>2013 Mercedes-Benz FWD

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2013 Mercedes-Benz FWD

Mercedes lovers wince when the conversation turns to the tallish, compact A- and B-class cars that litter European cities. They are a far cry from anything the brand stood for in the past, and frumpy looking to boot. Mercedes is setting out to change that with a new family of front-drive vehicles that will be far more stylish and powerful than the current A and B.

Whaddup, Shorty?

The primary difference between the current and upcoming vehicles is that the next-gen cars will sit much lower. The controversial stance of today’s little Benzes comes from the “sandwich floor” design, a leftover from their initial development as electric cars. The batteries were to sit beneath the floor, but when the EV project was scrapped, the lofty height forced by the design remained.

The A-class will remain the backbone of the family. It will likely be complemented by a two-door coupe, which should be low and sleek—very much unlike the three-door “coupe” version of the current A-class, which was prematurely killed a few months ago. Of the bunch, the B-class will be closest in concept to the current model, remaining a compact minivan. And the Continental’s October 8 educated guess has been confirmed: The A- and B-class will be complemented by a crossover and a conventionally styled four-door sedan.

It is rumored that the tough-looking crossover will go by the name GLC (remember the Mazda of the same name?), and the four-door model could be called CLC. The latter name is currently used by a Europe-only hatchback Mercedes, which is based on the last-gen C-class and won’t survive much longer. The four-door will supposedly evoke the CLS, but we’ll have to see whether the styling team under Gorden Wagener gets the proportions right. There are easier tasks than designing a truly sporty-looking, front-wheel-drive compact sedan.

2013 Mercedes-Benz GLC-class (artist’s rendering)
AMG Power a Possibility

Front-wheel drive will be standard throughout the compact lineup, and all-wheel drive will be an option. Power will come from turbocharged three- and four-cylinder engines, with transmission options being a series of traditional manuals or a seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual. If new AMG head Ola Källenius and his team get their hands on the A-class coupe or the CLC, power ratings approaching 300 hp are entirely possible.

Ironically, Mercedes is ditching the previous two generations’ sandwich concept just at the moment electric cars are becoming fashionable and perhaps even feasible. But the new, lower platform will do miracles for the looks and the handling of these cars. If the U.S. market matures to appreciate the fuel-efficient, compact premium cars that dominate cities in Europe and Asia, Mercedes might actually bring them here. That’s a big “if,” but our aggressive fuel-economy legislation will push us in that direction. And if the next small Mercedes-Benzes look like those shown here, that’s a nudge we’d be happy to receive.

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>BMW, BMW Alpina B6 GT3 Race

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BMW, BMW Alpina B6 GT3 Race

Based on the last-gen BMW 7-series, the 500-hp B7 supersedan was the last product available in the U.S. from tuner/carmaker/BMW specialists Alpina. A B7 building upon the all-new 2009 7-series is on its way—it debuts at this year’s Geneva show—but Alpina hasn’t yet confirmed that it will make it stateside. That’s the bad news.

The good news? If you’re an American and absolutely have to have a new Alpina—and happen to own a racing team—the company confirms to us that its 6-series-based B6 GT3 race car, which is also making its first public showing in Geneva, is available for any U.S. racing team interested in campaigning the car. Alpina also says the B6 GT3 will be made available to collectors and other clients of the company.

The B6 GT3 marks Alpina’s official return to racing following a 20-year hiatus and is intended to compete in the FIA European GT3 championship, where the company will field two factory cars against models from Ferrari, Aston Martin, Lamborghini, and Porsche, among others. The Alpina factory drivers have yet to be announced.

The B6 GT3 is motivated by a 530-hp, 4.4-liter supercharged V-8 with 535 lb-ft of torque and a six-speed Xtrac sequential gearbox. Weight is less than 3000 pounds, and Alpina says the racer can jet to 62 mph from a standstill in 3.9 seconds. Top speed—notated as occurring on the Nürburgring Nordschleife—is a claimed 177 mph.

