Breakthrough or near-miss?
Has Lexus launched the ultimate luxury sedan?
The automaker unveiled its first LS flagship 17 years ago. It was a surprisingly well-equipped four-door, boasting trendsetting quality, but the big selling point was price. The LS400 cost thousands less than European competitors, like the Mercedes S-Class and BMW 7-Series, and that was enough to win over legions of fans.
Over the years, the top-line Lexus has steadily evolved, becoming ever more luxurious, more powerful and, yes, quite a bit more expensive. Now a new version -- the first truly complete makeover since 1989 -- is set to roll into showrooms, and with the launch of the LS460, Lexus has laid out some nakedly ambitious goals.
Don't look for the new LS to soar up the sales charts. Lexus is wise enough to stress the exclusivity of its flagship sedan. But with the fourth-generation LS, Toyota's luxury division intends to beat the Europeans at their own game, with a sedan that is second to none in terms of features and performance -- and which doesn't have to rely on bargain pricing to compete.
At least that's the plan. To see how well the automaker has executed the project, TheCarConnection.com flew to Salzburg, Austria for a chance to drive early versions of the LS460 in both standard and long-wheelbase trim. More variations on the LS theme will follow, incidentally, starting with a gasoline-electric hybrid LS600, and a secret, super-premium edition.
Targeting Benz, BMW
But those are still to come and for now, we've got plenty to consider with the "base" versions of the new LS.
In developing the new sedan, Lexus emphasized four specific targets: craftsmanship, performance, features and styling.
The look of the new sedan is clearly more distinctive and more suitable to a high-line luxury car. "Presence" is an appropriate word. The look follows the marque's new design "language," dubbed L-Finesse, which first appeared on the new IS and GS models. It's good to see Lexus put so much attention on design. In early years, the LS was, visually, little more than a cautious Mercedes clone. The new model goes as far as any Lexus in developing its own character, though European influences are still apparent.
The lines of the trapezoidal grille sweep up into a muscular hood that, in turn, flows into the gently curving roof. The look seems intended to make the sedan seem more expensive and a bit larger -- even though the new car's overall dimensions are within inches of the old LS430's.
The broader shoulders of the LS460 are subtly familiar, bringing to mind the new Mercedes S-Class. But BMW is clearly a strong influence in the rear, with the 460's high decklid unmistakably reminiscent of the 7-Series' "Bangle butt."
Inside and out, Lexus products have always boasted a level of precision that's been tough to beat. However tight, even gaps are not quite the same as craftsmanship. Indeed, buyers are often willing to accept, say, subtle imprecisions in the hand-sewn seat of a Bentley that they wouldn't tolerate in a mass-market luxury sedan.
With the new LS, Lexus has tried to achieve both. The maker proudly boasts of the extensive hand sanding that goes into each body, and the three hours spent buffing each steering wheel to remove wrinkles and make it more comfortable to the touch. Even the headlights show the level of effort Lexus has taken. We hear the term "jewel-like" a lot. In this case, no plastic compounds make it look like the lenses are crystal.
The cabin is large and roomy -- with the long wheelbase model, it's positively cavernous -- yet while the interior is clearly more refined, it is not quite as elegant as we might have expected considering the import of the new LS. It is an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, improvement off the old sedan.
Techno tour de force
When it comes to technology, however, Lexus pulled out all the stops. That comes to powertrain and performance, as well as creature comforts.
The project's chief engineer, Satoru Maruyamano, notes that Lexus made good use of what's been learned with the Toyota Formula One program, borrowing several features, including the "stepped venture" panel, mounted below the engine and designed to maximize downforce at high speeds.
The LS460 boasts the world's first eight-speed automatic transmission, going Mercedes' heavily-touted seven-speed one better. Surprisingly, the new gearbox is both smaller and about 10 percent lighter than the old LS six-speed. It's also a good bit more rigid.
The gearbox is mated to a new 4.6-liter V8 that uses a trick dual-injection system. This approach, with both direct and port injection, helps boost both mileage and performance. The V8 also makes use of Lexus' VVTiE, a dual variable-valve timing system that uses an electric motor to adjust the air intake.
