A coyote scampers across the tarmac, followed by a jumble of tumbleweed. A hawk sits impassively, nearby. Sheltered from the wind, its talons firmly grip the guardrail surrounding the long oval cut through the parched and barrenArizona desert. Suddenly, the raptor leaps into flight, swooping out of the way as a sleek silver sedan blasts down the Toyota test track.

TheCarConnection.com headed out to that sprawling facility to test drive the LS600h, the all-new, hybrid sedan that Lexus General Manager Bob Carter dubs the "ultimate flagship." Ultimate? One might get good argument from BMW, with its 760 sedan, or Mercedes-Benz, with its CL65 AMG coupe. But there's little doubt, the LS600h will redefine the Lexus brand, moving it up-market and, making it an even more viable alternative to its well-established German competitors.

The LS600h is the most expensive Lexus ever, coming in at $104,750. For your money, you get an incredibly rich and roomy package, loaded with leather and wood, high-line infotainment technology, cutting-edge safety systems, and a numbingly long list of creature comforts. Even so, that price tag could deliver a harsh shock to those who recall the original Lexus LS400, at $35,000, the bargain-priced alternative to high-line European luxury sedans.

There's another reason why the LS600h is garnering so much attention: marques like BMW, Mercedes and Audi, traditionally stuff their biggest engines under the hoods of their flagship sedans, V-12s, like the big 6.0-liter powerplant in the Benz S600.

The LS600h badge is something of a numeric misnomer. Its internal combustion engine is a modified version of the LS460's 4.6-liter V-8 - stroke increased a quarter-inch to deliver an even 5.0-liter displacement. The engine is mated to an all-new Lexus hybrid drive. It's the world's first full V-8 hybrid, unless you count the short-lived "mild" hybrid offered by General Motors on its full-sized pickups. The combined package produces the sort of power as a 6.0-liter V-12 would - while markedly improving fuel economy and sharply reducing emissions.

But can a V-8 hybrid, whatever the numbers, deliver the silky refinement premium luxury buyers expect from a V-12? And does the LS600h, overall, stand up to ultra-sophisticated performers like the S600 and 760iL, which all but guarantee favored treatment by the valet at a trendy new nightclub?

Our silver sedan was waiting in a prime spot at Phoenix's Royal Palms Resort, as we began a two-day drive. Yes, there's been a fair bit of debate about the look of the new LS line - as there was when BMW rolled out the 7er and Mercedes the latest S-Class. But sitting in the cool, early morning sun, we had to admire the overall design.

The original, '89 LS400 was little more than a Mercedes clone. The latest LS is the clearest expression yet of the so-called L-finesse design language, meant to give Lexus its own visual theme. That's not to say there aren't some derivative elements, including the high rear deck. But to our eyes, this is the best-looking iteration since the first LS debuted, nearly 20 years ago, and the most distinctive. It's muscular and athletic, with a graceful, coupe-like roofline that manages to keep the extended wheelbase version from looking like pulled taffy. (All LS600h models sold in the U.S.will feature the extended body.)

The LS600h is the third hybrid in the Lexus lineup, following the RX400h and the GS450h. And as with those earlier gas-electric models, Lexus has taken the conservative approach. This is no space-age Prius, visually trumpeting its hybrid technology. If you've got a good eye, you might spot the fact that the 600 sits an inch taller than the 460. Otherwise, but for the subtle "hybrid" badge and the model nameplate itself, passersby aren't going to readily distinguish the two.

That's also a subject of some debate. Folks who buy hybrids sometimes do so just to declare their environmental bona fides. But when it comes to a top-end model, like the LS600h, keeping things quiet is probably appropriate.

If the rest of the world can't tell the difference, you likely will, as soon as you slip inside the big sedan. To create this "ultimate flagship," Lexus has loaded the 600 with just about everything it could come up with. That starts with sumptuous, heated and cooled seats covered in sleek, semi-aniline leather. The mouse fur headliner on the LS460h has been replaced with Alcantara, a suede-like synthetic. Leather, wood, and metal accents give the interior a sophisticated, if somewhat conservative, look.

By comparison, the gauge cluster is absolutely high-tech, with a new tachometer so you can tell when the engine is running, not always easy with this hybrid. There's also a power meter so the driver can keep track of how the hybrid system performs.

Interior space is absolutely vast, with plenty of room to stretch out, especially in back. Lexus apparently expects many owners to ride in back, so there's a full infotainment system for rear passengers, as well as foldout footrests. The rear climate control system even boasts infrared sensors to read lap and upper body temperatures to best regulate airflow.

The audio system is Lexus' best-ever, a 16-speaker, 450-watt "reference" surround sound unit from Mark Levinson featuring AM, FM, XM satellite, DVD, a six-CD changer, built-in harddrive, and iPod or MP3 plug-in jack.

Wherever you're sitting, LS600h is a car built for long cruises, with a trunk big enough to hold four Tiger Woods-size golf bags.

One thing we've learned about Lexus introductions: expect to spend at least an hour poring over the various high-tech systems built into the new car. We'll focus on the highlights here, starting with the world's first application of LED projector-style headlamps.

The sedan rides on an adjustable air suspension permitting a driver to not only adjust ride firmness but ride height. The new, Active Power Stabilizer Package option minimizes body roll in corners, using motor-torqued stabilizer bars. The system works surprisingly well until you push close to maximum G-force in corners.

Variable electric power steering adapts to driving conditions, firming up and adjusting steering ratios. When you're parking, Lexus claims the 19.4-foot turning circle is best-in-segment.

The LS600h features VDIM, a Lexus system tying together various ride systems, such as antilock brakes and stability control, as well as engine and transmission controls. In real-world conditions, we found VDIM delivering very predictable, if not overly sporty, handling and performance under a wide range of driving conditions.