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>Hyundai, GReddy X-Gen Street Hyundai Genesis Coupe

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Hyundai, GReddy X-Gen Street Hyundai Genesis Coupe

The annual SEMA show will soon be upon us, and Hyundai’s once again flaunting the aftermarket potential of the Genesis coupe. The GReddy X-Gen Street Genesis coupe will showcase a range of performance upgrades that customers can buy for their Hyundai.

GReddy started with a 2.0-liter turbo Genesis and added a bigger turbo, a new front-mount intercooler, and a low-restriction exhaust. The goal was to bump the stock car’s 210-hp output to 350 hp; GReddy says 500 horses may be possible in the future. Thankfully, bigger brakes—six-piston calipers front, four-piston rear—also feature in the upgrade package. We could probably do without the stiffer coil-over suspension, as we’ve found all Genesis coupes (especially those with the Track Pack) to be plenty firm.

No SEMA show car is complete without visual tweaks, so the Genesis wears a carbon-fiber hood, a large rear spoiler, a gaping front fascia, and Volk wheels wrapped in Toyo tires. Sparco race seats, a turbo timer, and a collection of auxiliary gauges adorn the car’s interior.

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>2012 Scion FR-S, Toyota FT-86, Subaru RWD Sports Car

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2012 Scion FR-S, Toyota FT-86, Subaru RWD Sports Car

Toyota is such a tease. Way back in the fall of 2009, it showed a swoopy yet angry-looking rear-drive, two-door sports-car concept called the FT-86. Although we weren’t big on its looks, we were excited by the thought of a north/south powertrain once again gracing a Toyota coupe—and surprised that Toyota was working on the car with Subaru, which will get its own version. Then, at Geneva this year, we saw a slightly redesigned version with a bigger maw accented by LEDs, appropriately called the FT-86 II concept. Our mouths watered, and at the New York show we learned that the car would arrive in the U.S. as a Scion, which was previewed by the FR-S concept. But, based on these shots from our spy photographers, it seems that the FT-86/FR-S will lose much of its visual snap in production.

We can see that grille outline and greenhouse carry over from the FR-S concept, as does the basic headlight shape, although the latter is tamer here. The remainder of that voluptuous red body we saw in New York appears to be gone, including the bulging front wheel arches and the hockey-stick lower bodyline that kicked up hard to form the rear shoulders. The aggressive triangular front air intakes are filled in with fog- and marker lights, and, of course, the wicked rear diffuser has been defused, replaced by a plain valance cut to house a pair of cannon-sized exhaust finishers. The overall appearance has been diluted from acidic to neutral, fitting the Toyota theme. (Unless Toyota’s biggest surprise will be wildly different sheetmetal on the U.S.-market Scion version.)

Hopefully, the powertrain won’t be neutered like the styling looks to be. Hooked to a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters will be the newest version of Subaru’s naturally-aspirated 2.0-liter flat-four engine. We’re expecting it to be good for about 200 hp thanks to Toyota’s port-and-direct-injection system, and a turbocharger should emerge sometime later on a hotter model.

Pricing for the rear-drive Scion is just as secret as the final shape of the prototype seen here, but Scion spokespeople have said the car will arrive for less than $30,000. The current front-drive tC starts at about $19K and the rear-drive Hyundai Genesis Coupe starts just over $23K. We’re expecting this Scion to slot in right around the Genesis, fueling a Korean/Japanese showdown. That is, of course, assuming Toyota is through toying with us.

Update: As it turns out, we’re still being toyed with: We’ve just caught the Scion/Subaru/Toyota sports car wearing an aggressive body kit and giant spoiler. It certainly amps up the visual aggression to levels near what we expected, and it reminds us of the Action Package offered on the last Toyota Celica. Whether it will just be all show and no go like the Celica option, or if this is actually a hotter version of the trio, remains a secret. At first glance, it appears the new bits are bolted to the previously photographed mule, as the be-winged car is wearing the same license plate as the plainer variant, but it may simply be a transferable manufacturer placard. Let the games continue.

