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Best of 2007: A hybrid? Seriously?
Proposed: The Lexus LS600h L is the most complicated, most elaborate machine ever to take to four wheels. What "Ulysses" is to light reading and Confucianism is to the simple declarative sentence, this hybrid-powered limousine is nothing less than everything Toyota has ever learned about cars poured into one stupendous, stupefying, "because we can" performance piece.
I'm willing to entertain contrary opinions. Is a Formula 1 car more high-tech, more highly engineered? These are extraordinary confections, it's true -- all aero-optimized carbon fiber and ballistic engines -- but in terms of the sheer number of parts, subsystems, processors and electronics, an F1 car is a Babylonian goat cart compared to the mega-Lexus. The LS600h L, just as a for instance, monitors the driver's face with infrared beams and detects if he or she is nodding off. This system seems prudent, since the car is so smooth, so honeyed with refinement, with such a gliding, lighter-than-air ride, that a deep coma only ever seems just a few exits away.
What about, say, the Thrust SSC, the supersonic world-record holder for land speed? Bah! Thrust SSC was basically two jet engines with a screaming Englishman strapped on top. The LS600h L parallel parks itself, sweeps the road ahead with millimeter wave radar and stereoscopic cameras, monitors passengers' body temperatures and adjusts climate accordingly. You can fine-tune the loudness of the Lexus' door lock-unlock beep. The Thrust SSC doesn't even have doors, to say nothing of a beep.
What about the Maybach 62 S? Close, but no Arturo Fuente Opus X Robusto. The goliath Maybach is, you see, a conventional automobile, with a big engine driving the back wheels through a geared transmission. It's positively quaint. The Lexus, meanwhile, pairs a 5.0-liter direct-injection V8 (389 hp and 385 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm) with a great honking water-cooled electric traction motor (221 hp), channels both outputs through a three-mode continuously variable transmission (with a two-stage reduction gear for the electric motor output), then sluices the resultant twist through a limited-slip center differential that ciphers optimum power sharing between front and rear axles. Not that the car has axles, really. The Lexus is crammed to the gills with batteries, electric motors, converters and cooling systems to keep it all from going pop. The Maybach has, what, champagne flutes?
What's charming about the LS600h L is that, even after all these years of class-leading quality and sales, Lexus as an organization still feels the need to try this hard. There's no sense of complacency in this car, no inkling that the brand will allow itself to be carried along by goodwill in the marketplace. The LS600h L competes with marquee players like BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi as if no one had ever heard of Lexus. This 202.8-inch, 5,049-pound flagship is the first Lexus product with a sales price north of six figures ($104,000 base MSRP). But the company's long history as a value-luxury proposition is still entwined in its psyche. Indeed, the car seems practically desperate to justify its price point. I actually find it hard to believe this car could even be remotely profitable for Lexus (shades of the 1989 LS400 for $35,000).
And so, the extraordinary lengths: The acres of creamy aniline cowhide French stitched like a Folies Bergere corset; the "executive class" rear seating with a climate-controlled ottoman recliner with shiatsu massage function; the 19-speaker, 450-watt Mark Levinson sound system; the first production LED headlamps; the thousand and one ways the car smothers, damps or otherwise strangles in the crib anything like noise or vibration. Talk about a Grecian urn. This is the unravished bride of quietness.
Some of the Lexus' features would be completely invisible to owners but are the sort of things that make automotive engineers run naked through hotel hallways. The car has a hydrocarbon absorber and catalyst system; this device absorbs cold-start hydrocarbons (catalytic converters are inefficient at low temperatures) then releases them when the cats are up to speed. That's one reason why this 439-hp (combined gas and electric), 5.2-second-to-60-mph, 130-mph Pullman car gets a SULEV (Super Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle) rating, best in class by a mile.
Lexus sells about 30,000 LS's in the U.S. each year. About 30% (9,000) of them are the long-wheelbase models. The hybrid model comes only in stretch, and the company expects to sell about 2,000 of them per year. The No. 1 market? You're living in it. Those numbers and the market position put the LS600h L up against six-figure executive mind-blowers like the BMW 760 Li and Mercedes-Benz S600, both 12-cylinder cars, and the Audi S8, a 10-cylinder car.
The benefit of a hybrid powertrain comes in fuel economy, of course: The LS600h L is rated at 21 miles per gallon combined, and that doesn't seem unreasonable in my brief test-driving experience. I know there will be people who regard this car with skepticism if not derision. After all, if you want to be environmentally conscious, is a nearly 17-foot limousine the way to go? Yeah, I get that. On the other hand, short of rescinding capitalism, the car market must always offer the wealthy the rewards of wealth. The LS600h L does that at the same time it offers them a persuasive case to shrink their footprint. Just so long as no one kids themselves. This is not a green vehicle. The interior uses up an acre of rain forest just in wood trim.
The car has an electric-only mode button that will allow it to move at speeds up to 25 mph on all-electric power for six-tenths of a mile. Call it the domestic stealth mode, the one you use to sneak home late at night.
Hybridization has other benefits, realized in this car like never before. So much of this car runs off of high-energy circuits fed from the big battery, replacing noisy hydraulics with the whispering of electronic gear. The gear teeth in the AWD powertrain have been polished to micron tolerances. If this isn't the silkiest, most refined, quietest super-sedan on the road, I'll eat my dB meter.
What we have here is the automotive equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster, a creative and technical tour de force, a tent-pole under which all the other Lexus cars can bathe in the shade.
It hardly matters if the company makes a per-unit profit, because the LS600h L puts down the marker. OK, Bentley, all right, Mercedes. Top this.
There's only one problem, and that is the car, wrapped in endless layers of refinement and cottony quiet, networked and sensor-ed to beat the band, is just so damned uninvolving.
Here again, it's like a Hollywood blockbuster -- a phenomenal exercise in craft that feels, as the credits roll, like an exercise.
The steering has zero feel. The brake pedal -- even with its electronic stroke compensation la-di-da -- has no touch worth mentioning. The computerized, cyber-managed air suspension does, indeed, deliver a gorgeous ride, a ride worthy of a heroin overdose. How can something that is so hedonistic be so anhedonic?
It goes like crazy, but it drives like the world's most exotic electric shaver.
Until and unless Lexus can dial in the quintessence of driving pleasure -- cf. Bentley Flying Spur, Audi S8 -- the company will never be the team quarterback, but only the president of the Chess Club.
It's a paradox, really: You can have everything in a car; you just can't have everything.
2008 Lexus LS600h LBase price: $104,000
Price, as tested: $130,000 (est.)
Powertrain: Hybrid gas-electric all-wheel drive with regenerative braking, 5.0-liter, DOHC, 32-valve V8 with direct-injection and variable-valve timing; continuously variable transmission (CVT)
Horsepower: 439 combined
Torque: 236 pound-feet at 3,200 rpm
Curb weight: 5,049 pounds
0-60 mph: 5.2 seconds
Wheelbase: 121.7 inches
Overall length: 202.8 inches
EPA fuel economy: 20 miles per gallon city, 22 mpg highway
Fuel: Premium unleaded
Final thoughts: A bigger flag for the flagship