The Lexus LS 460L is the best car we've seen. We can't put it any more bluntly than that. It checks off all the tech boxes, then goes and adds some new ones. The company's flagship sedan is a genius piece of work, combining technologies that contribute to a comfortable ride with the ability to tear down the roads and take the curves. And it does it all with amazingly good fuel economy, given the size of this thing and its competition.
Lexus redesigned its LS flagship for the 2007 model year, and gave it a bigger engine, more gears, and an expanded array of technology in the cabin. The automatic transmission gets eight gears to shift, more than any other production car. And this Lexus is the first car in North America to get Toyota's self-parking technology, which was previously released in the Prius for Europe and Japan. The LS comes in two basic styles, the standard LS 460 and the long-wheelbase LS 460L version. We tested the latter.
Although the LS 460L gets a long list of options and standard technology, it's not a kitchen sink kind of car. We like how everything is integrated. We like how the car drives. We like the usability of the technology. We even like the self-parking feature, which is getting backlash from other media sources.
Enough speakers for heavenly sound
Our review car came with an upgraded stereo, a Mark Levinson reference system with 19 speakers. Yes, 19. We're not sure if that sets a record for a factory-installed system, but it must come close. That's 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 result is near-perfect audio quality. We used various audio sources and different types of music in our testing, and the system created a nice surround effect while producing excellent separation and clarity with each one. Bass came through strong, while the highest notes still stood out. With the digital signal processor placing the sweet spot for the music dead center in the cabin, the audio actually sounded best in the back seat.
But that's not all we have to say about this audio system. It has a hard drive. Actually, the main purpose of the hard drive is to store data for the navigation system. But there's 8GB left over that can be used for MP3s. Better yet, the system can be set to rip any CD that's put into the changer at either 256Kbps or 128Kbps. The system has the Gracenote CD database built in and will automatically recognize CDs and apply ID3 tags to the ripped tracks. We like this a lot. We ripped six CDs to the system, and it told us we had used 3 percent of the hard drive space. Although 8GB isn't huge by today's standards, it's enough to carry around an adequate music library. The management screen for the hard drive is fairly easy to use, although it does require pushing a button labeled Play mode to change from artist to album selection. We liked the music-management screen on the Cadillac Escalade EXT a bit better.
The LS 460L's stereo can handle other audio sources, as well. It has a six-CD changer that can also read audio and video DVDs. Our car didn't have a rear-seat entertainment system, although that is an option, but we could watch DVDs on the car's dashboard LCD. It also has an auxiliary audio input, for MP3 players, and comes with XM satellite radio. We found it easy to navigate the XM radio channels, using the touch screen to select a category and the tuning knob to choose a station within the category.
Having XM satellite radio is important because the car's navigation system has live traffic reporting, an XM service. We've previously seen this type of live traffic reporting in the Acura RL and RDX. The system overlays traffic information on the navigation map, showing traffic flow in red, yellow, or green for freeways and specific incidents as yellow icons. The system only shows traffic in specific metropolitan areas, and only for major roads, such as freeways or highways. We were impressed that the system in the LS 460L spoke up when there was an incident along the route we had programmed, informing us of an accident 15 miles ahead. It gave us plenty of time to take an exit from the freeway and bypass the accident. The system can also be set to automatically route around incidents. In our testing we did notice some bad reporting, mostly showing green lines on the freeway, indicating free-flowing traffic, while traffic was moving less than 40mph. But that's a fault of the traffic-reporting infrastructure more than the in-car system.
Otherwise, the navigation system worked well. The screen was big, bright, and easy to read. The destination input screen is well-designed, both for aesthetics and usability. Its points-of-interest database is complete, including the usual restaurants, parking, gas stations, and ATMs, along with retail stores. And because it's a hard drive-based system, response times are faster than with a DVD. Route guidance is also very good, although the voice prompts can't read out names of individual streets. When the car approaches an upcoming turn on the route, the map goes to a split screen, showing the map on one side and a graphic of the turn on the other. Accuracy was very good in our testing, even among tall buildings.
At this level of luxury, a voice command system is to be expected. In our testing with the LS 460L, it generally worked very well. It let us input destinations, recognizing every part of the address we spoke. We did find that we had to pronounce Rodeo Drive as ro-dee-o instead of ro-day-o. It also accepts commands for the audio system and Bluetooth cell phone integration. The phone system also worked very smoothly, letting us pair our phone up without a hitch. Even better, once the phone was initially paired, it immediately linked up with the phone again whenever we were in range (as long as our phone's Bluetooth transmitter was on). The car can copy over a phone's address book, up to 1,000 entries, although every time we tried it with our Motorola V551, it broke the Bluetooth connection.
But the feature that everyone is talking about, the one that invites awe at its technical wizardry or disdain for catering to less skilled drivers, is the parking assistant. The car can steer itself into parallel or slotted parking places. If the car has possible parking places around it and it's put into reverse, buttons appear on the touch screen that lets the driver choose parallel or slotted parking. Once the car is in self-parking mode, a green frame settles on the most likely parking spot, and arrow buttons let the driver adjust the positioning of the spot. Once the spot is chosen, the driver just needs to control the brake while the car steers itself back into the parking spot.