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>Scion FR-S Concept

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Scion FR-S Concept

Whether you call it the Subelica or the Celibaru, Toyota’s version of the new rear-drive 2+2 sports coupe being co-developed with Subaru and codenamed the FT-86 will land in the U.S. as a Scion.

Blazing red, with a gaping maw and atomic-insect headlights, the two-door Scion FR-S (which means Front-engine, Rear-wheel-drive, Sport—woo, clever!) may represent a sort of defibrillator to the chest of Toyota’s youth division, where sales remain lackluster since the 2007 redesign of the xB and 2008 introduction of the xD. The tC was re-skinned this year, but looks starkly similar to the outgoing car. Also coming to Scion showrooms in July is a three-door mini-car called the iQ.

Just a clay model with no interior right now, the FR-S is currently slated to arrive in Scion showrooms in mid-2011, although the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan have thrown Toyota’s product timing into chaos. As Scion is strictly a North American brand, a Toyota-badged version will launch simultaneously in Europe and Asia. Expect that car and the production Subaru version to show up at this fall’s Tokyo show.

DI for the Flat-Four

With a length of 168.2 inches and a wheelbase of 101.2 inches, the FR-S is one to two inches shorter in both measurements than the last-generation Celica. Its 2.0-liter naturally aspirated flat-four engine—sourced from Subaru—uses Toyota’s D4-S fuel-injection system, which features both port- and direct injection and switches between them to optimize efficiency.

Horsepower figures were not quoted, but with direct injection in the mix to help boost specific output, the engine should be good for at least 200 hp. Toyota says the mounting of the flat-four low and behind the front axle will keep the center of gravity down and centered for better handling. It also helps front-to-rear weight distribution.

Buyers will have a choice of a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters. A limited-slip differential will be standard. It’s hard to say how much of the FR-S is real (the roof, doors, hood, and trunk are probably production-spec) and how much is auto-show glam. The staggered-width wheels by Five Axis—20 x 8.5-inchers in front and 20 x 10.5 in rear—are certainly show-stand parts that won’t make it to production. The exaggerated rear undertray with dual exhaust “exits”—read: one exhaust, two tailpipes—also may be extra makeup for the show.

The arrival of the FT-86 as a Scion surprised some (especially if they had been under a rock for the last week), but division vice president and general manager Jack Hollis says the car was slated to be a Scion early in its development. It definitely represents a commitment by Toyota to the floundering brand.

The production FR-S will have narrow fenders, but likely will be similar in overall styling to this concept. According to Hollis, the car has undergone a styling makeover since Toyota president Akio Toyoda declared last year that the company’s styling is too staid, and that it should be more passionate. An FT-86 concept shown at the 2009 Tokyo auto show had more slab-like sides and a less-aggressive face. Also, the FR-S’s rear end draws strongly from the Lexus LF-A supercar, a characteristic not on the original FT-86 show car.

Hunting Hyundai and Ford

The Scion tC starts at $18,995, and Hollis tells us that the FR-S will definitely launch above that car but below $30,000, depending on how Scion equips it at launch. Scion’s pattern has been to load its cars up with standard features, and Hollis says the FR-S will arrive as a single trim level with lots of included goodies. A sunroof won’t be one of them, though, as the car wasn’t designed to have one. The pricing and drivetrain layout will put it in direct competition with the Hyundai Genesis coupe (base price: $23,100) and domestic competitors such as the V-6–powered Ford Mustang ($22,995).

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>2012-2013 Toyota FT-86, Subaru 0846 Sports Coupe

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2012-2013 Toyota FT-86, Subaru 0846 Sports Coupe

Sports-car loving Toyota president and CEO Akio Toyoda is committed to producing a Lexus LFA for the masses—or at least some kind of affordable rear-drive sports car—possibly as early as late next year. That is, if the horribly chopped and bobbed Subaru we caught scaring small children in the desert ever fulfills its production destiny, eventually becoming the $20,000–$30,000 Toyota FT-86 rear-drive sports coupe.

