Thursday, January 11, 2007

Nearly two decades have passed since Toyota, in the guise of its all-new Lexus brand, burst into the luxury-car segment with all the subtlety and reserve of an NHL forward charging the goal.

The flagship LS 400’s combination of refinement, luxury, performance and value changed the face of high-end sedans forever. Mercedes-Benz and BMW suddenly found themselves spending less time and energy impressing one another’s engineers and more time worrying about passenger comfort and convenience.

Although Lexus gave the established luxury brands some pause, its flagship sedan had never quite measured up to the Europeans in the areas of acceleration and handling — “had” being the operative word. With the new 2007 LS 460L, Lexus has effectively eliminated the big but: It’s a terrific car, but it just doesn’t measure up to the performance of BMW’s 7-series Audi’s A8 or Mercedes-Benz’s S-Class.

This 380-horsepower Lexus flagship can run with anything in its class.

Also available in a less-expensive regular-wheelbase version, the $71,715 LS 460L capitalizes on its nearly five-inch advantage in wheelbase and overall length by providing rear-seat passengers with limousinelike legroom without sacrificing any of the 18 cubic feet of trunk space offered in the regular-wheelbase LS. In this Lexus answer to international business class, there is even a $12,675 Executive Class Seating Package option which includes, among other features, a right rear seat that reclines 45 degrees with multifunction massage. To say the LS 460L is unabashedly luxurious is an understatement.

With its redesign the latest-generation Lexus flagship has finally shed its plain-brown-wrapper styling in favor of an edgier, higher-end look.

Where at a distance previous versions could be mistaken for a Toyota Avalon, the redesigned LS has pedestrians pausing midstride to watch it sail past.

The roomy interior is richly appointed and handsomely designed. The fit and finish are flawless. Leather and real wood cover the surfaces. No detail was too small to escape the designers’ attention. The automatic-up power windows slow as they reach their closed position.

Polished for three hours, the leather on the heated steering wheel is soft and supple. Heated and cooled, the front seats are supportive and comfortable. A voice-activated navigation system with backup camera is standard, as is a 10-speaker audio system with an in-dash six-disc CD changer and XM satellite radio.

Delivering 102 additional horsepower and 55 foot-pounds more torque than the V-8 found in the previous-generation LS, the all-new 4.6-liter V-8 features electronically controlled intake valve timing and variable intake manifold tuning. It delivers its output to the rear wheels via an eight-speed driver-shiftable automatic transmission.

Lexus claims a 0-60 time of just over five seconds — sounds about right. Even with all of this extra performance, fuel economy hasn’t suffered. According to the Environmental Protection Agency city mileage remains the same at 18 miles per gallon, while at 27 mpg highway mileage has actually improved by 2 mpg. That translates into no gas-guzzler penalty.

Although the standard four-wheel independent suspension is still a tad soft when compared to German competitors, this can be corrected with the $2,120 air suspension package with its adaptive variable suspension effectively eliminating the little bit of nose dive and body roll exhibited by the standard suspension. A new electronic steering system is spot on, providing outstanding feel and control at all speeds.

Included with the four-wheel antilock brakes are the Lexus Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management, electronic controlled braking, electronic brake force distribution and brake assist. The parking brake also operates electronically.

One Lexus-specific bit of new technology attracting attention is the $700 advanced parking guidance system. It can take control of the steering during parallel or back-in parking. While a neat piece of gee-wizardry, no doubt inspiring some conversation at cocktail parties, it probably won’t find much real-world use. While it does work, anyone sporting sufficient basic driving skills to back a car in a straight line or parallel park on the first or second attempt will find this system too time-consuming and involved to fuss with.

Here’s how the parallel parking feature works: The driver must establish the location of the vehicle behind which he wants to park by pulling up so his shoulders are even with that vehicle’s rear bumper and then braking. He then pulls up so his shoulders are even with the front bumper and brakes.

Slipping the transmission into reverse activating the rear camera, he touches the appropriate icon on the navigation screen indicating he wants the guidance system to take over. Using arrows on the screen as a cursor, he must position an indicator flag on the rear bumper of the vehicle behind which he wants to park.

With that done, he releases the steering wheel and reduces pressure on the brake, letting the LS slowly creep back and into the space. And creep it must because if the speed exceeds 2.5 mph, the system shuts down and the driver must then begin the process all over again. Some serious practice is required to master this system.

When the first-generation LS rolled into showrooms, there was little doubt it had aspirations to take on the German big dogs. While it set new benchmarks for reliability, refinement, and customer service and comfort, it fell somewhat short of its target competitors in performance.

The LS 460L overcomes that objection and then some. It has earned a seat in the luxury performance class.

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