It would be easy to dismiss the Lexus LS600hL as the ultimate feel-good device, a literal limousine for limousine liberals, a $100,000 self-indulgence-mobile whose hybrid powertrain provides a veneer of environmentalism that allows its well-to-do owners to feel like they're doing something for the environment when they're really doing something for themselves.
But there's more to this car than that. As the apogee of the Lexus line, the LS600hL tells us a lot about how Lexus sees itself. Although the LS sedan dates back to the first days of Lexus, it's only now, with the fourth-generation car, that Toyota is bringing out a version to battle the twelve-cylinder competition from Europe. Tellingly, Lexus has not developed a twelve-cylinder model of its own. Instead, it attempts to equal their performance with a complex and expensive V-8 hybrid.
Predictably, Lexus does a very good job of rivaling the mighty twelves of Europe. By the company's own measure, acceleration from 0 to 60 mph (5.5 seconds) is a tad slower, while 30 to 70 mph is about the same, but this will hardly matter to anyone except maybe the teenage progeny of the owners, if they're out drag-racing the parental Lexus against a similarly spoiled and punkish prep-school classmate at the wheel of his dad's Mercedes-Benz S600. More important, Lexus engineers have made the complex powertrain work as a seamless whole. There's still the faintest degree of nonlinearity in response, mostly when you lift off the throttle, but under most circumstances, this is an exceptionally smooth propulsion system, and one that's almost eerily quiet. The continuously variable transmission masterfully imitates a conventional multispeed gearbox (with eight ratio steps available in manual mode). We also must commend the electric power steering and electrohydraulic regenerative braking for being utterly conventional in their responses.
Alone among the LS models, the LS600hL comes with all-wheel drive. You might expect that its purpose is to accommodate the increased torque (385 lb-ft versus 367 lb-ft for the LS460), but Lexus engineers insist that the system, which has a 40/60 percent rear bias but can send as much as 70 percent of the torque to either end, is there to provide better response in cornering. The LS600hL also adds active antiroll bars, which are called into play earlier in less severe corners (below 0.4 g) to reduce body roll. Nevertheless, the LS600hL is still too much of a limousine to be any kind of a playmate for an enthusiastic driver.
Of course, there's plenty more technology on hand here. The low-beam headlamps are LEDs that swivel in turns and are supposed to last the life of the car (assuming they're not stolen). Optional adaptive cruise control includes a pre-collision warning and mitigation system that beeps at the driver when the car is closing in too fast on an object ahead and will tighten the seatbelts, apply light braking, quicken the steering ratio, and increase the power steering boost to help the driver avoid or at least mitigate a collision. A Mark Levinson audio system plays every current music media and delivers garage-rocking sound through no fewer than nineteen speakers. As on the LS460L, buyers can opt for what Lexus calls its executive class seating, with two rear lounge seats boasting all manner of electric adjustments and massage functions. The LS600hL also ups the LS interior ante with a hand-stitched, leather-covered dashboard, although in the interior, as on the exterior, design remains in the background, behind materials and assembly quality.
So, the LS600hL is a remarkable luxury car. But what to make of its most distinctive element, its hybrid powertrain? Well, it doesn't exactly transform the big Lexus into an environmentalist's dewy-eyed dream. The car achieves the EPA's SULEV emissions status, which is impressive but not exceptional: Using the tougher, '08 model year testing, its EPA fuel economy is 20 mpg city/22 mpg highway, as compared with the LS460L's 16/25 mpg. The hybrid Lexus betters its twelve-cylinder competitors by a lot (an S600 gets 12/19), but the big hybrid is hardly a fuel sipper. Interestingly, the driver can push a dash button that, if a variety of conditions are right (engine warmed up, battery sufficiently charged, speed less than 25 mph) will keep the LS600hL running in full-electric mode a bit longer than it otherwise would--but even so, it probably will go only 0.6 mile before the 5.0-liter V-8 fires up. Ask chief engineer Moritaka Yoshida why the button is there, and the answer is "for silent and emissions-free driving, such as in indoor parking garages." In other words, it's more of a courtesy to nearby pedestrians than a way to save fuel.
A luxury car first and a hybrid second, the LS600hL is a tech-laden, top-of-the-line dream machine with the performance and features to match anything in its rarefied class. The hybrid system doesn't make it an eco-mobile, but it does give it a notably more benign ecological impact than its competitors.