As has been previously reported, the rear-drive FT-86 is a joint development project between Subaru and Toyota, which purchased GM’s nine-percent share of Fuji Heavy Industries (Subaru’s parent company) in 2005 and then upped its holding to 16 percent in 2008. Toyota unveiled the Subaru-powered 2+2 FT-86 coupe concept at the 2009 Tokyo auto show, but since then there’s been nothing concrete to discuss as engineers have gone to work doing their engineering thing.

With tape covering its hood scoop and upper grille, this two-door mule seems to be testing cooling and cockpit airflow setups for the bottom-breathing sports car, which should be available with both Toyota and Subaru badges and could also feature optional all-wheel drive. The base FT-86 likely will use a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter version of the next-generation, direct-injection flat-four Subaru will unveil later this year, with a turbocharged variant likely coming online later. (This may be a mule for the turbo car, as what appears to be an intercooler sits behind the lower front fascia.) Track width seems comparable to the current production Impreza’s, implying that other Subaru components—such as the rear-suspension subassembly and differential/half-shafts—will almost certainly get used in the FT-86. Nothing in Toyota’s primarily front-drive stable is suitable for adaptation to a small, sporty coupe, and tooling up a new floorpan and suspension would be too expensive for the lower sales volumes the coupe is likely to generate.

Meanwhile, if Toyota fears anything besides American personal injury lawyers, it’s Hyundai. The Korean automaker has been working feverishly to enhance its standing among younger enthusiast buyers by bringing out the rear-drive Genesis coupe and preparing the cheaper, front-wheel-drive Veloster coupe. These cars are aimed directly at the type of buyers that Toyota, back in its can’t-go-wrong heyday in the mid-1980s, owned with the Supra and Celica.

Aside from the recently revamped Scion tC, the $59,885 Lexus IS F, and the $375,000 Lexus LFA, Toyota’s cupboard is embarrassingly bare for buyers who actually like driving. Now that Toyota has quit wasting millions on Formula 1, there should be some money in the kitty for reaching enthusiast buyers with actual affordable product. If Akio Toyoda has any pull in the company—he should, he’s the grandson of company founder Kiichiro Toyoda and the driving force behind both the IS F and LFA—things are about to change. (Hopefully soon—we’re getting a little bored of waiting for this car.)

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>2012 Toyota FT86, Subaru 0846

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2012 Toyota FT86, Subaru 0846
Toyota and Subaru are collaborating on a shared four-cylinder sports car that will be sold in two versions, beginning near the end of 2011. Largely engineered by Subaru, the cars will get a rear-drive platform consisting of a steel structure with aluminum body panels. A small, 2.0-liter flat-four engine made by Subaru will sit low behind the front-axle line. Toyota previewed its FT86 concept at last year’s Tokyo auto show; Subaru has yet to show its cards.

Neither automaker has released official names, but it is rumored that Toyota may revive “Celica,” which has been on hiatus since 2003. “FT” means “future Toyota,” and the “86” serves as a reminder of the rear-drive AE86 Corolla of the 1980s that has achieved cult status among drifters. Designed at Toyota’s European studio in the south of France, the FT86 concept’s shape is expected to enter production unchanged.

Toyota’s boss, part-time racer Akio Toyoda, recognizes that the brand lacks emotional appeal and doesn’t offer gobs of driving pleasure, so the company hopes the new car will inject some fun into the lineup. For Subaru, the new vehicle brings a dedicated rear-drive sports car to the company’s stable of all-wheel-drive hatchbacks, wagons, and sedans. But Subaru has built its reputation and much of its sales success on extolling the virtues of all-wheel drive, so how the sports car will change Subaru’s heading remains to be seen.

