- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 26, 2006

Some day automobiles likely will be able to drive themselves.

They’ll be equipped with sophisticated, satellite-based navigation systems connected to all of the car’s components. The driver will simply program a route, sit back and let the car take over.

Some of this already exists. Mercedes-Benz has an automatic cruise-control system that will pace the car ahead at highway speeds and all the way down to a full stop. Then, with barely a nudge from the driver, it will move off again.

Not to be outdone, the 2007 Lexus LS 460 can park itself.

It’s spooky. Drive next to a parked car and stop momentarily when the front-seat passengers line up with the parked car’s rear bumper. That’s to give the sensors a reference point. Then pull up next to the car as you normally would, shift into reverse and step gingerly on the accelerator pedal.

The Lexus backs up and swings into the parking space. The spooky part is the steering wheel, which spins merrily away unassisted.

Human beings, whether they start out wealthy or achieve financial success, tend to move from peanut butter and jelly to truffles and caviar. That is why designer brands flourish, even though they provide no more utility — and sometimes less quality — than their standard-brand counterparts.

It is different with automobiles. They have to perform. Though an owner may never have occasion to drive 130 mph, or hustle around a twisting road-racing track, there’s comfort in knowing the car is capable of it.

People with coffers of disposable income may lead genteel lives, and drive the same way, but they tend to buy overachieving cars.

Lexus of Japan belongs in this select group, although it is only 17 years old. When it introduced the LS 400 sedan in 1989, Lexus was heralded as a less-expensive alternative to the midsize Mercedes-Benz E-Class.

A lot of winnowing has gone on in the intervening years, and the LS Lexus has morphed upward to where it now competes against the flagship S-Class Mercedes, BMW 7-Series, Jaguar XJ and Audi A8.

It has been a remarkable metamorphosis in the face of abundant skepticism. After all, Lexus challenged the Mercedes brand, which dates back to 1901 and had solidified itself with generations of owners all over the world.

But there’s no question that the 2007 Lexus LS 460 can hold its own, and even surpass in some instances, any of the top luxury cars. To underscore the point, Lexus conducted the worldwide introduction of the LS 460 in Austria, in the heart of European luxury-car territory.

There are two models of the new LS: the 460 standard, which is 16 feet, 6 inches long, and the 460 L, which adds five inches to stretch out to 16 feet, 11 inches. The extra length goes almost entirely into the back seat, and enabled the designers to add an optional so-called ottoman seat on the right-rear side.

If you move the right-front seat forward, the right-rear seat reclines almost fully — just the thing for a busy chauffeur-driven executive to catch a nap on the way to the airport. The seat also will deliver a massage.

The standard model starts at $61,715 and the L at $71,915. But there is a plethora of ultraluxury options, so that the tested standard version came to $78,935.

That’s what you pay for refinement. For example, each car is hand-sanded twice during the painting process. The leather on the steering wheel is buffed for three hours to give it the softness of a baby’s behind. The interior wood trim is finished by the Yamaha piano company. The door-closing sound was tuned to mimic that of a mansion’s heavy wood doors. It doesn’t really sound like that, but the effort was made nonetheless.

The interior is library quiet, although the designers, in a nod to European luxury cars, allow a low level of engine noise to let the occupants know that there’s ample power to drive the rear wheels.

All-wheel drive arrives on the LS hybrid.

Unlike the Europeans, Lexus has kept the LS 460 simple. Climate, stereo, navigation and other controls are intuitive and easy to operate.

There are 19 speakers in the optional Mark Levinson sound system. The rear seatbacks and headrests, the side-window sunshades and the entertainment system screen are all motorized. The last, which Lexus touts as the world’s first, is operated by remote control.

A brand-new V-8 engine with 380 horsepower can propel either LS 460 model to 60 mph in about 5.5 seconds. It’s mated to the world’s first eight-speed automatic transmission. That’s right. Eight speeds, or one more than the new Mercedes-Benz seven-speed box.

Despite its size, the LS 460 drives and feels like a smaller car.Handling is similar to that of a midsize sports sedan, with suspension systems (standard or air) and electric steering that keep the wheels planted and the body stable around tight corners. At the same time, the ride is comfortable, though there is no floating sensation.

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