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.
The ride quality can be adjusted with a button on the console, but the LS 460 never quite achieves the promised sporty handling.
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.
A green light on the instrument cluster lets you know when you are driving economically.
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.
The LS 460 offers stock quotes, sports scores, and weather from the Information screen.
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.
The Mark Levinson audio system is unchanged from previous model years of the LS 460, but that is not a bad thing. With 19 speakers, 450 watts, and 7.1-channel architecture, it is definitely an audiophile system. It delivers excellent instrumental detail over a wide stage. Its frequency response is well-balanced from the highs to the bass.
Listening to electronic music with complex layers, we could hear subtle sounds included in the tracks. Bass came through strongly without being overpowering or rattling door panels. High-pitch notes from vocals and acoustic tracks were soft, with no shrillness.
The stereo itself gave us a reasonable number of choices for audio sources. We tended to rely on the integrated iPod support, but found some inconvenient quirks. The interface let us browse our iPod's music library with the usual artist, album, and genre categories, but it was very sluggish. Touching the album tab on the LCD, we had to wait a little bit for the first screen to load. Scrolling down the alphabetical list, each new screen took equally long to load. We got used to touching the scroll button, looking back to the road for a bit, then returning attention to the screen. It was tedious.
Although maybe not the car's fault, we were also dissatisfied with the audio quality when using an iPhone that was simultaneously paired to the car's Bluetooth phone system. During playback, we heard frequent pops, ruining the listening experience. This problem may have been more because of the iPhone being overtaxed, as we did not encounter this problem with an iPod Touch.
Other audio source choices included satellite radio and a six-CD changer. Although the navigation system stores its maps on a hard drive, there is no onboard music library for the car.
Navigation system maps are easy to read, but they have not changed much in the last five years.
The navigation system has not changed much over the years. Even as Lexus switched from DVD to a hard drive, the look of the maps remained largely the same. These maps are very readable, with bright, well-defined colors and large graphics showing upcoming turns. But Lexus only offers 2D maps where other luxury automakers have gone to rich 3D maps with rendered buildings.
For the 2010 model year, Lexus added its Enform telematics service to the navigation system, giving users the option of calling an operator through the navigation interface and requesting an address lookup. We were also impressed with the ease of entering an address through voice command, as the system understood our standard test address street, Tehama, a name that usually trips up voice recognition.
Traffic information is integrated with this navigation system. As we drove around the San Francisco Bay Area, we frequently heard its warnings of slow traffic on the freeway ahead. The system issues a vocal warning if traffic is running between 20 and 40 mph, and dynamically changes the route if traffic is slower than 20 mph.
Very disappointing for a carmaker that competes with the likes of Mercedes-Benz was the total lack of driver assistance features on the option sheet. No blind-spot detection, no adaptive cruise control, not even the automatic parallel parking technology Lexus offered when it launched the LS 460.
The high point of the 2010 Lexus LS 460 is really its performance technology, despite the fact that it handles like a pig. The engine generates a good amount of power and is fairly economical. Although the transmission has eight gears, it never feels intrusive. And the air suspension helps the LS 460 ride over obstacles with little cabin involvement.
And the LS is a good-looking vehicle, too. Its lines may not be stunning, but its understated aesthetics go along with its mission. We particularly like the way Lexus insets the rear pipes in the body molding, something many other automakers have since copied.
Although we like the audio system quite a bit, the rest of the cabin electronics do not raise the bar. The navigation system does not look quite as good as those from other automakers and the phone system is run-of-the-mill. But what really hurts the car in this area is the lack of driver assistance features, an area where a car company can really set itself apart.
|Model||2010 Lexus LS 460|
|Power train||Direct injection 4.6-liter V-8, eight-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||16 mpg city/24 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||19.5 mpg|
|Navigation||Hard-drive-based with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible six-CD changer|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Satellite radio, USB drive, Bluetooth streaming|
|Audio system||7.1-channel 19-speaker Mark Levinson system|
|Driver aids||Backup camera, park distance warning|
|Price as tested||$76,979|