We are concerned that the rumored 170 horsepower from the 2.0-liter engine might lead to bouts of narcolepsy, but then again, Mazda’s MX-5 Miata has managed to keep us awake at the wheel, and it has only 167 horses. Following the launch of the naturally aspirated version, a turbo engine with about 230 ponies should quell all complaints.

The target is just above $20,000, so Toyota and Subaru will face tough competition from V-6 versions of the Chevy Camaro and the Ford Mustang, along with the Miata and the Hyundai Genesis coupe. But if Toyota’s and Subaru’s sports cars manage to keep curb weights well below 3000 pounds and combine the dynamics of a Miata with stunning looks, they both just might have hits on their hands.

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>Toyota FT-86 II Concept

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Toyota FT-86 II Concept

Volkswagen once made a Thing, but when we say this is Toyota’s new thing, we don’t mean a giant steel bucket. We mean it in the way that your Uncle Ted pulling quarters out of your ears is his thing. Toyota’s new thing, based on the FT-86 II concept it’s showing in Geneva, is having multiple versions and skins of a concept car before finally unveiling the production model.

We saw this first with the Lexus LFA, which went through at least three concept permutations before seeing production in a form that was a dead ringer for the first. Like the LFA, the first version of the FT-86 concept was a bit bland. The most interesting thing about it—aesthetically speaking, anyway—was the color, which a Japanese engineer said was the “traditional red color of a Japanese monkey’s backside.” (You should see the things those mod monkeys are doing with their backside colors these days.)

The paint on this second iteration of the FT-86 concept must have been inspired by a goth Japanese monkey. But there’s a lot more to the evolution of the concept’s styling than just the color. Like the second LFA, this FT-86 gets more billow to its shape, with flowing, organic flares swelling around the wheels, a more sculpted hood, and a far more intricately designed backside, this one featuring white taillights.

One Mean Monkey

Up front, the FT-86 II has a more menacing maw than that of the first car. A huge, oval grille stretches nearly to the ground and is flanked by LED running lights. The narrow, squinty headlights remain, although they flow into fenders more peaked than the original’s. The aggressive look continues around back, with numerous vents and a diffuser adding a track-ready appearance.

Aside from the updated shape of concept 2.0, Toyota didn’t have much to share on the car. It did tell us that this version of the concept is 166.7 inches long—with a 101.2-inch wheelbase—70.7 inches wide, and 50 inches tall. That’s within two inches of the Nissan 370Z in those dimensions, although the Toyota’s naturally aspirated 2.0-liter Subaru flat-four will trail the Z’s 332 horsepower by about, oh, 130 or so. (For those that hated math class, that means this car should get about 200 hp.) That said, this car is likely going to be much cheaper than the Z. Based on what we’ve learned about the Subaru version of this car, the suspension should consist of struts up front and multiple links out back, there will be a 2+2 seating layout, and the curb weight should come in around 2800 pounds. A turbocharged version, at least according to Subie, is “always possible.”

After the second LFA concept debuted, we were really hoping the production shape would more closely mimic that version than the first concept. We did not get our wish. We weren’t expecting the production FT-86 to change much from the first concept, but we hope it does after seeing this second take; this is a much better looking car. We’ll know soon when we finally see the real production model, which will happen at this fall’s Tokyo auto show alongside its Subaru platform mate. Toyota says that European sales will begin in 2012.

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>Buick LaCrosse vs. Ford Taurus, Hyundai Genesis, Lexus ES350

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Buick LaCrosse vs. Ford Taurus, Hyundai Genesis, Lexus ES350

It’s tempting to categorize Alabama as the state where it’s most acceptable to dump your busted refrigerator in the woods. Instead, what you’ll find in the cypress forests—apart from hand-carved odes to Bear Bryant and factories built by Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, Honda, and Toyota—are 468 holes on 26 azalea-laden golf courses (at 11 locations) open to the public, none far from Interstate 65. From Huntsville in the north to Mobile on the Gulf, these diabolical links were the handiwork of Robert Trent Jones, the only gent we know who was born in Ince-in-Makerfield, England.

