Test Drive: You will pay a lot, but Lexus 600h delivers

ByUsa Today

PARKING LOT F, ROSE BOWL, PASADENA, Calif. -- Pausing in a surrealistically empty ocean of asphalt to corral impressions of the $104,715 Lexus LS 600h L sedan.

An overwhelming car. The price is the highest ever charged by Lexus or any other Japanese automaker.

Power is fierce; the array of safety features, almost imponderable.

Leather-covered dashboard is handmade and some parts of the body are hand-sanded between coats of paint. Lexus says master craftsmen oversee many other key operations to boost Lexus' already respected quality and infuse a hand-made feel, though the car is built mainly by robots, in the modern fashion.

The gasoline-electric drivetrain pushes hybrid technology to new heights — but of sophistication or absurdity?

The car is Lexus' effort to attract the super-affluent buyers it hasn't quite reached, in addition to the ordinarily affluent that it has. A 5-liter gasoline V-8 is teamed with two electric motors in the now-familiar Lexus hybrid system, called Hybrid Synergy Drive. It's arranged as an all-wheel-drive setup, not just two-wheel-drive, in the LS 600h, however.

The power of a V-12, Lexus says, and the fuel economy you'd get from a big-displacement V-6 in an all-wheel-drive car. Translated, about 20 miles per gallon on the windows sticker, about 18 on the byways around here, including a spirited frolic on the snaking Angeles Crest Highway. On which, it should be noted, the car handled more crisply than you'd expect, given the non-sporting reputation of Lexus' big cars.

At that level of price and performance, who cares about mileage, you might ask. Why, says Lexus, those super-affluent buyers it is trying to lure. They want to feel good, or less bad, about their luxury car indulgence. Hardly a 50-mpg Prius, but the 600h does get better mileage than its rivals, and poops 70% fewer objectionables out the tailpipes, Lexus explains. Less effluent from the affluent.

No sacrifice of comfort, either, with near-limousine back-seat accommodations opened up by the long-wheelbase chassis. That's why the "L" is in the model name.

To get the necessary muscle, Lexus says it could simply have put a real V-12 under the hood. "But doing things differently" and offering a sophisticated alternative is key to Lexus' image, says Jim Farley, newly appointed to run the Lexus brand in the U.S. after getting Toyota's other non-namesake brand, Scion, off the ground.

So engineers created a third version of the current Toyota/Lexus V-8. The first was the 4.6-liter in the Lexus LS 460 sedan. The next was the 5.7-liter V-8 in the Toyota Tundra pickup launched earlier this year. Though the one in the 600h is a 5-liter engine, the car is designated 600 because it performs as well as a 6-liter 12-cylinder, in Lexus' view. The "h," of course, means it's a hybrid.

The gasoline engine alone is rated 389 horsepower. Add the electric motor's power and the total is — can you believe the coincidence? — 438 hp, same as BMW's 6-liter V-12.

The second electric motor doesn't drive the car. It works as the starter for the engine, as the generator to keep the battery full and the accessories powered, and influences how the continuously variable automatic transmission blends power from the gasoline and electric sources.

The CVT, as all Toyota CVTs, is based on a set of planetary gears, rather than the belt-and-changing-diameter-pulley system that comprises most CVTs.

However blended, power from the gas and electric powerplants is plentiful and smooth. The 600 is the first gasoline-electric hybrid in which you honestly can't feel any transition between the gasoline and electric power. All hybrids make that claim, but all are fudging because you can feel slight shakes and jerks.

The 600's prodigious power output is routed through a Torsen all-wheel drive system to spread the joy to both ends for better control and stability.

At low speed, burbling along in the burbs, punch the throttle only advisedly. Because hitting it launches the car as if from a catapult. Heavy throttle applied at higher speed, as on the freeway, provides considerable additional thrust but not the same thrill as the low-speed acceleration.

For its size and power, the 600 is companionable around town, as it proves easing along looking for a caffeine purveyor around these parts.

The engine goes dead still at stops, as in all hybrids, saving fuel and reducing noise and pollution. The electric motor alone can power the big rig away from stoplights, but only slowly and by keeping the pressure quite light on the go pedal. It's not something to do when there's a line of impatient traffic stacking behind you, but it works well lazing through residential areas. Pleasant incongruity to toddle along in the big, powerful machine with the tachometer reading 0 as the gasoline engine waits to be summoned.

Also noteworthy:

•Safety gadgetry. It's as if there's a race to see who can cram the most safety-related, electronically controlled features into a car. In the 600, you can get a setup that scans your face and decides if you're not looking at the road ahead — if, say, you're glancing sideways or drooping from drowsiness. If that happens, and if sensors also decide that you're approaching a car or other obstacle too fast to stop in time, the Lexus will hail you with beeps. If that doesn't work, the car begins applying the brakes automatically to lessen the force of the inevitable impact.

•Comfort features. The car is comfortable generally, and if you get the executive option package — cutting the rear seat into two commodious buckets instead of a bench — you get massage programs for the person in the right-rear seat. That's you, if you have a driver and you use the 600 as a limo.

You also get a wood-rimmed table back there for your paperwork or computer tasks en route to the corner office every morning. And a beverage cooler. And heated/cooled seats. And separate climate controls, window shades and other trappings of the super-affluent on the move.

