Sure, Hyundai and its little brother Kia have had a couple of great years, selling economical little cars with a generous warranty, but is anyone really ready to pay more than $50,000 for a high-end Hyundai?
Hyundai thinks so, and is busily readying its September launch of the Equus -- Latin for "horse" -- a limited-edition luxury sports sedan that the company says is aimed at male drivers in their mid-50s who have household incomes between $100,000 and $125,000.
"They are people that can afford to spend more but don't see the need to," said Chris Perry, marketing chief for Hyundai North America in an Automotive News story about the new model -- guys who could buy a Porsche but don't want to be ostentatious, in other words. Oh, and also guys who don't feel the necessity of having a car that will go 150 miles per hour.
It might sound unrealistic but Hyundai had very good luck with its Genesis luxury sedan two years ago and it's not hard to find Hyundai customers who've had a good experience with the mid-range Sonata and might be good prospects to move up a notch or two.
"I'd buy another Hyundai in a heartbeat," said a Washington, D.C. motorist we spotted. He was driving a six-year-old Hyundai Sonata that had more than 90,000 miles on the clock and, other than a bashed-in rear bumper courtesy of an inattentive truck driver, he reported no problems of any kind despite years of daily stop-and-go commuting through the massively congested Northern Virginia-D.C. corridor.
Hyundai is certainly not without its detractors, though. Frank of Wesley Chapel, Fla., sold his BMW 7-series sedan in late 2009 and bought a Genesis, then Hyundai's top-of-the-line model.
His judgment? "Nothing short of a nightmare," he said in his complaint to ConsumerAffairs.com, which chronicled a lengthy series of problems beginning with the radio and ending with major engine problems.
Hyundai is working to make the car appeal to what marketers call "early adopters." Among other little touches, its owners manual will be an interactive, courtesy of a full-featured iPad that comes with the car. Besides reading up on all the car's features, owners will be able to use the iPad to schedule service visits and do all the other stuff you can do with an iPad.
Sounding like an Infiniti executive a decade or two ago, Hyundai Motor America CEO John Krafcik says the launch of the Equus "has driven us to create an innovative customer experience designed to save our customers time ... We'll use what we learn from Equus to upgrade the customer experience for all Hyundai owners."
Sales expectations for the Equus are modest. The company says it expects to sell about 2,000 per year, compared with the 12,900 Genesis models it sold in the first six months of this year. The Genesis is more moderately priced at $33,800 and was launched in part to raise the perception of Hyundai in the United States.
Krafcik has told automotive writers that the company is aiming the Equus at consumers who might otherwise buy a Merecedes S-class, BMW 7-series or a Lexus LS. It's not hard to go north of $70,000 for any of those cars, so in that sense Hyundai is continuing to offer a big price break.
But while it may be priced right, the Equus bears little resemblance to the more modest Hyundai econoboxes that have become a familiar sight on U.S. streets and highways. The big, four-door, rear-drive sedan is powered by a 4.6-liter Lambda V-8 mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. It might seem odd to be introducing a gas-hog V-8 in a year when most manufacturers are going the other way but Hyundai has a long contrarian history, so it may just pull it off.