The 4.6-liter engine pumps out 380 horsepower -- 100 more than the outgoing LS -- and 367 lb-ft of torque. That's enough to launch the big sedan from 0-60 in an impressive 5.4 seconds and put it through the quarter-mile traps at 13.8 seconds.
Even more quiet than the previous LS -- if that's truly possible -- we found ourselves repeatedly underestimating our speed. One gets up to 60 in a hurry, and if you're not careful, you'll likely find yourself cruising at extra-legal speeds.
We were surprised, though, to see top speed electronically limited, at least on the U.S. edition, to just 130 mph. That was a bit of a disappointment as we launched down the autobahn, though it's not likely to matter much in the States.
Despite the added horsepower and performance, Lexus engineers managed to nudge more mileage out of the new V8, with the new car's city rating at 19 mpg and the highway number up to 27.
Hard to quantify
For a reviewer with a limited copy box to fill, covering any Lexus product can prove daunting. The LS460 all the more so, for simply reciting the list of performance, safety and cabin technology can quickly leave you little room to say anything else.
The VDIM system, for example, serves as an umbrella electronic management system, bringing together a wide range of technologies, from ABS to Brake Assist, along with the electronically-controlled air suspension (optional on the standard LS460, standard on the long model) and stability control. There's a new Brake Hold function, which should be particularly well received in places like Seattle and San Francisco.
There's so much technology, in fact, that the LS460 requires four separate computer control modules to keep it all running and interlinked.
We were especially pleased to see Lexus opt for an off button with its traction management system. Perhaps they really are getting the message about performance driving.
Look for the addition of an all-wheel-drive package by early 2007.
The 460's safety package is extensive. Mercedes introduced the concept of Pre-Safe several years ago, and Lexus has taken it a step further. The concept is designed to not wait for an accident to occur, but to actually predict when one is imminent and then take the necessary steps to either avoid it or protect the car's occupants.
The optional package uses front and side-looking radar, as well as two forward-mounted cameras. A third camera, in the steering wheel, uses recognition software to see if the driver is aware of what's happening. If not, the car can take initial actions on its own.
When it comes to creature comforts, the list runs from heated and cooled seats to the mind-blowing Mark Levinson sound system. We found that with the right CD, we had no reason to go back into the house.
How far can Lexus take technology? Consider the optional, Advanced Parking Guidance System. According to Lexus, it allows your LS460 to park itself. Actually, it requires a bit of set up, and then you need to ride the brake as the sedan slips into your selected spot, the steering wheel spinning furiously on its own. It's slow and probably not quite ready for prime time, but nonetheless impressive.
Driving a tomb?
OK, now for the real stuff. How does the LS460 drive?
Acceleration is impressive. The car has the hauling power to match the competition. The new eight-speed is incredibly smooth and under most driving conditions, shifts are imperceptible. Even on steep grades, there's no observable gear hunting.
While we're not fans of electric steering, the system on the LS is about as good as that form gets. There's good road feel and the system is both responsive and precise.
Both standard and air suspensions do a good job of isolating you from road harshness while still maintaining road feel. We found ourselves pushing into corners far more aggressively than we would have with the old LS430 -- and being rewarded for our effort.
As you'd expect, the cabin is almost tomblike with the Mark Levinson sound system turned off. The big V8 does provide a deep-throated growl under hard acceleration, but it's more isolated than in a BMW.
For those buying the long-wheelbase version of the LS460, you have to consider what the
extra 4.7 inches buys you. The rear of the cabin is positively regal, and there's an ottoman at your feet beckoning you to stretch out and enjoy the rear entertainment system. In typical Lexus fashion, there's not only dual rear climate controls, but dual temperature measurement systems. One checks ambient air temperature, the other uses infrared to read body temperatures.
There's little doubt Lexus has come a long, long way since it debuted in 1989, and the LS460 is the sum of that evolution. The new sedan is a technological marvel to the point even Lexus engineers can't recall all the gadgets available.
The '07 LS460 is certain to raise interest levels, even among the most dedicated Euro-philes. Lexus raised the bar with the original LS sedan's pricing. Now it is back with a car that challenges the competition at their own game.
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