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King-size sedans: Audi A8, Mercedes S400, Hyundai Equus, Jaguar XJ

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  November 10, 2011 04:40 PM

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Yes, there are times when the car guy doesn't want to get behind the wheel.

Immediately after the Bruins clinched the Stanley Cup, with a thousand chest-beating fans crowding the streets, I killed the urge to take our Porsche cabriolet downtown. Or last week, during that freakish first snowfall, I was positively hating my drive through Vermont’s desolate pitch-black roads, even in the heated confines of the new Range Rover Evoque.

But the worst has to be when I’m driving a full-size, 17-foot-long luxury sedan and never get to enjoy the back seat. It’s not that I’d rather watch a James Bond flick — any large family car can cough up a video screen — but I long to sink into the blissful, almost shameful, pampering of these big four-doors. Personal thermostats, power window shades, massagers, and a good half-acre of legroom make calling “shotgun” a fool’s wager in a Mercedes S-Class.

Still, getting behind the wheel of the Jaguar XJL, Audi A8, Mercedes S400 Hybrid, and Hyundai Equus Ultimate hasn’t been half bad. Our goal was to determine which car is the best executive express for the lucky rider in the back, and which earns highest honors for the actual driving experience? Tough assignment. Here they are from good to best.

[Ed. note: We haven't driven the BMW 7 Series or the Lexus LS in two years, so they're not included in this review]

4. Hyundai Equus Ultimate

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(Photos except backseat, Clifford Atiyeh: Hyundai) Click photos for larger versions.

What, exactly, is a Hyundai doing in these parts? Mercedes asked a similar question 22 years ago when Toyota launched the first Lexus LS400, a Japanese salvo directed at the flagship S-Class. Contemporary styling, premium equipment, and excellent build quality were all delivered for thousands less. Today, Lexus is one of the top-selling luxury brands in America. Hyundai wants to repeat that in 2011 — badly.

For $66,650 fully loaded, the Hyundai Equus Ultimate packs a whole lot; so much, in fact, that the $92,000 Mercedes needs another $13,000 in options to catch up. Blind spot warning, lane departure control, heated and cooled seats all around — you get the picture. But unlike any of the cars here, this Equus is configured only for four.

Or rather, for one very special person in the right rear seat, which reclines with leg extensions like a La-Z-Boy and crumples the front passenger seat into a big footrest. Is the driver trying to make it warmer or change the radio station? Ha! It’s all easily overridden by the all-in-one entertainment remote, armrest, and drink cooler that occupies the middle position.

2011-Hyundai-Equus-dash.jpg2011-Hyundai-Equus-interior.jpg

The Equus is an impressive gamble. Cadillac has been talking forever about building a luxury flagship to rival the S-Class, but Hyundai’s beat them to it by a long shot. There’s a stout 385 horsepower, 6-speed automatic, and an adjustable air suspension that does a pretty good job of hustling and gliding (for 2012, the Equus gets an 8-speed automatic and an upgraded 5.0-liter V-8 that puts out 429 horsepower).

The interior materials are plush, the seats quite supportive, and the controls very simple to use. Hyundai even offers online scheduled maintenance, whereby an approved Hyundai dealer will pick up your car, drop off a Genesis loaner, and bring it back without you ever setting foot in the dealership.

But it’s not all perfect. The Equus has the weirdest, most disconcerted steering on the market. As you enter a curve, the steering feels reassuringly heavy, then it loosens without warning, bobbles a bit, and gets heavy again as you point straight. It’s alarming in a car this large, plus there’s the usual Hyundai bump-steer, in which the wheel kicks back when traveling over a rut. For a luxury car, it’s also loud at highway speeds, and the low-grip tires? Let’s not get started on those.

On our car, there were wide panel gaps between the trunk lid and side pillars, and the plastics are dressed too casually. Worst of all, the car comes across as a big chunk of whatchamacallit. It’s nice enough, but there’s no brand cachet, nothing tugging at your heartstrings to buy it.

