The Lexus LS has gotten a bunch of flack from us journalists, mostly because it’s so distant and removed that its driver’s relationship with the road is no closer than its passengers’. As much as I love drivers’ cars (and, oh do I ever), Lexus never pretended that the LS was to appeal to enthusiasts. The LS is supposed to appeal to their antitheses – people who don’t want to be bothered with the task of driving at all. I mean, why else would this thing park itself?
Lexus launched the hybrid LS600hL as a competitor to the V-12-powered monsters from BMW and Mercedes. Again, journalists complained, saying that the LS doesn’t even come close to matching those cars’ performance. And it doesn’t – the twin-turbo V-12 Mercedes S600 could probably dust the Lexus with half its cylinders deactivated. At half throttle.
Or not – but the point is: I’m convinced that’s not what Lexus meant when they compared the LS600hL’s performance to the V-12 cars. They meant that, in that oh-so-smooth Lexus way, the LS would glide around town in the quiet, relaxed way that only twelve-cylinder luxosedans can. And that is a talent the LS possesses in spades.
My first trip in the LS was a thirty-mile drive at rush hour north of San Francisco. Traffic was moving between a crawl and 50 mph, up and down big Marin County hills, and yet not once did the tachometer bother to indicate anything more than 1600 rpm. In normal driving, the combination of electric assist and the V-8’s prodigious low-end grunt makes excess engine speed superfluous. Off the line, the Lexus’s powerful electric motor sets the car into movement the way a jet engine does (though without the noise) and then slowly spins the V-8 up to operating speed (just over idle) without so much as a shudder. It’s no exaggeration to say that, without a tachometer, the passengers in an LS600hL would have no idea whether the engine was running.
Stomp on the gas, and the V-8 jumps to near 6000 rpm with a quiet, slightly nasal roar that is at once get-out-of-my-way aggressive and totally unobtrusive. Not that you can hear it over the thundering bass from the Mark Levinson Reference surround stereo system. The big Lexus is deceivingly quick, especially at high speeds where it blasts past the 100-mph mark without breaking a sweat.
Unlike most hybrids, the LS isn’t about outright fuel economy – this car’s mission is quite clearly to give the V-8 the relaxed demeanor of a V-12 by eliminating the need to rev it quickly in normal driving. It does that. It doesn’t do much for fuel economy, however, as the 600 managed around the same mileage as I routinely saw in our Four Seasons LS460L. Twenty-seven mpg on the highway is nothing to be ashamed of – in fact, it’s quite impressive – but the almost-as-quick LS460L is also much less expensive.
What’s perhaps most fascinating about the LS600hL is how well the computer works the electronic CVT to optimize the battery’s charge and maximize fuel economy. On a very long downhill stretch of highway, I coasted at 70 mph with both feet off the pedals. The dashboard display showed that the battery was being charged and the tach showed the engine at idle. As the battery reached full charge, the computer gradually raised the engine speed from idle to 3000 rpm (by adjusting the CVT’s gearing) and stopped generating energy. The changeover in drag from generator to engine overrun was completely imperceptible and totally fascinating. To me, anyway.
The LS600hL generates decent grip, offers decent steering accuracy and feedback, and (short of an occasionally unpredictable brake pedal reaction) a pleasant experience from behind the wheel. If you keep reminding yourself that Lexus doesn’t want the LS to be a Japanese 7-series, you’ll agree that it does a fantastic job at making its driver think he’s driving on a cloud – with a million horsepower under his right foot. And there’s no better reminder of that than feeling big surges of smooth, quiet torque while the tach needle rises lazily to 1300 rpm. Very V-12-like indeed.