Jones believed in a “hard par” and possibly a hard drink. During his 93 years, a span in which he designed or remodeled nearly 500 courses, Jones got his name hopelessly entwined with pal and golf legend Bobby Jones as well as son and course designer Robert Trent Jones Jr. So it’s okay if you think you’ve heard of him but aren’t sure.

In any event, the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail represents the largest construction project in the history of golf, possibly surpassing the restoration work on Tiger Woods’s reputation, and the tab will only rise after the greenskeepers discover the divots we inflicted. On 9 of the 11 courses, 18 holes costs a low of $45 to a high (in peak season) of $64—cheap shots, for sure—but the courses will test your patience. Witness the 9-iron that managing editor Steve Spence hurled solidly into a pine tree, leaving a lasting impression on both Mother Nature and his colleagues’ psyches. Famed golfer Alice Cooper said of the Capitol Hill course (one of three we damaged), “It ripped my handicap to pieces,” although Mr. Cooper might better attend to other of his handicaps.

Indeed, Robert Trent Jones was something of a masochist, fond of Scottish link–style 40-foot mounds, doglegs that would cripple Lassie, Spanish moss deployed as camouflage, bunkers the size of the average Caribbean beach, Cousteau-quality water hazards, and, on one course, a 92-yard-long green. A trail of 9-iron tears.

And, so, for our golfing adventure, we acquired four above-par sedans whose buyers comprise a demographic—and we mean this in a nice way—pretty much identical to your average public-course golfer’s. Which is to say, they’re all near-luxury sedans that, in the rough (ha-ha), lay up (laugh out loud) in the $39,000 driving range (we’re killing ourselves), all with 24-valve, dual-overhead-cam V-6s and all riding on M+S rubber.

This foursome seemed neatly linked to the links, so please don’t start asking about other contenders. The Chrysler 300, for instance, was invented way, way back in the Schrempp cocktail epoch. We couldn’t locate a sub-40-grand Acura TL; plus, its new nose would cause the entire LPGA to lose concentration. And vile and deeply personal arguments erupted over the Nissan Maxima, suggesting that (a) it was too small (untrue); (b) it was a torque-steering maniac (true); (c) its standard CVT wasn’t anything a golfer would recognize or care to operate (maybe); and (d) it would ruin our incredibly clever headline, “Fore for Four” (true again).

A brochure for the Trail warned, “Appropriate dress required.” Instead of wearing dresses, we approached clothier LoudMouth Golf apparel, which graciously attired us (and John Daly) loudly. One of the company’s outfits is called “Disco Balls.” Fellow golfers rudely took photos of us. One asked, “Do you know the Alabama saying, ‘Whoop, whoop, git it, git it’?” We did not.Continued…

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>2011 Hyundai Equus

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2011 Hyundai Equus

By the summer of  ’89, Americans had come to adore shopping for Toyotas. Almost no thought was required. Toyota had become the go-to supplier for a stem-to-gudgeon lineup of rational, oft-emotionless automobiles. “Uh, yeah, only got 10 minutes, so gimme 10 grand worth of car—blue or green’s okay.” Announcing its 1990 lineup, Toyota was giddy  to inform, “The Cressida is offered in several new colors!”

And so the news of a Toyota luxury brand—Lexus—was a bombshell viewed by not a few dealers and journalists as an uppity, above-your-station strategy likely to tank in a tsunami of  Japanese apologies and executive firings. “Jeez,” we warned, “sounds risky.”

Little did we know how risky. The 1990 Lexus LS400 represented much that Toyota wasn’t. For starters, it was an object of discretionary income commanding $35,000—$61,732 in today’s cash. Moreover, the car was seemingly twice the size it needed to be, was twice as luxurious as any Toyota before, and was propelled by twice as many cylinders as the Corolla-grade thrusters that had made chairman Eiji Toyoda an internationally revered, well, Yoda.

