We really liked the route guidance on the Lexus' navigation system as well. The system displays in a split screen, shows graphics for complex freeway junctions, and generally times its voice guidance well. But the most advanced part of the system is that, in conjunction with the system's live traffic reporting, it will suggest detours when your route takes you through slow traffic or an incident. During normal operation, the live traffic reporting--sent through an XM satellite radio channel--shows how fast traffic is moving on major roads and displays icons for incidents, such as an accident or roadwork.
The navigation system data uses about 20GB of the 30GB hard drive, leaving 10GB left over for music storage. Yes, this car has a built-in music server. When you insert a CD, the car can rip it, storing the music in MP3 format at either 128kbps or 256kbps. At the lower bit rate, Lexus suggests you can store about 2,000 songs. We found that it rips music reasonably fast, and it's very convenient having music stored on the hard drive. The car will only rip standard RedBook CDs, and can't copy tracks from an MP3 CD.
The audio quality from the 19-speaker Mark Levinson system is fantastic, coming close to our all-time favorite THX system in the Lincoln MKZ. The Mark Levinson system uses six sets of two-way tweeter/midrange speakers placed along the sides of the car, one two-way in the dash for center fill, big woofers in each door, and a subwoofer in back. These speakers get 450 watts from 15 channels pumped through them. The separation and clarity are excellent no matter where you're sitting.
The third part of our tech trifecta, Bluetooth phone integration in the LS 600h works very well. We found no problems pairing our phone to the system, and it lets you copy over your phone's address book, which is always a nice feature. Call quality is clear and the voice command system works well. And the car earns extra points for its aesthetically designed, on-screen interface.
The back seat in the LS 600h is a very good place to be, if you have someone else around who can drive. First of all, as they only build the LS 600h on the long wheelbase version of the LS 460, the back seats have huge amounts of leg room. Better yet, the executive seat option gives the right rear-seat massage capability, and includes a leg rest that pops up. A ceiling-mounted DVD screen is also available, with controls in the rear-center console for the back-seat executive.
Under the hood
Lexus brought all its engineering genius to bear on the powerplant for the LS 600h. This massive system is designed to give the power of a V-12 with the fuel consumption and emissions of a V-8. Well, Lexus went a little better on the economy and environmental side, although they did come up a bit short on the power side. During our time with the car, we got 19.4mpg; the car is rated at 20mpg in the city and 22mpg on the highway, using the EPA's new test procedure. That's better than the 18.5mpg we saw in the 4.2-liter Audi A6, and both cars have all-wheel drive.
Like other cars using the Toyota Synergy hybrid system, the LS 600h has a continuously variable transmission. This type of transmission doesn't actually shift gears, instead delivering power with an infinitely changeable ratio. This transmission lets the LS 600h smoothly accelerate. It's a big car, and its hybrid battery pack adds weight, so its 0mph-to-60mph time is around 5.5 seconds, somewhat short of its V-12 powered luxury competitors. On the flip side, the LS 600h actually qualifies as a SULEV from the California Air Resources Board, an emissions rating that few cars achieve, especially not ones that go this fast. The LS 600h drives like a hybrid, starting under electric power until the engine is needed. There's a button to put it in EV mode, where it will drive under electric power alone until it absolutely needs to start recharging its batteries.
In practice, the LS 600h feels fast and handles very well. It has three-way switches on the center console that let you set the engine to deliver more torque, in Power mode, and set the suspension to Sport for a more rigid ride. With these settings, and the transmission in Sport mode, the LS 600h can attack corners with minimal body roll, no wheel slip, and excellent throttle response. For more sedate driving, you can set the torque to normal and move the suspension to Comfort. There's even a button to raise the air suspension to maximum height, for negotiating speed bumps or steep ramps.
Lexus has also introduced a new safety feature, a driver monitoring system, as an option for the LS 600h. We didn't have it installed on our car, but we have seen it on other LS 600h press cars. It's a camera mounted on the steering column that watches the driver's face. If it thinks you're not looking at the road and an obstacle is up ahead, it will flash a warning.
Our 2008 Lexus LS 600h was a base model, priced around $104,000. Lexus priced the LS 600h substantially higher than the LS 460 L, positioning it as a new flagship model to compete with the Mercedes-Benz S-class. We came away very impressed with the LS 600h, feeling it offered similar handling and better fuel economy than the Mercedes-Benz S550 we tested last year. Because of the touch-screen LCD and the voice command system, its cabin gadgets are easier to use than those from BMW, Audi, or Mercedes-Benz.
Lexus doesn't expect to sell too many of these cars per year, but the company might be in for a surprise. For people throwing this kind of money around, the LS 600h could present a compelling argument as a luxury car. That is, unless the badge means more to a prospective buyer than how the car works.