic and the Lexus an 8-speed.

Hyundai is expected to answer these powertrain criticisms soon, perhaps as early as spring, with a higher-displacement 5.0L direct-injection version of the Tau that will up output to 429 hp, from 385 hp. Torque will increase to 376 lb.-ft. (510 Nm), up from 333 lb.-ft. (451 Nm).

The Equus also does not have some high-end safety features, such as the automatic emergency braking of the Mercedes, blind-spot detection and a few others.

But all these quibbles about horsepower, gearboxes and features almost seem irrelevant considering the Equus is going to debut with a price tag around $55,000, far below the $90,000-plus sticker prices of its closest rivals.

Hyundai is looking for the same type of value-driven, wealthy pragmatists who bought Lexus models in 1989 to be drawn to the Equus.

It likely will get them. With a modest sales goal of 2,000 to 3,000 units annually, the auto maker easily should claim success a year from now. Mercedes and Lexus each sold about 11,000 units of their respective S-Class and LS sedans in 2009, the worst sales year in decades.

The second-generation Equus is a world-class flagship worthy of an emerging premium-car producer. At Hyundai’s current rate of improvement, the next-generation Equus after the one now launching should have the rest of the world’s auto makers hiding under their desks.

dwinter@wardsauto.com