2010 Lexus LS460 Sport – Click above for high-res image gallery

With Lexus having carefully cultivated a reputation for isolating drivers from all of the undignified sensations normally associated with driving, it might seem surprising to find a Sport model in the LS lineup. Sure, Lexus offers the M3-chasing IS F, as well as the outrageous LFA supercar, but an LS460 Sport? Come on... even sport-synonymous BMW doesn't offer an M version of its full-size 7 Series luxobarge.

BMW does offer, however, an Alpina B7, as well as a BMW M5. There's also the Cadillac CTS-V, Audi S6 and S8, and a whole undercard of Mercedes-Benz AMG cars out there that prove there is a market for sports-tuned large sedans like this 2010 Lexus LS460 Sport. You certainly can't begrudge Lexus for trying to steal a slice of that more stiffly-sprung, high-test pie – but is it just promoters' hype or can this LS Sport really float like a butterfly and sting like a bee?

We had a brief encounter with the 2010 Lexus LS460 Sport a couple of months ago down in San Diego and came away impressed. While we didn't immediately drop the Germans or lone American from our top contenders list, we were at least willing to add the LS to our "worth-watching" column. And so we decided to take a closer look. Could Lexus successfully move its F-Sport tuning up a weight class, and would the LS460 Sport actually contend with other heavyweights in the segment? We gave it seven days to prove its mettle.

Photos by Frank Filipponio / Copyright ©2009 Weblogs, Inc.

Whereas the hard-edged CTS-V makes the plain-jane CTS look like a rental fleet darling, the LS460 Sport doesn't look a whole lot different from the regular LS460. There are some cool 19-inch split ten-spoke wheels, little aero bits all around and a blacked out panel between the exhaust tips. There's also a carbon fiber-esque field behind that big "L" on the black mesh grille. Other than that, you'd have to look inside to see any changes.

Open the door, though, and you're treated to a view like no other in the Lexus lineup, or anywhere else for that matter. Lexus has chosen a black and saddle color scheme with unpolished wood accents as the sole interior "choice" for the Sport. It is exceedingly handsome in a cigar lounge kind of way (you can practically smell the Cohibas). It's not just a pretty face, either. The interior layout is flat-out well-designed and flawlessly executed, and we'd be hard pressed to think of a luxury sedan with better materials or workmanship costing less than six figures.

Aside from having GQ-worthy looks, the interior offers one big clue to this model's sporting nature: those metallic paddle shifters flanking the steering column, a first in the LS. The transmission behind them is the same one found in the IS F, an eight-speed automatic that provides quick, seamless cog swaps and even blips the throttle on downshifts, just like a real sports sedan. The paddles are a pleasure to work with and add a sporty feel to the driving experience – even if most buyers will never find a need to use them. And honestly, the eight-speed automatic never disappoints.

That gearbox manages power from the same 4.6-liter V8 found in the rest of the LS460 lineup. It's no slouch with 380 horsepower – but would a token bump in power be too much to ask? Competitors usually add at least a little extra punch in their sport models. We had the LS460 Sport during a week of uncharacteristically torrential rains, but still managed to find enough gaps in the downpours to play a few rounds of dodge-the-mudslide. There's more than enough power to make any passing maneuver or stop light getaway smooth and swift, even if the tarmac is a bit slick. We don't think the weather affected it much, but mileage was decent with an overall average of 17.8 miles per gallon and a highway stretch that returned 26.2 mpg at a steady 65 miles per hour.

We had driven the Sport back-to-back with the standard LS on our first drive down in San Diego and could readily feel the steering and suspension tweaks. Here in the real world without another LS at the ready, the differences were less noticeable. The bigger wheels and lower profile tires harsh the ride's mellow a bit, but it's barely worth mentioning. The retuning of the steering, however, is definitely worth talking about.

While Lexus isn't generally known for its precise or natural steering feel, the LS460 Sport adds some heft to steering motions that makes the car feel more connected to the road, a very welcome change. That, coupled with the suspension revisions and swank interior, make this the LS we'd most like to own.

Nevertheless, we can't decide if we really liked the Sport package itself or simply using the sport mode on the suspension selector that you'll find on all LS models. The car is oddly detached until you fiddle with that three-position switch on the center console. Clicking the rocker over from normal to comfort makes the ride a bit cushier and slightly springy, although not sloppy. This is the perfect choice for broken local roads during regular commuter duty. Switching it over to Sport...wel,l that was what made this LS bob and weave like a champ in the making.

While San Diego's ripple-free highways didn't upset the ride during our first drive, this go-round the ride was considerably rougher in Sport. It was almost too harsh on the same pothole-strewn commute, but on twisty backroads or through the canyons, the Sport setting kept this big boulevardier flat and stable. Even bumps through high-speed sweepers didn't faze it with those meaty 245/45R19 Dunlops keeping the LS planted. In those situations, the LS Sport actually feels like a genuine sports sedan – not an AMG E63 or M5, but certainly closer to the BMW 750i or Audi A8. It even stops like a sports sedan thanks to upgraded Brembo brakes that scrub off speed without drama – no dive and no fade.

The mechanical changes in this Sport package include the brakes, flappy paddle transmission, 19-inch wheels, re-tuned suspension, thicker stabilizer bars and upgraded shocks. With the $6,185 Lexus is charging for the Sport package, the MSRP climbs to around $72,000. Our Obsidian black tester also had the Luxury Value Edition (Mark Levinson stereo and navigation) for $2,080 and another two grand tacked on for the Comfort Package with Sport, which seems a bargain for climate-controlled front seats, power rear sunshade, rear heated seats, headlamp washers, intuitive parking assist, power door closers and a one-touch power trunklid. Our total tab was $76,014.

Some of the features on this Lexus can be alarming if you're stepping out of a run-of-the-mill family sedan, but most are the norm in this class. Take the navigation, for instance. As we mentioned earlier, we had this loaner during some historic rainfall. During a particularly stormy freeway drive, the navi actually began warning us of inclement weather ahead, going so far as to suggest alternate routes. It did that with heavy traffic as well, a feature that seems so natural after a short while that you can't imagine how anybody survives without it. The system takes and gives audio commands, handles phone calls, even keeps an eye on your stock portfolio thanks to the 90-day XM satellite radio trial subscription you get as part of the deal.

The trunk opens and closes with a touch of a button, the rear sunshade is power operated, the sideview mirrors fold in automatically when you park, the seats are air-conditioned, cameras aid your parking – the car talks to you and you to it – it's amazing how cars have changed in just a few short decades. At the end of the day, though, all of these features emphasize the fact that the Lexus LS460 is a luxury car first and foremost. The Sport package helps this light heavyweight spar with the big boys – and it can even land a few good shots – but it's not going to steal the championship belt anytime soon.

So... who will buy this package for their new Lexus? The company thinks most of the sales will come from existing Lexus customers, maybe the guys (and gals?) who want the sportiest driving experience in their LS. Disgruntled Audi, BMW and Mercedes owners might push sales a bit higher too, but the Lexus doesn't have the same street rep as the Germans and the Sport badge doesn't do a lot to impress the average Joe.

The 2010 Lexus LS460 Sport does handle well, especially in Sport mode, but the issue we take is that we believe these should be the basic suspension and steering settings on all LS models. The Sport package merely brings the handling and driving experience up to the level of base model luxury sedans from Cadillac and the German Big Three. The Sport should be taking things even further, not just playing catch-up. We'd have no reservations in recommending the LS Sport, but for someone expecting a true heavyweight contender, we'd suggest keeping it to a three-round sparring exhibition.

Photos by Frank Filipponio / Copyright ©2009 Weblogs, Inc.

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