Put lipstick on a pig and you still won't want to take it to the prom, but the bacon will be delicious. We thought of that aphorism as we plowed our sport-packaged 2010 Lexus LS 460 into a set of turns on a mountain highway.
A sport-tuned suspension couldn't make up for the heavy nose's understeer. We appreciated the stopping power of the Brembo brakes and the look of the 19-inch 10-spoke wheels, but none of that equipment could counteract the tendency of the car to slide around, activating the buzzkill traction control.
But while the LS 460 terrified us as we didn't come close to doubling the recommended speed in these turns, we were extremely happy to drive it to work each morning, its air suspension-smooth ride and ability to mute the audio track of the outside world easing our journey into the working day. The 2010 LS 460 in no way threatens Lexus' luxury reputation, but it doesn't advance its quest for performance.
Despite its poor handling character, the LS 460 has plenty of power overhead, the 380 horsepower and 367 pound-feet of torque from the 4.6-liter V-8 ready to rocket it forward at a touch of the gas pedal. Lexus claims a zero to 60 mph time of 5.4 seconds.
And where we often find transmissions a weak point in power trains, there is little to complain about in the LS 460's eight-speed automatic gearbox. It changes gears gently but decisively, preserving the car's luxury character. In manual mode using the paddle shifters, another feature of the sport package, gear changes happened without hesitation, the car responding well to our whims.
The transmission lacks a Sport mode, though, and will not automatically hang onto low gears as you kick it through a turn. But that is all to the good, as this car does not excel at cornering. Its air suspension offers a Sport mode, which noticeably roughens the ride and keeps it from horrible wallowing. Though it keeps the body under control, we noted the summer tires, rubber courtesy of the sport package, were more than willing to lose grip on dry pavement.
Going against custom, we spent most of our time driving the LS 460 with the suspension switched to Comfort, letting it soak up the jagged topography of asphalt. In one notable test, we braced ourselves at the sight of some big metal plates set into the road, a temporary and ill-fitting cover for ongoing utilities work. But the expected jolt did not come, the suspension absorbing the seismic shift and keeping it out of the cabin.
As another little luxury test, the Navy's Blue Angels Demonstration Squadron happened to be buzzing San Francisco in preparation for a weekend show. We watched the formation of four jets fly low over the bay, but heard barely a whisper from inside the car.
Lexus ekes power and efficiency from its V-8 by using both a port injection and direct-injection system. Port injection works at low speeds, its quiet operation keeping the engine from rattling, while the direct injection takes over when the engine is working hard, road sounds masking the injector rattle. Direct injection--along with the eight gears in the transmission--contributes to decent fuel economy.
The EPA puts the LS 460's fuel economy at 16 mpg city and 24 mpg highway. During our mixed city, freeway, and mountain driving, we came in at a solid 19.5 mpg. In fact, we didn't once see the trip computer dip below 19 mpg, and in a prior model year LS 460, with the same power train, we came in at over 24 mpg for a long freeway trip, not bad numbers for a big V-8. We've seen similar fuel economy with a V-6.
As a green feel-good measure, Lexus includes an eco light on the instrument cluster. We found it relatively easy to keep the light glowing, with only hard acceleration making it turn off. This light corresponds to a power meter on the speedometer, which lets you fine-tune efficient driving. There is also an Eco mode, activated by a button placed on the left of the dashboard. This button should be on the console with the rest of the drive mode buttons. Hitting it detunes acceleration, but we did not notice much change in the instantaneous fuel economy meter.
Stock quotes on the go
The LCD in the car offers a fuel economy display, accessible via a button in its Information area, which also shows buttons for the Bluetooth cell phone system, along with sports scores, stock prices, and weather forecasts from XM Satellite Radio. The sports scores and stock prices are nice new features, and well-designed to avoid driver distraction. If you touch a ticker symbol, the car will read out the current price with the day's low and high.
Lexus has improved the LS 460's phone system for the 2010 model year. It not only downloads a paired phone's contact list, but also lets you use voice command to dial by name. The call quality proved to be very good, helped by the sound-deadened cabin and the Mark Levinson audio system, a premium option in our car.