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The 2008 Lexus LS 600h arrived in our garage amid great expectations from our staff. The non-hybrid 2007 LS 460 L had treated us so well during a trip to Los Angeles that we gave it a rating of 10. Would its more expensive, more high-tech sibling maintain the family honor? In many ways it did, and even more so, but the LS 600h also stumbles inadvertently, as we've changed our rating criteria.
This year we traded in our safety sub-rating, which wasn't something we could honestly test, for a design sub-rating, our one chance to inject some aesthetic opinions into our overall rating. And while the LS 600h is a very handsome, refined-looking car, has easy-to-use cabin electronics, and wonderful interior space, our consensus opinion was that it just doesn't have the beauty to push it over the top. To get a top score in our design sub-rating, a car has to be a real head-turner.
In all other respects, the LS 600h blows away our rating system. Although much more expensive than the LS 460 L, it justifies its price with more power, superior handling, and lower tailpipe emissions. Instead of making the LS 600h merely a hybrid version of the LS 460 L, Lexus added rather than subtracted, increasing the size of the gas engine from 4.6-liters to 5-liters, and coupling that to a 165-kilowatt motor. And all that power gets to the road through an all-wheel-drive system.
Similarly, the LS 600h gets all the cabin gadgets from the LS 460 L then adds a couple more. On the LS 460 L, we were stunned by the audio quality and loved the in-dash hard drive for storing music. The live traffic alerts feature the best integration with a navigation system we've seen on a factory-install. Then there are the cutting-edge features, such as automatic parallel parking and adaptive cruise control.
Test the tech: Man versus machine parking
We're no strangers to competitive parking, having previously put a Mini Cooper S into a curbside space of decreasing size. Because our LS 600h had the Advanced Parking Guidance System, we decided to pit CNET editors Wayne Cunningham and Kevin Massy against it. Our plan: we'd pick a standard parallel parking space and give the editors, and then the car, a shot at completing the task. The car and the editors would be timed, and we would also count the number of maneuvers it took to get in the spot.
The view from the back-up camera shows the Lexus getting close into its parking spot.
We gave the Lexus the first try. Once the car was in reverse, the car's back-up camera displayed the street space to the right of the car, and framed the image in green. The frame indicates that the car has found a space in which it can fit. You can adjust the frame if it hasn't matched the parking space precisely by tweaking the arrows located on the screen. We let the car roll back into the spot, and it automatically turned the steering wheel appropriately to get the back end in, then the front end. When the car notified us that the guidance was done, the car was in the parking space. Our stopwatch said it took 48.6 seconds--but the car was 20 inches from the curb.
Cunningham went second, backing into the same parallel parking spot. The LS 600h also has a park-distance warning, which sounded as Cunningham moved the car too close to one parked behind the spot. Cunningham made one correction forward, ending up 1 inch from the curb in 44.9 seconds. Massy then took the wheel. Once he was finally in the space, he had made a total of two adjustments, getting the car 8 inches from the curb in 44.6 seconds.
Massy got into the parking space in the least amount of time, but had to make the most adjustments. Cunningham was closest to the curb, but was second place in time and number of adjustments. The car took the longest, and was furthest from the curb, but made no adjustments.
As a long wheelbase car, the LS 600h just fits in between two meters.
Although the car's parking job wasn't technically legal, as it was too far from the curb, the Lexus does get the benefit of the doubt, as we didn't adjust where the car automatically placed its green frame to come closer to the curb. As for how much time the car took to park, that was partially under the control of a human operator. While the car steers itself into a spot, it requires a driver to control the speed. The Lexus does require a maximum speed of a few miles per hour for the system to work, and we tried to stay close to that.
While the parking system isn't perfect, in the right conditions it can work very well, and can save inexperienced parkers big headaches. Along with parallel parking, the car can back into perpendicular parking spaces, a feature that is generally easier to set up than parallel parking.
In the cabin
One thing you notice, or actually don't notice, after a long drive in the LS 600h is any discomfort. After spending many hours in the driver's seat, we found none of the usual aches or stiffness we get from other cars. The suspension and the seats combine to reduce fatigue for the driver. All of the cabin materials, from the leather seats to the Alcantara headliner, have a high-quality feel. Likewise, the switchgear feels solid.
You can control the car's systems through the touchscreen LCD, an interface that may not be as unique as BMW's iDrive or Audi's MMI, but is much more practical. There is also a voice command system that works well for entering destinations, controlling the stereo, and making phone calls. The Lexus voice command system is the second best we've used, just behind the system found in the Honda Accord.
The navigation system offers multiple routes to a destination, and its maps look good.
Because the navigation system's data is stored on a hard drive, it works much faster than a DVD-based system. The screen has nice resolution and the maps look very good. Specifically, we noticed that the street names don't appear jagged when they are aligned diagonally. We also like that the points-of-interest database has a phone book's worth of retail locations--you can use it to find any kind of shop. The database also lets you set destinations using the map or nearest freeway entrance.
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 LS 600h can store around 2,000 songs on its hard drive.
It will, of course, play MP3 CDs in its six-disc, in-dash changer. You can also put DVD audio discs in the changer. Along with that, the car comes prepped for XM satellite radio, and there is an auxiliary audio input. Our only criticism about the stereo is that its music organization tools could be better. For music on the hard drive, you can only navigate by album, rather than by genre or artist, as you can on any MP3 player.
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.
The LS 600h's hybrid system power diagram gets a little complex.
Lexus accomplishes this magic with a hybrid system, using Toyota's Synergy drive. The gas engine on the car is a 5-liter V-8 that puts out 389 horsepower. This engine will also appear in the Lexus IS-F. But then Lexus has added a 165-kilowatt electric motor to the engine, increasing the horsepower to 438. Some fuel-cell research cars we've seen get plenty of push from a 90-kilowatt motor, but 165 kilowatts is big. These power sources are combined in a special planetary gear system, turning all four wheels. Lexus' newly developed all-wheel-drive system sends 60 percent of the power to the rear wheels by default, but adjusts the ratio from front to back, depending on where the power is needed.
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.
With adaptive cruise control, the LS 600h's speed is set for 72mph, but it is only going 60mph due to traffic.
While we enjoyed driving the LS 600h down Highway 84, which winds over coastal hills from Interstate 280 to Highway 1, we also used the adaptive cruise control for effortless cruising on the freeway. With this system, we set our speed and our following distance, and let the car control the accelerator and brake as it tracked the car in front. We initially felt trepidation using this system, but after a while we grew to trust it.
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.