Click the Lexus LS600h for a high res gallery
Since Toyota introduced the world to the practical, mainstream hybrid vehicle a decade ago, it has sold over a million of them. Six different hybrid models are now offered, with three each under the Toyota and Lexus banners. While the Prius continues to grab the bulk of hybrid sales, the newest model in the lineup is far and away the most expensive hybrid any manufacturer has yet offered.
We're talking about the new Lexus LS600h L. The "h" of course represents the fact that this luxury sedan is equipped with Hybrid Synergy Drive (or, as the Lexus division calls it, Lexus Hybrid Drive). Ever since the original LS400 debuted in 1990, Toyota has been trying to take on the best that the Germans have to offer. Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz each offer a 6.0L twelve cylinder engine in their top sedans. Toyota instead chose to follow a different path. Rather than engineer a new, larger engine, it adapted its hybrid system to the LS to create a car that performs like the Germans while delivering better fuel efficiency. We spent a week with the LS600 h L to see if Toyota succeeded.
Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.
The first three generations of the LS featured fairly bland styling that aped their Mercedes-Benz S-class contemporaries. The current LS, which debuted as a 2007 model, comes in 116.9 and 121.7 inch wheelbase sizes. The LS600h is only available in the long wheelbase form in North America. In Europe, only the short wheelbase variant is available, while Japan gets both lengths. Although the LS was always seen as a competitor for the likes of the S-Class and BMW 7-series, Lexus never offered a direct counterpart to the marquee V-12-powered models. At least not until the LS600h came along.
For the first time, the LS now has a look of its own. It still doesn't exactly stand out in a crowd -- particularly when compared to the latest Mercedes S-class -- but it has handsome proportions with a sleeker-looking roofline than its forebears. Less top-heavy in appearance than its immediate predecessor, there is now a shoulder that extends back from the sides of the grille, over the front fenders, continuing all the way back to the trailing edge of the decklid.
The visual distinctions between the 600h and its lesser siblings are subtle, with the most immediately noticeable difference being its headlights. The hybrid is equipped with the world's first production LED headlamps for the low beams. Aside from the "h" in back, the only other hybrid badges will be found on the chrime strips running along the doors' bottom edges. It's far more understated in that sense than, say, a Prius or one of GM's hybrid SUVs, which practically yell, "HYBRID!" at passers-by.
Lexus has always been at the top of the class when it came to materials and interior refinement, and this latest edition is no exception. It's been a long time since I've driven an LS, the last being in the early '90s with a first-generation model. I remember at that time the feeling of isolation from the environment; that car was completely silent. Interestingly, cabin experience in the new car is markedly different. Under hard acceleration, the engine of the 600 had a muted roar, communicating the substantial power it has on tap.
In spite of the 5,000 lb mass of this big luxury sedan, the LS600h can reach 60mph in about 5.5 seconds. The 5.0L V8 can generate 389 hp and 385 lb-ft of torque on its own. The latest iteration of Hybrid Synergy Drive uses two liquid-cooled motor/generators integrated into the planetary gear electronically variable transmission, much like the GM Two-Mode. However, unlike the GM system, only one of the motors can provide drive torque. The first motor/generator is used to start the engine and provide primary charging capability to the battery. The second unit provides drive torque and regenerative charging for the battery. The drive motor can produce up to 221hp but the combined power output of the engine and motor is limited to 438hp, which coincidentally is the same as the 6.0L V-12 in the BMW 760Li. Unlike the lesser LS460, which only drives the rear wheels, the hybrid sends drive torque to all four corners.
Electrical energy is stored in a 288V nickel metal hydride battery pack behind the rear seats. Like the Nissan Altima hybrid we drove last year, that pack takes up a significant chunk of the previously available trunk space. The conventional LS460 can carry up to 18 cu.ft. of stuff. The LS600h, by comparison, can only hold 11.7 cu.ft. A road trip with four people would require everyone to pack lightly unless they wanted to carry gear inside the passenger compartment. Of course, the volume in the back seat is more than ample for two or three passengers, and the long wheelbase allows for plenty of stretch-out room during extended journeys.
While many cars have dual-zone climate control systems, the LS gets a four-zone system with rear-facing vents below the front seats, on the B-pillars, above the rear doors and in the aft section of the center console. The standard rear seats of the LS have fore-aft and recline adjustments. Optionally available but not included in our test car is the $12,750 executive seating package that includes full recliners with pop-out leg rests and built-in massagers. That package also includes a fixed center console with rear seating limited to only two.
