Lexus’ LS 600h L hybrid is a paradoxical marvel: a green machine with extreme power and a lofty price.
by Stephan Wilkinson
The thought of a six-figure hybrid, a word that typically elicits thoughts of economical Priuses, might seem oxymoronic. But among those who buy a Prius are people who could afford any car but have chosen technology and eco-friendliness over brute force and ostentation. The Lexus LS 600h L plays to this set.
Whether a 438-horsepower sedan that has a 21 mile-per-gallon combined city/highway fuel-consumption rating is a true green machine is debatable. Lexus has decided that the supersedan market doesn”t need yet another V12, but that it might respond to a machine of such super-tech and seeming concern for the environment that it would be unique in the segment.
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The German and English luxury carmakers can boast of 12-cylinder engines with enormous horsepower, but only the Japanese can point to the hugely complex technology that seamlessly combines a gasoline engine and electric motors to produce substantial thrust “” torque “”while using less energy and exhaling far fewer fumes.
The LS 600h L is the only Super Low Emissions Vehicle (SULEV) among all luxury sedans, and its exhaust is 70 percent cleaner than the closest direct competitor, the Audi A8 L.
The LS 600h L is a long-wheelbase, all-wheel-drive limo with a relatively thrifty V8 gasoline engine plus two electric motors linked to a sophisticated, continuously variable transmission “” which doesn”t have gears, but rather a variable chain or belt that approximates gear ratios. The V8 on its own has ample power to propel this two-and-a-half-ton Lexus along interstates at take-me-to-jail speeds.
Floor the gas pedal and one of the electric motors kicks in to add its considerable torque for acceleration. The second electric motor and generator are dedicated to battery charging and starting the gas engine.
Merge into a bumper-to-bumper freeway commute and you”ll go all the way from Malibu to Hollywood almost entirely on volts: The gas engine goes to sleep if the LS 600h L is stopped or doing less than about 35 miles per hour under very light throttle. The engine will imperceptibly reawaken periodically to recharge the batteries.
Whether the additional 58 hp and hybrid bragging rights are worth an astounding $47,000 premium over the otherwise-identical Lexus LS 460 L (whose conventional V8 gasoline engine puts out 380 hp and gets an estimated 21 mpg on average) will determine whether or not Lexus sells the 2,000 LS 600h Ls that it intends to bring to the U.S. annually.
The single biggest challenge that the $104,000 LS 600h L faces is that from the outside it looks identical to the LS 460 L, a $71,000 sedan intended for a more conventional luxury-car buyer. A few discreet blue-tinted badges differentiate the LS 600h L, as do the words “Hybrid” on the lower edges of the rear doors.
The fourth-generation LS is a handsome car, having moved far from its unimaginative origin as a Japanese version of a mid-range Mercedes with more generic styling. Lexus is trying to overtake the best of the Germans now by boasting of extreme quality, and the LS 600h L”s bodywork is indeed a collection of well-crafted lines, tight panel seams and deep, hand-rubbed paint.
Seating and accommodations are as regal as you”d expect in a car of this category, and then some: The rear seats can be equipped with every possible power, climate and entertainment control, including a massage feature that is surprisingly effective in reproducing the actions of a Shiatsu masseur.
The right rear seat can also be equipped with an ottoman-like leg rest that extends while the right front seat slides and tilts fully forward. (Be aware that anybody 5″10″ or taller will be leaving dirty shoeprints on the front seatback, however.)
The optional 19-speaker Mark Levinson sound system revealed its sophistication to me in a surprising way: as a middle-aged hearing-aid wearer, even the best in-car audio systems are ordinary-sounding, but the Levinson unit made me think I had the ears of an 18-year-old again.
The one interior failing is that trunk space is small for a car this size due to the need to fit a huge battery and other electrical equipment behind the rear seat. Other cars in this category typically have cavernous trunks, but the LS 600h L”s is comparable to a midsize sedan”s; it”ll fit two duffels or moderate-sized golf bags, but that”s about it.
On the Road
The Lexus LS 600h L is the automotive equivalent of a 30,000-square-foot “green” mansion with solar panels on the roof to heat the in-ground pool: It makes little sense in terms of utility or serious energy-saving. But if you”re going to have a big hot tub “” or an enormous and powerful luxury sedan “” why not make it as eco-friendly as possible?
Lexus found through market research that luxury-sedan buyers list “more power” as their first imperative. Safety comes second, fuel economy third and clean emissions fourth.
Certainly the LS 600h L has power a”plenty. The electric motors produce their maximum torque all the way from startup to peak rpm. But that, combined with the continuously variable transmission, gives this car an odd characteristic: The steady acceleration of a subway train rather than the shove-in-the-back lunge at peak torque that a high-powered car with a conventional transmission and powertrain provides as it accelerates through the gears. This car is very quick, but doesn”t particularly feel like it.
Far more important than speed or acceleration are the LS 600h L”s intriguing new optional “active” safety features “” technological marvels that are the strongest indication yet of the inevitable autonomous automobile of the future that will do the driving for humans who”d rather be on the phone or reading e-mails while they “drive.”
The option is called the Advanced Pre-Collision System (APCS), and it uses a forward-looking camera above the rearview mirror, plus input from the adaptive cruise control”s radar, to sense a collision about to happen (like when approaching a detected stationary or slower-moving object too fast). Other manufacturers have employed cruise-control radar to do this, but the Lexus camera can sense objects as narrow as a pedestrian.
When the APCS predicts an impact, it sets off a loud buzzer and cinches tight the front seatbelts. If you so much as touch the brakes as a result, the system instantly applies full braking to the point of ABS activation. If you start to steer to avoid the object, the steering ratio increases and effort is reduced, so that what might otherwise be a tentative swerve automatically turns into an effective accident-avoidance maneuver.
A further option adds a “driver monitor” to the APCS “” a small infrared camera (meaning it works even at night) that is mounted atop the steering column, pointed at the driver”s face. It instantly maps the customary position of the driver”s face, and if the APCS recognizes an impending collision while the driver isn’t paying attention or while falling asleep at the wheel, it sounds a warning and applies the brakes.
Is the Lexus LS600h L for You?
Buy the LS600h L if
You want to show the world you”re environmentally conscious without sacrificing the pleasure of high performance and luxury.
Keep Looking if
You feel a $47,000 surcharge for an extra 58 hp, slightly better fuel economy and lower emissions is excessive.
Anybody who doesn”t bring much luggage.
Options Worth Splurging on
The Executive Class Seating Package, with the rear-seat leg rest, multi-function massage and entertainment system with twin DVD screens and wireless headsets.
Audi A8 L W12 Quattro, BMW 760Li, Mercedes-Benz S600.
2008 Lexus LS600h L Gallery: