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Passion takes a back seat

IF you follow car culture, one of the first things you’ll learn about the 2007 Lexus LS 460 -- the fourth-generation flagship of Toyota’s luxury marque -- is that it has the ability to park itself. The car’s optional Advanced Parking Guidance System allows drivers to sidle up to a spot, press a touch-screen button and the car will then glidingly reverse itself into the space, either parallel or perpendicular to the curb.

While others may report this breathlessly, you’ll allow me a hearty, unstifled yawn. First of all, any technology that further enables the decline in minimum driving competence is untimely, at best. Second, the system requires that the parallel spot be 6.5 feet longer than the car (23 feet for the standard-wheelbase LS 460). I don’t need a computer and a rearview camera to dock in such a huge space. A white cane and a Labrador service dog would do just fine. Also, the car takes forever to achieve this bit of parking prestidigitation. I’d be on my second latte by the time the LS finally put out its mooring lines.

The auto-parking feature is a headline-grabbing gimmick in a car run cheerfully amok with them. For your delectation, I submit the count-'em eight-speed automatic transmission, a world first. Finally, relief for the deprived owners of the quaint and rudimentary Mercedes S-class, who get along with a mere seven.

Perhaps your tastes run toward science fiction. The LS 460 L -- the long-wheelbase model -- offers the optional four-zone climate control, which uses an infrared camera to measure backseat passengers’ body temperature (and, one guesses, to scan for signs of incipient menopause). A fully optioned LS 460 L would also be equipped with 11 air bags (another record!), 19 surround-sound speakers, a 30-gigabit hard drive (storage for 2,000 music files with room to spare for the navigation data), and five powered sunshades, to tick off just a few of the car’s supernumerary excesses.

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What is going on here? Call it the anxiety of affluence.

As much as the Lexus nameplate has become the default choice for the sensible careerist looking for a well-built, well-priced luxury car, the brand still ranks near zero Kelvin on the prestige thermometer. You can cite all the ways that Lexus is a great car -- best-selling luxury nameplate in the U.S. for six years running, perennially at the top of the J.D. Power heap in initial quality, vehicle dependability, customer satisfaction and return business -- and I’ll tell you that none of that matters. Compared to luxury brands like Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac, BMW and Audi, Lexus has the emotional appeal of a public golf course.

Consider that in a survey of brands mentioned by hip-hop artists in the 2005 Billboard Top 20 (a rough but handy measure of a brand’s aspirational power), Lexus didn’t even crack the top 50. Mercedes-Benz was No. 1, with Cadillac (3), Bentley (4), Rolls-Royce (5) and Chevrolet (7) in the Top 10.

Meanwhile, the market for high-end, prestige-driven luxury goods is exploding: Donzi powerboats, dinners at Guy Savoy, Rolex watches, Angelo Galasso bespoke shirts. Americans spent an amazing/appalling $440 billion on luxury consumer goods in 2005, and much of that wound up in their driveways. Lexus’ futurists expect the prestige luxury market -- code for the aforementioned Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Jaguar, Cadillac -- to grow 50% in the next five years.

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For Lexus designers and engineers pondering the LS 460, the question was how to ride those coattails. How to make the company’s flagship sedan stand for more than blithe and bloodless perfectionism and cut-rate luxury? How to make the most Apollonian brand on the market more Dionysian? How to engineer longing?

Seeking an answer, the company’s marketers consulted with prestige luxury brands such as Gucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton. One thing they learned is that expensive is not the same as exclusive. Such companies typically offer a grand cru line, and these top-shelf, hard-to-get items drive acquisitiveness for the whole brand.

And so we have the Lexus LS 460 L, the company’s first long-wheelbase model, which can be optioned out the wazoo -- climate-controlled reclining rear seats with foldout ottoman and shiatsu massage function; rear-seat refrigerator; 9-inch ceiling-mounted video monitor. This stuff wouldn’t look out of place on a Maybach. This will be the first Lexus that, fully kitted, will come close to the six-figure level.

Lexus doesn’t expect many 460s to be ordered so extravagantly and that’s just fine: These cars are essentially audition pieces. You could say the same of the hybrid version of the car, coming next year. With the Hybrid Synergy Drive all-wheel-drive powertrain stuffed into the car -- for the life of me, I can’t imagine where -- the fully optioned LS 460 L will rank as the most technologically dense vehicle on four wheels. Also, Lexus is considering a performance division of its own, like Mercedes’ AMG.

Meanwhile, the standard LS -- still handsomely provisioned in mass-market trim -- will run closer to $65,000 (pricing hasn’t been announced, but will be announced sometime before the cars will begin arriving at dealerships in October).

The other factor in making Lexus a more emotional brand is styling. For the past couple of years Lexus has been promoting its L-finesse design language, a meringue-whipped form vocabulary that has appeared with increasing insistence on the ES, GS and IS cars. The hallmarks are a lowered grille, concave shallows along the cars’ high sides, and diverging contours raked dorsally front to rear.

Here any tidy explanations of the new LS run out of oxygen, because a car that should have been an expressive and beautiful bit of dream-smithing isn’t. It’s not a bad-looking sedan, and it does have the look of the L-finesse avatars, but the instant I laid eyes on it, I was disappointed. Compared to the lyrical singspiel of Mercedes’ CLS or the Audi A8, the LS is a dirge. Actually, it kind of looks like a Toyota Avalon with a post-graduate degree.

One reason the car looks so constrained might be that it is so aerodynamically optimized. The LS achieves an astonishing 0.25 coefficient of drag (with optional air suspension that lowers the car at high speeds). This is close to the same aero efficiency of a Prius. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the more expressive elements of early design iterations were scoured away in the wind tunnel.

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Here we stumble, again, on the tension between the perfectionist Lexus brand and the quote-unquote prestige luxury market. The prestige market is not about tirelessly fettling car bodies for better fuel economy. It’s about building amazing looking cars.

So while the LS 460 should be commended for its fuel efficiency -- its lightweight, super-efficient 4.6-liter engine and multiplicity of gear ratios give it class-leading mileage (23 per gallon) and ULEV II emissions rating -- it’s kind of beside the point. Prestige class cars light their cigars with hundred-dollar bills.

What’s it like to drive? I only had a couple of hours in the car during last week’s press event, so I want to return to the car for a proper road test. My initial impression is that it’s fantastically constructed. For instance, Lexus goes to the trouble to hand-sand the body, twice, before final painting. And, per usual, the big sedan is deadly quiet and nearly vibration free (whether these traits are consonant with passionate motoring is open to debate). The materials -- leather, wood, suede -- are superb. Lexus buffs the leather for the steering wheel for three hours to give it a kid-glove feel. And yet, the central console, transferred out of the GS sedan, isn’t particularly rewarding -- more like a high-end arcade game. Currently, the S-class is the state of interior art.

It’s certainly quick enough. Thanks to the relatively short first two transmission gears, the LS gets out of the blocks in good form. Zero-60 mph goes by in 5.4 seconds, about as quick as Mercedes’ S-class, which has a liter’s more displacement.

It’s also large enough. The “couple distance,” the space between the front and rear seats, is as much as 45 inches.

Los Angeles commuters will love the LS. In addition to the crystalline surround-sound stereo, iPod compatibility and Bluetooth hands-free phoning, the car offers XM’s NAVtraffic service, which monitors traffic conditions in real time and will help you route around SigAlerts and delays. Also, the car has what’s called Brake Hold function, a switch-activated system that allows your foot to be off the brake while the car is stopped.

As tech-y as the U.S.-spec version is, the one sold in Europe is even more trick, with optional features such as lane-departure warning, collision avoidance braking (the U.S. model charges the brake hydraulics but does not actually slow the car) and rear-end pre-collision bracing: When the car’s rear sensors detect that a vehicle is about to hit you from behind, it activates the seat belts and positions headrests.

Yes, yes, a very nice robot. A gifted colleague of mine asked the perfect question: Will there ever be a Lexus owners club? Of course, the cars are splendid appliances. But will they ever be cherished automobiles like those of old-world marques BMW or Bentley? Yes, they can park themselves. But can they soar?

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Contact Dan Neil at dan.neil@latimes.com.

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2007 Lexus LS 460/460 L

Price as tested: $65,000-$90,000 (est.)

Powertrain: 4.6-liter, DOHC, 32-valve V8 with variable valve timing; eight-speed automatic transmission; rear-wheel drive

Horsepower: 380 hp at 6,400 rpm

Torque: 367 pound-feet at 4,100 rpm

Curb weight: 4,244 (460)/4,332 pounds (460 L)

0-60 mph: 5.4 seconds

Wheelbase: 116.9/121.7 inches

Overall length: 198/202.8 inches

EPA fuel economy: 19 miles per gallon city, 28 mpg highway (91 octane recommended)

Final thoughts: Prestige, engineered


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