If you skip the exec setup, you merely get a very roomy, comfortable back seat.

If the road is rocky, switch the air suspension to the comfort setting. If smooth and twisty, toggle to sport. Otherwise, normal is good. The settings seem to do as their names suggest. And, remarkably, sport isn't too harsh for everyday use, nor is comfort too sloppy. Often when a car offers such suspension choices, none feels just right. And wouldn't that be a glaring error in a six-figure machine?

• Drivetrain. Look past the engine and CVT to the gizmos that manage power to the wheels. The routine electronic nannies — traction control and anti-skid control, loosely speaking — are at work to keep you from turning your expensive tires into puddles of rubber the first time you nail the throttle. Want to know how hard they work? Turn them off while stopped on a gravel surface, crank the steering wheel hard one direction, floor the pedal. The car slews almost uncontrollably, despite its all-wheel drive.

A rare case of useful nannies.

• Lighting. Light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, are the illumination of choice. Lexus says they come to full power instantly, while the blue-white, high-intensity discharge (HID) lights favored by most luxury brands can require minutes to hit stride on a cold day. Also, Lexus claims, LEDs never should need replacing and won't yellow or lose their punch. They're small, so can be tucked in and around the slants and curves the stylists favor.

Inside, LED ceiling lights work well as reading lights because they are bright and their tightly focused beams don't distract the driver's eye.

If there's a flaw, it's that — save for the big power difference — the 600 doesn't seem worlds better than the LS 460 sedan that's still atop the Lexus line until the 600 hits showrooms this summer. That's a slight delay, Lexus says, from the previous "spring or summer" forecast; extra time to ensure the brand's flagship has no teething problems.

The 600, as an all-wheel-drive hybrid, is unique among high-end sedans. And that, one presumes, is a valuable trait to the super-affluent.

2008 Lexus LS 600h L

•What is it? The most expensive Japanese car ever sold in the U.S. The biggest, most-powerful gasoline-electric hybrid car. The only LS with all-wheel drive. Bait for the very rich. A halo for the whole Lexus line, as if one were needed.

Specifically, it's a large, four-door, four- or five-passenger, all-wheel-drive, hybrid sedan, manufactured in Japan.

•How soon? Summer, a delay from Lexus' previous forecast of "spring or summer." No problems, says Lexus boss Jim Farley — and Lexus wants to be sure it stays that way.

•How much? $104,715 to start, including destination. Limited production Launch Edition is $121,715. The first 100 of those are available via a catalog that goes to high-rollers who spend a lot at Neiman-Marcus — as much as $1.5 million a year, Lexus says. Gasp.

•What's the point? Nuzzle up to super-affluent buyers, where Lexus hasn't yet made inroads. In so doing, burnish the image of a brand already the synonym for automotive quality.

•How many? 2,000 a year.

•What's the drivetrain? Like all hybrids, it's tricky to envision. It combines a 5-liter gasoline V-8, rated 389 horsepower and 385 pounds feet of torque, with an electric motor that, solo, is good for 221 hp, but teamed and timed with the V-8 adds just 49 hp to the effort, for a total of 438 hp.

A continuously variable automatic transmission based on a set of planetary gears, not the usual belt-and-pulley rig, blends the power and transmits it via a Torsen all-wheel drive system with limited-slip center differential, so front and rear always get power.

Side-to-side power at both ends is managed by traction control.

•What else? You kidding? There's not enough room to tell. Go to the website: www.lexus.com. The car has all the power accessories, air bags and killer sound components you'd expect. A few things you might not: heated steering wheel, power height adjuster for passenger's safety belt, adjustable air suspension.

Yes, the automatic parking system is available. So is a safety package that includes a face-mapping system that knows when you're not looking straight ahead and starts applying the brakes if you're about to crash. And a shiatsu massage option. And 5 well, see that website.

How big? A little narrower than a BMW 760Li inside and out, otherwise similar. LS 600h L is 202.8 inches long, 73.8 inches wide, 58.3 inches tall on a 121.7-inch wheelbase. Weight is listed as 5,049 pounds. Rated to carry 1,026 pounds of people, cargo and accessories (five-passenger model) or 961 pounds (four-passenger Executive model).

Trunk space, truncated by hybrid battery pack, is just 11.7 cubic feet. Lexus swears that's enough for four sets of golf clubs, one set of clubs being a common unit of trunk-space measurement among the many golf-loving Japanese auto execs.

How thirsty? That's the point, isn't it? If a hybrid can't outdo a plain gasoline powerplant, why bother? Lexus projects federal mileage ratings under the 2008 formula of 20 miles per gallon in town, 22 on the highway, 21 in combined driving.

The LS 600's two main targets are BMW 760Li and Audi A8L, both long-wheelbase, 12-cylinder cars. Under the '08 formula, the BMW would be rated 13/20/15, the Audi 13/19/15.

Lexus' tank holds 22.2 gallons. Premium fuel is specified.

Trip computer in test car showed 17.8 mpg in a mix of sedate around-town driving and quite enthusiastic two-lane highway driving.

Overall:A lot of goodness and satisfaction in a single machine, as you've a right to demand for a six-figure price. (Indeed, you should be able to sue successfully if you don't get within a few miles of Nirvana in a $100,000 car.) Excellent showpiece for a respected brand.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events