Now that even Civics and Corollas come with power windows, power mirrors, power door locks, and little key fob remote control thingies, in order to be considered a luxury vehicle a car needs to be equipped with hot and cold running decadence. Massage seats, leather that feels like whipped butter, dashboards decorated with exotic woods from the world's most endangered rain forests, stereos that simulate the acoustics of everything from Carnegie Hall to the Double Deuce roadhouse (with or without Sam Elliott and Patrick Swayze doing the bouncing), navigation systems that facilitate pinpoint nighttime bombing, and active cruise control systems that practically encourage the driver to crawl up into a fetal position and nap. Luxury carmakers are only a few short steps away from introducing an in-dash electronic wet nurse.
The problem is that all this runaway gadgetry has been playing havoc with the quality ratings of companies like BMW and Mercedes. Glitch-prone software and agonizingly complex hardware have left many owners wondering whether they need all those gizmos in the first place. And that's making the Lexus LS 430 look more attractive with every passing recall.
Revolution on back-order
While other large luxury sedans have undergone wrenching and radical redesigns in recent years (see: BMW 7-Series), the Lexus LS has sustained a singular personality since its introduction as a 1990 model. In other words the second-generation 1995 LS 400 was an awful lot like the 1990 LS 400 and the 2001 LS 430 is obviously derived from the "95. Look at the updated (but not redesigned) 2004 LS 430 and there's still plenty of that first LS 400 in it.
But it's more than a skin-deep evolution. At its core the new LS 430 is exactly what the first LS 400 was - a perfectly assembled, thoroughly equipped, vacuum-sealed, mobile isolation module. The doors open as if you're unsealing Tupperware and close with the thick thud of an unabridged dictionary being dropped onto an oak table. All the controls operate with the smooth precision of a Marine Corps drill team. The seat leather is both elegant and resistant to abuse. The instrumentation ignites in electroluminescent glory. And everything seems assembled with the sort of care usually reserved for surgical instruments and political coalitions.
Lexus" big upgrade to the LS for 2004 was the implantation of a new six-speed automatic transmission with a driver-shifting scheme. The new trans hooks to the carryover 4.3-liter, DOHC, 32-valve, V-8 equipped with a variable valve timing system and still making 290 horsepower. The new six-speed operates with the same creamy imperceptibility of other Lexus transmissions while the engine continues to be sweetly and seamlessly powerful and way-spooky quiet.
Externally, the front and rear styling have been tweaked slightly to eliminate some goofiness and produce a design that's even more conservative than before. The power rear-window shade, power moonroof, and rear seat vanity mirrors that were optional before are now standard; the optional navigation system now also displays an image from a rear back-up camera; the optional rear air conditioner now includes a deodorizer. So if your relatives stink, make sure they sit in back.
On the safety front they've added a new optional "Pre-Collision System" which, using a front radar system and inputs from the steering angle, yaw and speed sensors, can determine if a collision is inevitable and pre-tension the front seatbelts. There are also knee airbags for the front passengers to avoid being shoved under the dash in a crash and a new "Adaptive Front Lighting System" which illuminates around a turn as the driver enters it. Of course all the usual safety stuff returns including ABS, stability control, side airbags, and a general air of invulnerability.
The standard LS 430 is so lavishly equipped that it's hard to imagine what options could be heaped atop it. But adding the Sport package brings a sharper edge to the chassis tuning with it and 18-inch diameter wheels with 245/45R18 tires around them. Or go for the "Custom Luxury Package" and on goes the new pre-collision system, the "Dynamic Radar Cruise Control," "Intuitive Parking Assist," nav system with that back-up camera, a Mark Levinson audio system, ventilated front seats with fans that circulate heated or chilled air, rear seat heaters, a voice-command system, headlamp washers, and, because closing the rear doors yourself is such a hideous chore, power door closers. But beyond even that lies the Ultra Luxury Package adds an air suspension, "SmartAccess" proximity unlocking and starting system, rear door sunshades, power slide and memory and ventilation on the rear seats, and a bunch of other stuff including that deodorizing rear air conditioner.
The test car was a Sport-equipped model and it seemed downright modest compared to the Ultra.
The best ever?
Make no mistake, the LS 430 is one primo ride. The seats are nearly perfect, the dash is gorgeously decorated with large buttons that are easy to use and easy to understand, the climate control system could chill Madison Square Garden on a hot summer day, and the leather has the amazing texture of the best lap dancer's skin at Las Vegas" Olympic Garden - not that we'd know. Up against the competition from the BMW 7 and Mercedes S, the LS 430's interior may not be as avant garde in its design, but it's the most comfortable. And whoever this Mark Levinson guy is, he sure knows his stereo equipment.
It's also roomy with acres of legroom fore and aft, enough headroom that, should you be made a bishop, your can keep your miter on, and plenty of luggage space in the cavernous trunk (easily the biggest in its class). Considering the big insides, the LS's 197.4 inches of overall length on a 115.2-inch wheelbase seems modest. That's more than six inches shorter than a BMW 745Li and it's hard to see where the German has any significant advantage in accommodations. This isn't a small car, but it makes great use of its bulk.
Having said that, the navigation system is still a pain. Not so much because it doesn't work as well as other nav systems as the fact that works no better than other nav systems. And there's nothing more irritating than having a legal disclaimer come up on your display screen every time the car is restarted. Surely there are plenty of lawyers who'll wind up owning the LS 430 and at least one of them must be able to compose a one-time waiver, right?
The steering isn't particularly communicative, but it's admirably quick, requires just the right amount of effort, doesn't get upset over bumps and has one consistently satisfying 16.4:1 ratio. The brakes work well with excellent feedback from the four-channel ABS system and the tires grip with some ferocity, little noise and virtually no rebound harshness. This is a car that handles well, even if it's never exciting. And it's a car that rides well, even if it's sometimes too isolated from the outside world.
Throw in Lexus" hard-earned and tremendous reputation for quality and this car is simply the best in its class no matter what the price. But the truth is that the LS starts at just $55,375, which is almost $18,000 less than a 745Li and more than $19,000 less than the cheapest Mercedes S430. So even after piling on the options, the Lexus is a raging bargain too.
You can make a case for either of the German competitors" dynamics or the English Jaguar's styling, but the truth is that right now there's no better luxury car on Earth than the Japanese-made Lexus LS 430.
2004 Lexus LS430 Sport
Base price: $55,375 ($62,409 as tested)
Engine: 4.3-liter V8, 290 hp
Drivetrain: Six-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 197.4 x 72.0 x 58.7 in
Wheelbase: 115.2 in
Curb weight: 3990 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 18/25 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, side airbags, side curtain airbags, knee airbags
Major standard equipment: AM/FM/CD player, anti-lock four-wheel disc brakes, power windows, power mirrors, power everything else
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles basic warranty, six years/70,000 miles powertrain, six years corrosion