Lexus LS 600h L: Introduction
Maybe it sounds silly to those of us who take out second mortgages to buy an Accord, but a luxury car maker must play in this desire-driven category to get real luxury street cred. Which brings us to the 2008 Lexus LS 600h L. This most expensive Lexus ever powers the brand into the biggest of the big leagues with a $104,000 price tag and a hybrid powertrain that brings a curious, maybe even hypocritical, environmentally positive message to the segment. Even though sales are projected at a modest 2,000 vehicles per year in the U.S., how well it does will speak volumes about Lexus’s acceptance in the luxury segment, and about the kind of statement the richest of the rich want to make about themselves.
The Basics: Origins
The Basics: Model Mix
The price for a basic, run-of-the mill LS 600h L is $104,715, including the $715 destination charge. In addition to the hybrid all-wheel drive powertrain, the 600h includes many features optional on the 460, such as the exceptional Mark Levinson sound system, variable gear ratio steering and air suspension. Not all options packages were priced at press time, but the Premium Package with rear power heated/cooled seats and the advanced parking guidance system is $4,000, and the Premium Package II, which adds power rear door sunshades, additional wood trim, a rear seat entertainment system with a 9-inch power screen, and four-zone climate control runs $7,450. Individual options include an active stabilizer ($3,000) that reduces roll in turns and includes 19-inch wheels and “summer” tires, and a Pre-Collision System ($2,850) which uses radar to anticipate and prepare for collisions.
What’s New: Outside
If you have the wherewithal to drop more than $100,000 on a car, the interior had better reflect your status. To that end, Lexus has covered the dash in hand-stitched leather and the grab handles have wood inlays. The rest of the interior is largely the same, no bad thing here, as the LS is one of the most luxurious cars on the road. The Launch Edition features highly contrasting black and alabaster leather on the dash and seats, respectively. It looks beautiful, but that light-colored leather won’t stay clean for long, which means frequent visits to the detailer. Oh, bother. It is, as one would expect, perhaps the quietest car on the road at virtually any speed.
Under the Hood
This is where the primary difference lies between this and the regular LS 460. That car’s 4.6-liter V8 engine has been stroked to 5.0-liters, and by itself produces 389 horsepower and 385 lb.-ft. of torque. When coupled with the hybrid’s electric motor, power increases to 438 hp. It’s all routed to a 600h-specific all-wheel drive system that uses a Torsen center differential and a continuously variable transmission similar to but smaller than the one in the GS 450h. The hybrid system works as we’ve seen in previous Lexus and Toyota systems; the engine shuts off at a stop, you have limited electric-only ability at light throttle, regenerative braking recharges the batteries, etc. The LS 600h L also boasts an “EV” feature, where you can manually select electric-only to stealthily cruise through parking structures until you get low on juice. Like other hybrid versions of gas-powered cars, the LS 600h L loses a big chunk of its trunk space, going from cavernous 18 cu. ft. in the 460 and 460 L to only 11.7 cu. ft. in the hybrid.
Safety and Technology
Safety is as luxurious as anything else these days, and on the high end of the spectrum is where you see the highest technology. In addition to the usual array of stability control, adaptive cruise control and headlights, accident avoidance radar and airbags found in high-end luxury cars, the LS 600h L boasts the world’s first driver monitor. Two cameras peer at your face from atop the steering column, and through recognition software can tell if you’re looking forward or not. It combines with all the other safety systems to alert you if it senses that you’re distracted (looking to the side) or sleepy (head nodding forward) when the car is approaching an object, beeping to alert you. Failing that, the safety systems take over by tightening the seatbelt, priming the brakes and basically getting ready to crash if you’re sound asleep, although we think all that could be avoided if they could just get it to shout “THE DOW IS CRASHING!” in your broker’s voice.
Driving: Test Car, Location
While the LS 600h L is the flagship Lexus and the most powerful sedan the company has ever built, its power to weight ratio is virtually the same as the 460 L thanks to the 700-pound handicap. Compare it against its V12-powered competition, and it begins to look a little weak-kneed. The Audi A8’s W12 and the V12s of the Mercedes-Benz S600 both generate more power (450 and 510 hp, respectively), and while the 6.0-liter V12 in the BMW 760Li has the same power as the Lexus, it spanks it in torque with 444 lb.-ft. versus the Lexus 385. That’s on paper. On the street, the LS 600h L is plenty quick, downright fast even, and we never found it lacking in power or torque, especially in passing maneuvers. The continuously-variable transmission stays in the meat of the powerband, which in small cars is annoying because of the engine drone, but here is gratifying because you get to hear the muted roar of the V8 at full song. The transmission features a manual mode that simulates the regular LS’s eight-speed automatic transmission. It’s fine for downshifting in turns, but we found that we could leave the 600h in drive most of the time and still enjoy hard driving, as the transmission was quick to respond with the right gear ratio. The in-town EPA-estimated fuel economy of 20 mpg and SULEV emissions rating are both superior to the Germans.