That wasn’t even the scariest part. We didn’t know it at first, but the Japanese weren’t relying on the LS400 just to fake a heritage and infiltrate an established luxury niche, a niche then defined by BMW, Audi, and Mercedes. Instead, Toyota was also eyeing an amorphous, oft-maligned market that was, all through the ’80s, badly serving its uniquely American customers. What if the LS400 were the world’s most desirable Cadillac Brougham, the most intergalactically fantastic Lincoln Town Car? What if the LS400 were dead reliable and unpretentious, a marriage of filtered ride, silken mechanicals, placid dynamics, and sub rosa luxury? Ready or not, that’s the car Toyota built.

Few luxury offerings have more squarely hit the marketing nail on the head. At the end of  its second year, Lexus was already America’s bestselling luxury-import brand. The LS worked so well that, over the course of the next two decades, it never strayed from its original assignment. In 1989, it wasn’t hip to say “I drive a Lincoln,” but it almost overnight became hip to say “I drive a Lexus.” In short, the LS400 made the Lexus brand, which, by 2009, commanded 17.8 percent of the U.S. luxury market.

Enter Hyundai. Well, not exactly. We too often label Hyundai a juvenile upstart, when, in fact, the company set up shop here a quarter-century ago [see timeline]. Even as Lexus trotted out the LS400, Hyundai was launching its first Sonata, and we smirked at the Koreans’ too-big-for-their-britches assertion that the Sonata would one day rival Camrys and  Accords.

And, now, history repeats itself. Here comes Hyundai, the paradigm of all things automotively economical, pursuing its own slice of the luxosedan pie. Buoyed by the success of the Genesis and deploying that sedan’s able platform, Hyundai has fashioned an LS460 clone intended to woo annually a mere 2000 to 3000 Americans who found the original LS recipe so enticing. Say hello to the Equus. Say goodbye to all your Mr. Ed jokes.

If it worked for Lexus, it’ll work for Hyundai, right? Not necessarily. For one thing, Hyundai is clinging to its name, warts and all, in hopes that the costly creation of a separate luxury brand won’t be necessary. It thus finds itself  hawking a Zegna suit with a made-in-Korea label. Notice that the Hyundai name appears nowhere on the Equus. Maybe that obfuscation will work, although history suggests that manufacturers who spend multiple decades churning out econo­cars are inextricably wed to econocars. Think Subaru SVX, here. Think Volkswagen Phaeton.

If this über-Hyundai isn’t a hit, however, it won’t be for lack of sedulous benchmarking. When Korean engineers set about copying the modern LS, they swallowed their inventiveness and simply deployed a really good Xerox machine. Consider: In length, width, height, and front and rear track, the Equus and Lexus LS460L are cut from common cloth. In our sound-level measurements, they ­differ by a max of one decibel. Their 70-mph braking potential is ­separated by 12 inches. Their skidpad clinginess hovers within two-hundredths of a g. Their acceleration to 30, 60, and 100 mph varies by but a tenth. Their elapsed times through the quarter-mile are identical. Their 4.6-liter V-8s differ in displacement by one cubic inch.

None of that is a coincidence. What we have here is LS Launch Redux, Seoul-cookin’ style.

Were this match based on price alone, we might have pitted an Equus with the Ultimate package ($65,400) against a base LS460 ($66,255), although that would have been limo versus size-XL sedan. Instead, we stacked the Equus against the mighty 4961-pound LS460L AWD dripping with automotive frippery, including a $5860 sleepy-driver alert and $13,200 worth of “Executive Class” rear seats. Limo versus limo. Note the way the Equus undercuts the six-figure Lexus. Just like Lexus undercut Mercedes 20 years ago.

It’s rare that a C/D test entails so much rear-seat occupation, with Magic Fingers acting as therapeutic masseuse and DVD screens showing Driving Miss Daisy and $60 worth of Veuve Clicquot chilling in the rear fridge. But, hey, when duty calls, we give till it hurts. In both cars, it turns out the Drowse-o-Meter might more profitably have been aimed at the tippling rear-seat reprobates. Continued…

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