Up front, the seats have a multitude of adjustments including an extendable lower cushion that provides more thigh support for those among us with longer legs. All seats also have the ability to be heated or cooled independently. Front seat dwellers will also find that switchgear is plentiful. Lexus has made no attempt to produce something analogous to BMW's iDrive. As a result, I counted at least 45 assorted switches and knobs before I lost track.
One that was of particular interest was the EV switch. While the JDM Prius gets this feature that forces electric only mode, so far, the only U.S. hybrid model to get it has been the new Highlander. After trying it out on numerous occasions, I found out to be next to useless in the LS. First of all, it can only be engaged at very low speeds or at a standstill. No matter what the battery's state of charge is, anything more than the very lightest touch on the throttle brings up a message that the EV mode was about to be deactivated, followed immediately by the engine starting up. The only place where I could consistently get the EV mode to operate was rolling down a slope. Of course, just lifting off the throttle would do the same thing in that situation.
One other cool fuel- and time-saving measure is part of the Lexus Link system, which has the ability to download live traffic data. When a destination is selected in the navigation system, the traffic data is compared to the calculated route. If there are backups along the primary route, the navigation system will automatically re-route you. While driving to Cranbrook Academy for the video shoot of this car, the system popped up a warning that the route was being modified to avoid traffic backups. A few minutes later as I drove past I-275 (the primary route) traffic was clearly at a virtual standstill. Other cars have traffic data systems but this is the first one I've experienced that automatically rerouted me based on the data.
Even the standard rear compartment is opulent and very well equipped, and our tester added a few options to the list. Folding down the center armrest reveals even more knobs and switches -- immediately visible are audio and climate controls; switches for the rear seat recline and headrest height; and controls for the power window shades. For those who haven't gotten extra-dark window tinting but occasionally want to prevent the world from looking in on their rear seat activities, the shades are available for each rear door window (including a small separate unit that covers the quarter windows) plus the backlight . Lifting the cover on the armrest reveals a remote control for the DVD player with which you can lower the 9" screen from the ceiling. Behind the center armrest between the seats sits a cooler compartment to keep beverages chilled. Also, when summoned, the illuminated vanity mirrors lower gently from ceiling as their lights gradually brighten, allowing the passengers eyes to adjust.
A regular short (not that nearly 117 inches is short) wheelbase LS460 now starts at $62,000, with the long-wheelbase L adding another ten grand to that. Optioning the L model as close as possible to the starting equipment of the hybrid will bring you about $88,000. That leaves a $16,000 gap to leap over before arriving at the 600. That $16K buys you the extra hardware to drive the front wheels in addition to the rears, the hybrid system, LED headlamps and a battery that consumes one-third of the trunk.
While the LS600h has power output to rival its German counterparts, the extra weight it has to carry everywhere means it's actually marginally slower than the LS460 (0-60 in 5.4 sec). The all-wheel-drive means you can probably use more of that power in poor conditions, although you probably shouldn't be doing that anyway. For a car of this size and performance, the LS600h gets pretty impressive fuel economy. The EPA rates it at 20/22mpg city/highway and the test car averaged 20mpg in mixed driving without any hypermiling techniques. The best of the 12-cylinder Germans is the BMW at 13/19 mpg, so the Lexus definitely does better than those vehicles at the pump.
The problem here is the LS460. The "lesser" LS is rated at 16/24mpg. The combined ratings for the 460 and 600h are 19mpg and 21mpg, respectively. Based on the numbers at FuelEconomy.gov, using 15,000 miles/year and $3.21 gallon, fueling the 460 would cost $2,533 per year compared to $2,292 for the hybrid. That's a savings of $241/year. At a $16,000 difference in entry cost the payback time comes to about 66 years, or almost 996,000 miles. As fine a car as the LS600h L is, that's a very heavy price to pay for the badge of having a hybrid. With the extra options on the tester, the final price tag came to over $115,000. Given a choice, if I was in the market for a super luxury sedan, the new LS460 would definitely rank higher on the list than it's predecessors. Now if they installed a 4.5L clean diesel V-8 like the one in overseas versions of the new Land Cruiser (and coming to the Tundra and Sequoia for 2010) for perhaps a $5,000 premium, that would be an option to really consider.
Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.