Ride and Handling
With the suspension switched to “Sport” and the driver on a twisty road, the LS 600h L acquits itself quite well when it needs to. The variable ratio steering is effortless in its action, too much so, but the imperceptible ratio changes resulted only in very responsive steering. The suspension’s “sport” mode reduces the float and roll we normally associate with Lexus handling. Grip is excellent, and the controls are so effortless that you could drive like this all day. But it’s like being in a high-speed train; there’s virtually no sensation of speed except for the tug of lateral g’s on your body. The tires remain mute, the steering is totally isolated, and the suspension absorbs bumps and dips while transmitting only subdued noise to the cabin. You have to look at the speedometer to realize that you’re clocking twice the legal speed limit. On the other hand, the highway ride is as creamy as you could hope for, and if your idea of luxury is a beautifully appointed isolation chamber, here’s your ride.
Comfort is king in the LS, and especially the 600h L. The driver’s and passenger’s front seats are as adjustable as is possible, and are covered in the softest hides imaginable. The seats are heated and cooled, the steering wheel is electrically adjustable, and you’re left wanting for nothing. The back seat is equally comfortable, with reclining seatbacks an option, ample leg room thanks to the extended wheelbase, and enough buttons with the overhead entertainment system and climate control to keep occupants occupied for hours. Of course, for the truly pampered there’s the Executive Seating option, which turns the right rear seat into a recliner, literally, with vibrating and shiatsu massage built in.
Luxury cars require a huge amount of stuff these days to differentiate them from lesser vehicles. All that stuff requires buttons or switches to operate. The LS interior is awash in buttons, but they’re properly grouped and labeled to keep confusion to a minimum. Still, the car comes with a DVD on how to operate things; that should tell you something. Everything in the car exudes quality, from the window switches to the smooth glide of the seat adjustments to the coordinated opening of the various damped doors. The only major change to the dash is the addition of a hybrid-specific gauge to tell you how much power versus charge you’re making, and the in-dash LCD has been updated to include the engine-to-motor-to-battery power flow meter we know and love in hybrids.
Advice: Selling Points
There are two main drawbacks to the LS 600h L. First, the potential performance advantage of its powertrain is killed outright by its added weight, leaving it about as quick as the LS 460 L that all the plebes drive. The second drawback is more intangible: Is the market ready to accept a $100,000 Lexus? It’s not a criticism of the car, as it’s objectively and subjectively just as luxurious as any of its competitors. Yet those competitors have built up to that mark over decades, not decade. It’s an old knock against Lexus, but a valid one in this case because simply introducing a premium car, calling it the best in the world and marketing it against established players isn’t enough for the highest of high rollers. Mercedes-Benz learned that when it re-introduced Maybach as a competitor to Rolls-Royce and Bentley; the British brands have sold briskly in recent years, while the Maybach has stagnated. Lexus claims it has more than 1,600 pre-orders for its biggest ticket player, and the target is 2,000 per year in the U.S. Time will tell if it continues to sell at that rate.
There are three main ones: The Mercedes-Benz S600, the BMW 760Li, and the Audi A8 L with the W12 engine. At least, those are the ones targeted; the V8 versions of the same cars are also within striking distance. On a purely performance level they have their various advantages and disadvantages, and all are more expensive than the Lexus. They also get worse gas mileage estimates from the EPA.
Specifications – Price, Powertrain
Base Price: $104,000 ($675 dest.)
Engine Size and Type: 5.0-liter V8/permanent magnet electric motor
Horsepower (combined): 438 hp
Engine Torque: 385 lb.-ft. @ 4,000 rpm
Transmission: electronically controlled continuously variable transmission
Curb weight, lbs.: 5,049
EPA Fuel Economy, mpg (city/hwy): 20/22
Length, inches: 202.8
Height, inches: 58.3
Seating capacity: five/four with Executive Seating package
Headroom, inches (front/rear):38/38
Legroom, inches (front/rear): 45.5
Max cargo capacity, cu.ft.: 11.7
Ground clearance, inches: 5.3
Photos courtesy of Lexus, Keith Buglewicz