3. Audi A8

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(Photos except dashboard, Audi: Clifford Atiyeh/Globe Staff) Click photos for larger versions.

Before Tom Brady got into a front-page car accident last year, the Audi A8 had been rather invisible against its BMW and Mercedes rivals. Brady had been driving the top-end S8, on loan from Audi, before the car’s nose was ripped off by a minivan running a red light. Immediately after, Audi gave Brady a brand-new A8. The flood of media references to the quarterback’s car couldn’t have been timed better for Audi, which had just shipped the first 2011 models to dealers.

While the new A8 continues Audi’s conservative body styling, what saves it from Hyundai’s anonymity is a killer grill, laced top-to-bottom in chrome, and $1,600 LED headlamps so bright the blind could see them. What looks like a glowing drape of pearls is actually 10 individual low-beam lamps blended with curving LED turn signals. You’ll recognize the A8 immediately in your rearview, a tough feat for any automaker these days.

Among our foursome, the A8 is the slickest character in the garage. It’s the only one with all-wheel-drive, which makes takeoffs and hard corners a breeze (Mercedes 4Matic is standard on the S550, but not available on our hybrid). Its 372-horsepower V-8 is nearly imperceptible, even under strain, as are the silky shifts on the 8-speed automatic.

Throttle tip-in is perfect and the brakes bite hard, slowing the car with little dive. More kudos go to the adjustable steering weighting, which can be preset from feather light to highway tight. Ride quality from the air suspension was adequate but slightly noisy at higher speeds given the car’s 20-inch wheels.

2011-Audi-A8-interior.jpg2011-Audi-A8-Cliff-rear.jpg

Jack, a six-year-old Golden Retriever dressed as a pumpkin for Halloween, was the Audi's sole passenger.

The way Audi wraps leather, Alcantara, and warm woods around the A8’s considerable electronics is most impressive. A touchpad can read handwriting, perfect for looking up a phone contact or doing a Google destination search in the navigation display, which slides behind an aluminum cover when not in use. As distracting as that sounds, it’s much safer than punching letters into a touchscreen or scrolling through long lists of information. With real-time traffic overlaid on a 3D topographic map, there’s no question this is the most useful and best-designed infotainment system out there.

The backseat in our $89,275 car was nothing special, but that’s because we weren’t driving the longer A8 L with its five-inch extended wheelbase. But even then, it’s nothing special until you spec it to 100 grand. At that price, you get all the amazing comforts of the Hyundai, including the power foot rest. But at that price, the A8 isn’t hot enough to sit on the curbside. If the A8’s driving experience and technology have you bowled over, you can find it all in the smaller 2012 A6. Or, better yet, save your cash for one of the next cars in our test.

2. Jaguar XJL

2011-Jaguar-XJL.jpg

(Photos: Jaguar) Click photos for larger versions.

Short of a Bentley, there’s no car more stunning inside and out than the Jaguar XJ. The trim, all-aluminum body is cut like a 5.62-mm bullet dipped in gun oil. There’s no leaping cat on the hood, but the look is haughtily English right down to the cross-hatch grill. It’s long, slender, and builds speed at such a rate that not even the digital instrument panel seems to keep up.

Thanks to the aluminum, the XJ is the lightest car here (at 4,131 pounds, it undercuts the aluminum A8 by at least two teenage boys) and is the easiest to toss into a corner. You find yourself doing naughty things in the Jaguar XJL because everything— the steering, tires, suspension, and the bellowing, jumpy V-8—is egging you on. Picture Shaquille O’Neal nailing the solo from Swan Lake and you’ve got a good idea of how fast and delicate this big Jag operates.

Unless you’re as tall as Shaq, the XJL’s sloping roof won’t be a bother, although headroom is noticeably less than in the other cars. Jaguar’s interior detailing, however, is unmatched. Our car had orangey-tan leather seats against a dark blue leather dash, console, and steering wheel. A 180-degree sweep of ebony wood, contrasting piping on both the seats and floor mats, light blue accent lighting, and velvety Alcantara on the roof make the XJ a rolling jewel box. Only the noisy plastic buttons and shifter paddles on the steering wheel mar the artisanship on display.

