But the feature that everyone is talking about, the one that invites awe at its technical wizardry or disdain for catering to less skilled drivers, is the parking assistant. The car can steer itself into parallel or slotted parking places. If the car has possible parking places around it and it's put into reverse, buttons appear on the touch screen that lets the driver choose parallel or slotted parking. Once the car is in self-parking mode, a green frame settles on the most likely parking spot, and arrow buttons let the driver adjust the positioning of the spot. Once the spot is chosen, the driver just needs to control the brake while the car steers itself back into the parking spot.
In our testing of the system, we found it identified a valid parking spot very quickly if we had the car positioned properly. For parallel parking, the driver's seat should be next to the front bumper of the car the Lexus is intended to park behind. We found the system works best if the curb is of normal height and there are cars in front and back of the space. Identifying a valid parking space is the biggest challenge--once it's set, the car steers itself right in. We were particularly impressed when the car put itself into a relatively tight spot. When we tried to park in a slotted spot with no cars to either side, we had to spend more time adjusting the green frame, but the car smoothly put itself into the spot. Overall, we like this feature. Although it didn't work under all circumstances, it worked in more than we would have expected.
The materials in the cabin are very luxurious. Lexus' press kit on the car points out that all interior wood comes from a single tree, just to ensure that all the grain matches. We are also impressed with the interior lighting, which uses LED spots for each seat, making it possible for a passenger to read a book without interfering with the driver's night vision.
Eight gears to choose from
Although the cabin of the LS 460L is impressive, Lexus doesn't skimp on the drivetrain, either. The automatic transmission has eight gears. And that's not just excess, as this transmission is pretty smart. In our test driving, shifts were smooth, and most of the time not even noticeable. When we needed power, the transmission was there for us. When going downhill, the transmission downshifted to add a little engine braking. When the transmission is in Drive mode, it uses all gears, but in its Sport mode it tops out at six. It also offers manual selection, where the whole range is available.
The LS 460L's main competitor, the Mercedes-Benz S550, only has seven gears, but it has a bigger engine. As the name would suggest, the LS 460L is powered by a 4.6-liter V-8 producing 380 horsepower. But the S550's bigger engine only seems to get worse gas mileage, as the LS 460L gets to 60mph in 5.4 seconds, whereas the S550 takes 6.14 seconds. We found the engine to be more than adequate to move this big car around, pushing it up hills and off the line without complaints or hesitation. Better yet, the EPA mileage on the LS 460L is 18mpg in the city and 27mpg on the highway. In our testing, which was biased toward highway driving, we observed 24mpg. Those are very good numbers for a big car with a relatively big V-8.
The S550 had a slightly more comfortable suspension than the LS 460L, making the Lexus the second best we've ever tested. It floats over potholes and road imperfections, quickly damping out jolts. There is an air suspension option available that may produce an even better ride, but our test car was not so equipped.
Handling is also good on this car. At low speeds the steering is fairly light, but it firms up underway. It is a fairly big car, and we felt that weight on the curves, but the tires stayed firmly on the road. It's helped along by Lexus' version of stability control, VDIM, which stands for vehicle dynamics integrated management. VDIM takes into account lots of vehicle data, such as wheel slip, deceleration, braking, and speed to provide a smoother driving experience than standard stability control systems.
Four braking system acronyms
The LS 460L also has an extensive array of braking technologies designed for safety and handling that go under various acronyms, such as ECB (electronically controlled braking), ABS (anti-lock braking system), EBD (electronic brakeforce distribution), and BA (brake assist). In our use, we always found the brakes responsive, without being too grippy. Even the parking brake is electronic.
Air bag coverage in the LS 460L is more than complete. The driver and front passenger get front air bags, side air bags, and knee air bags, while side curtain air bags run from front to back. Our car also had optional rear-seat side air bags. Lexus Link telematic service is also available, which will automatically send out an emergency signal if air bags are deployed. The car hasn't been rated by the NHTSA for crash protection yet.
A couple of other nice features worth mentioning are the tire pressure monitor and hill hold. Tire pressures are shown on the instrument cluster display, and even include the pressure in the spare. Hill hold is activated by pushing a button on the steering wheel. When it's activated, the car won't roll when the brake pedal is released.
The Lexus warranty offers four years or 50,000 miles of basic coverage, and six years or 70,000 miles of powertrain coverage.
Our review car was the 2007 Lexus LS 460L, with a base price of $71,000. It had a luxury package ($2,780) that added power rear seats and other options, the Mark Levinson stereo upgrade ($2,530), Lexus Link telematic service ($900), Intuitive Parking Assist ($500), and the whiz bang Advanced Parking Guidance System ($700). With the destination charge, the total came out to $79,125.
The near-$80,000 price tag is hefty, but it's substantially cheaper than the Mercedes-Benz S550 or the BMW 750Li. Its fuel economy is also substantially better than these competitors, which makes it a compelling choice in this segment. But if the price of the LS 460L still sounds on the high side, $10,000 can be quickly shaved off with the standard wheelbase LS 460, which has a base price of $60,000.
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