If we had one complaint, it was during aggressive and emergency braking. We were surprised to see the long patch of rubber left by one hard stop. During another, the brakes were pulsing and throbbing uncomfortably, though we did stop fast. 

Actually, we have another big issue, and that's with the Lexus Advanced Parking Guidance System. Sure, with an engineer sitting by our side, we got it to work three out of four tries, but the process was slow and cumbersome. And trying it on our own, our success rate was significantly lower. Nice idea, Lexus, but we're still not convinced it's ready for prime time.

During a long day at the Toyota test track, we put the LS600h through a variety of challenging tests, including a series of accidents simulations designed to trigger the Advanced Pre-Collision System. Using a variety of body sensors, along with microwave radar and infrared, the system constantly looks for obstacles as far off as 500 feet, whether another car, or something the size of a large animal.

In the event of a potential collision, the system will sound an alert, even apply the brakes, if necessary. A camera, mounted in the steering wheel, watches to see if the driver might be distracted. If so, Pre-Collision responds more quickly. If an accident is unavoidable, the car takes additional steps, such as pre-tensioning seatbelts, to reduce injuries.

For those who like to keep count, there are a total of eight airbags - at a minimum, and up to eleven depending on which rear seat package you order. 

The heart and soul of this high-tech sedan is its hybrid drive system.

"Simply dropping in a larger displacement engine would have required no creativity," contents Moritaku Yoshida, chief engineer on the LS program, "and not made the brand statement we wanted."

So Lexus chose, instead, to mate a V-8 with a significantly upgraded hybrid system, including an all-new CVT transmission. The result is a full-time, All-Wheel-Drive powertrain meeting the stringent, Super-Ultra-Low-Emissions-Vehicle, or SULEV, standard, making it 70 percent cleaner than any of its competitors, according to Lexus. Meanwhile, fuel economy, at 21 mpg combined, is closer to the mid-range 5-Series BMW, rather than the big, gas-gulping 760 V-12.

(That is, of course, posted fuel economy. Hybrids have traditionally delivered notoriously lower real-world numbers, and our own, brief experience suggests something closer to 18 mpg should be expected.)

Along with the increase in displacement, the LS600h's engine undergoes some other significant modifications. It uses hollow camshafts, for one thing, and dual pipe intake resonators.

The motor/generator system has been completely revamped to handle the added power of the V-8, as well as to reduce vibration. The package is about 30 percent smaller and 11 pounds lighter than the version used in the GS450h.

The continuously variable transmission is clearly the best we've ever experienced, with none of the rubber band-like feel of most other CVTs. It can also, credibly emulate the feel of the LS460's eight-speed automatic.

For those not familiar with hybrids, they recapture energy lost during braking or coasting, here storing it in a set of nickel-metal hydride batteries. When needed, such as under hard acceleration, that energy powers the sedan's electric motor. Like other Toyota and Lexus hybrids, LS600h can operate in electric-only mode at relatively low speeds and short distances. A new EV Mode button forces the drive to use battery power whenever possible, typically up to about three minutes at speeds up to 25 mph.

(That might be a lifesaver, if you're hoping to creep into your garage, late at night, without being heard.)

The V-8 itself pumps out 389 horsepower and 385 lb-ft of torque. The motor/generator produces 221 hp. But skip the math. In the curious hybrid equation, that works out to a combined 438 horsepower.

On paper, that puts the LS600h up solid against its V-12 competitors. On the road, the sedan is quick, though no benchmark. It'll turn 0-60 times of 5.5 seconds, though Audi's A8L gets there in 4.8 seconds. The overall feel is confident and inspiring, with a nice V-8 resonance, though not the silky V-12 exhaust note aficionados love.

All-in-all, the goal of the LS600h is to "show Lexus as not only refined but innovative," says general manager Carter. "We want to appeal to those prestige buyers who have previously not shopped Lexus."

Does LS600h deliver? When it comes to looks and technology, the new sedan just might crack the European hold on this segment of the market. There are still those who'd prefer a V-12 for its own sake, though others might enjoy the bragging rights of driving an environmentally friendly package.

Price is also a plus. Yes, it may be the most expensive Lexus ever, but LS600h comes in at least $15,000 less than European competitors - more like $25,000 considering comparable equipment packages.

The new sedan is a worthy offering, comfortable, lavish, prestigious, and surprisingly fun-to-drive. While we might have a few minor complaints, the overall package is quite spectacular and we expect the market to pay serious attention when the first LS600h sedans roll into Lexus showrooms.


2008 Lexus LS600h

Base price: $104,750
Engine: 5.0-liter V-8, 389 hp/385 lb-ft; Lexus Hybrid System motor/generator, 221 hp; total system power 438 hp
Transmission: CVT with eight-speed automatic emulation-mode, all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 202.8 x 73.8 x 58.3 in
Wheelbase:  121.7 in
Curb weight: 5049 lb
Fuel economy (city/hwy): 20/22 mpg (21 mpg combined)
Major standard features: Air conditioning, power windows/locks/mirrors, navigation, Bluetooth hands-free phone system, 19-speaker 450-watt Mark Levinson Reference Surround audio with AM/FM/XM/six-CD changer with hard drive and iPod jack, keyless SmartAccess entry and Smart Card ignition, cruise control, navigation, power tilt/telescope heated steering wheel, engine immobilizer, front and rear multi-zone digital climate control
Safety features: Eight airbags (up to eleven, depending on rear seating package), stability and traction control, tire pressure monitors
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

 

©2007 by The Car Connection™ All Rights Reserved - The Car Connection is a Trademark of DA Acquisition

Paul A. Eisenstein

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