- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2007

When you’re at the top of your game, but your opponents are, too, something special is in order.

Lexus, the luxury car division of Japan’s Toyota, found itself in that predicament when it was designing its new flagship sedan, the LS.

The company wanted to go bumper-to-bumper with the best its competitors had to offer. In this class that comes down to three: the Mercedes-Benz S600, the Audi A8L and the BMW 760Li, all with 12-cylinder engines and price tags well north of $100,000. Obviously, customers in that category are fairly rare, as well as fussy and hard to please.

As it has done in the past with other cars, Toyota sent its Lexus engineers and designers out to meet with and observe potential customers on their own turf. What they found was not encouraging.

“We confirmed our belief that the first-ever long-wheelbase LS might not be distinctive enough to be considered the newest Lexus flagship,” said Mortaka Yoshida, the LS chief engineer.

What to do? One way would have been to simply produce the LS with a 12-cylinder engine. But the competition already had V-12s, so it was not deemed creative enough.

So the Lexus engineers turned to their company’s specialty: its world leadership in hybrid technology.

They figured that they could deliver a car with 12-cylinder power and refinement by combining a new V-8 engine with an electric motor. The not-insubstantial side benefits, of course, would be low emissions and superior fuel economy.

The result is the 2008 Lexus LS600hL sedan, which can accelerate to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds, according to Lexus tests, with a governed top speed of about 135 mph, and an EPA city/highway fuel economy rating of 20/22 miles to the gallon.

The LS600hL accomplishes this by combining a new 5.0-liter V-8 engine with a 650-volt electric motor. In tandem, they deliver 438 horsepower to all four wheels through a gear-driven continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT).

A CVT provides a smooth and steady surge of power, with no shift points. There actually is one shift point because the Lexus CVT is a two-stage design, but it’s so refined it’s nearly impossible to detect.

Though the 600hL is nearly 17 feet long and weighs more than 5,000 pounds, it has the moves of a midsize sports sedan. Part of the feel comes from the adjustable air suspension system, which allows the driver to choose among three settings, ranging from soft to stiff.

Following Lexus practice, the driver and passengers are isolated in a silent cocoon, with little intrusion of wind, mechanical or road noise. Comfort is first-cabin for the driver and three passengers, with deep and precisely padded seats upholstered in perforated leather.

The front seats are heated and cooled, and the rear seats are heated, with cooling optional.

Although there’s a seat belt for a fifth passenger in the center-rear, forget it. It’s a punishing perch with no foot room because of a giant drivetrain hump.

There’s limousinelike stretch-out room in the outboard positions, but the trunk is small — less than 12 cubic feet — because of the battery pack. But Lexus says it will hold four golf bags, albeit small ones, which is one of the requirements in this rarified area of the market.

The LS600hL is so loaded with sensors and high-technology stuff that one Lexus engineer said the car could drive itself if all of the components were put together in the right combination.

As it is, this new Lexus is state-of-the art when it comes to safety equipment that could keep an errant driver out of trouble.

Among them is the active stabilizer system that keeps the car from heeling over in tight corners.

Some of it is downright spooky. On the advanced precollision system (APCS), if the system’s sensors determine that a crash is imminent, it tightens the front seat belts, warns the driver with a buzzer, starts applying the brakes, stiffens the suspension system and snubs the steering for a quicker response when the driver reacts to avoid hitting something.

Part of the system is a monitor mounted on the steering column that keeps tabs on the driver’s face.

If the driver is distracted and turns away from watching the road ahead, or if he nods off, the system sounds a buzzer, lights a warning light and starts to apply the brakes.

Included in the APCS option is adaptive cruise control, which uses radar to automatically maintain a set distance from the car ahead.

None of this comes cheap. The LS600hL, as the Lexus flagship, starts at $104,715 and, with options, the test car had a suggested sticker price of $118,015.

Lexus is targeting wealthy people who are savvy about technology and perhaps want to feel environmentally friendly. It’s an exclusive group, so sales are projected at just 2,000 a year.

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