2011-Jaguar-XJL-interior-front.jpg2011-Jaguar-XJL-interior.jpg

In back, the smell of deep-pile carpets and the gloss of Jaguar’s signature wood tray tables could ignite a class war. I vacationed in my driveway for a half-hour, enjoying our car’s 1,200-watt Bowers and Wilkins stereo, four-zone climate control, and heated and cooled rear seats. Optional, reclining massaging seats with winged headrests are only available on the XJL Supersport.

What’s not elegant in this Jag is the all-digital instrument panel, which mimics three analog gauges across a wide, full-color LCD. It might be nifty, say, if the navigation map could replace one of the gauges, or if a telephone contact list could appear when needed, reducing the need to glance off to the main touchscreen. But aside from the “gauges” turning red when the 6-speed transmission is set to sport mode, all we’ve got is a boring piece of unfinished software.

Beautiful, unique, and rare, the XJL is a standout choice among luxury sedans. But there’s one sedan it’s not going to topple just yet.

1. Mercedes-Benz S-Class

2012-Mercedes-S400-Hybrid.jpg

(Photos: Mercedes-Benz) Click photos for larger versions.

This S-Class, introduced in 2007, is the oldest car tested. It’s also brilliant at catering to every demand, from the frugal-sipping S350 BlueTEC diesel to the $214,000 S65 AMG with 621 horsepower. Six, eight, or 12 cylinders? Rear or all-wheel-drive? Racing car theatrics or Wall Street refinement? As far as variety and indulgence go, an S-Class is the best off-the-rack luxury sedan in the world.

This year marks the introduction of two new engines, a diesel 3.0-liter V-6 capable of 31 mpg on the highway, and a 3.5-liter V-6 hybrid with lithium-ion batteries. We tested the diesel on a brief city drive, and the hybrid on a weekend trip to UMass-Amherst. Despite the premiums that diesel and hybrid powertrains command, Mercedes is selling these two for a few thousand less than the V-8 S550. At nearly $100,000 tested, our S400 hybrid was no deal, and the refrigerator and four-passenger seating options aren’t available in the US, no matter the price.

2012-Mercedes-S400-Hybrid-interior.jpg2012-Mercedes-S400-Hybrid-interior-rear.jpg

The S400 is only the second Mercedes hybrid since the discontinued, limited production ML450 hybrid SUV, and the development gap shows in the brakes. An artificial, inconsistent pedal feel emerges as the car switches from electric regeneration to conventional discs. This is very unlike Mercedes, which clearly has a lot to learn about hybrids.

Apart from the brake issues and a lack of midrange thrust, the S400 is the right-sized engine for drivers who cruise the city and suburbs at low speeds. The diesel S350 fills in the hybrid’s missing torque, but also suffers from some turbo lag when switching to the passing lane. The best choice, then, is the new S550 with its twin-turbo V-8. There’s more torque (a massive 516 lb.-ft.) than the diesel, and highway fuel economy matches the hybrid (25 mpg).

But presence, not power, is the true reason for buying an S-Class. As you move through traffic, the star hood emblem stays in constant sight, a gentle, everyday reminder of self-worth. All it made me do was pray for a higher-paying job.

The S-Class is also the most effortless car to drive, with decent steering feedback and an air suspension that rides like a $4,000 Tempur-Pedic mattress — soft and enveloping, yet supportive and stable at the same time. The double-paned windows silence every annoying outside noise, and the interior, while a bit austere, is in the business of keeping you in utter comfort.

No other car refreshes the body like an S-Class, and nothing else feels as tank-solid and powerful. I think I’ll sit up front for this one.

As-tested fuel economy is as follows: Jaguar, 19 mpg; Hyundai, 16 mpg; Mercedes, 24 mpg; Audi, 16 mpg.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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