SALZBURG, Austria - Because Lexus is expanding its global horizons, introducing the latest full-size luxury sedan to journalists in Europe seems a sensible choice. Loaded with advanced technology and a new eight-speed transmission, the 2007 LS 460 four-door is a dream to drive - albeit packing a hefty price tag.
This sedan can even guide itself into a parallel-parking spot, yet most of the technology lies beneath the surface: available for valuable assistance, but not distracting in ordinary driving. Of course, checking off a few of those extra-cost options sends the sticker price to even loftier heights.
Now entering its fourth generation, the LS series includes a new LS 460L sedan - the company's first long-wheelbase model. The all-new powertrain consists of a 4.6-liter V-8 engine and an eight-speed automatic transmission. Until now, Mercedes-Benz led the luxury pack with its seven-speed automatic.
Billed as "timeless," LS styling follows a "new design language," said Bob Carter, Lexus Group vice-president and general manager. The LS ranks as the "pinnacle." Lexus also is promoting the 2007 model's level of craftsmanship and "customer-driven" features. Carter points to the car's more emotional styling, power and prestige, as well as its high-touch, high-tech attributes.
"Building cars is more than just a business," Carter explained. "We view it as an art form." Newly-created headlamps, for example, are meant to suggest the look of crystal.
Chief engineer Satoru Maruyamano notes that the new model must "not confuse the driver with the operation." Everything "had to be seamless and intuitive." New engine inspection procedures are employed, including multi-step engine/drivetrain balancing, to help ensure a refined experience.
The new V-8 develops 380 horsepower and 367 pound-feet of torque, which is enough to provide a claimed 0-60 mph acceleration time of 5.4 seconds. Gas mileage is estimated at 19 mpg in city driving and 27 mpg on the highway.
"I'm sure our friend Mozart would have made a perfect engine tuner," Maruyamano suggested, alluding to the fact that Salzburg is the birthplace of the famed classical composer, whose 250th birthday is celebrated this year.
In addition to an aluminum block and heads, the V-8 is fitted with magnesium cylinder covers and a dual-pipe exhaust manifold. The "world's first" dual variable valve timing with intelligence (Dual VVT-1E) system is manufactured to a tiny 1-micron clearance.
The new eight-speed automatic transmission was "developed to improve power, performance and fuel economy," said product education curriculum development manager Bob Allan. Lower first and second gear ratios are intended to improve launch from a stop, while additional top ratios improve gas mileage. The automatic can be shifted manually when desired.
Exterior paint is smoothed by six-axis buffing robots, and hand-sanded twice. Interior quietness also got considerable attention, including what Maruyamano calls the LS's "acoustically-pleasing door tone." As an example of attention to detail, leather surfaces on the steering wheel are buffed for three hours.
Built on a wheelbase 1.7 inches longer than before (now 117), the 2007 LS 460 is 1.8 inches wider, 0.6 inch lower, with 1.5 inches more track width. The new long-wheelbase "L" edition adds an extra 4.75 inches of length. Four golf bags fit into the 18-cubic-foot trunk.
New front and rear suspensions contain all-aluminum arms. An air suspension is optional on the extended-length LS 460 L sedan, and a sport-tuned touring version will be available. Ride quality is selectable, using a Sport/Normal/Comfort switch. Power steering now works electrically, not hydraulically, and Lexus claims the tightest turning circle in its class for the LS.
Standard 18-inch wheels are mounted. Five-spoke 19-inch wheels go on the long Touring version with an air suspension. A direct tire-pressure monitor is standard.
Lexus appears to set the standard for passive safety. Eight airbags are installed (10 with optional rear side airbags, and 11 with the optional Executive Package). Front and knee airbags feature dual-stage deployment.
The electric parking brake has an Auto mode, or may be activated by pushing a switch. A Brake Hold function works with a button on the steering wheel. As you stop, Hold actuates so there's no creep with your foot off the brake pedal. This system keeps it from rolling backward, too.
Hold the TRAC-off switch for three seconds, and the Vehicle Stability Control system is disabled - an action not recommended for most situations and drivers. Dynamic Radar Cruise Control is available, packaged with a pre-collision system.
Natural leathers are perforated in the LS cockpit, with four color selections. Grain-matched woods are prepared by Yamaha, with three choices offered.
Smart Access uses a pushbutton to start and stop the engine - a feature that's gaining favor in quite a few models lately. Power trunk opening/closing is available. The optional four-zone automatic climate system includes what's called the world's first overhead rear diffuser.
An optional Comfort Package includes rear-seat heating and a sunshade. With the Executive seating option, there's even a hideaway table, and worn-out executives might like to have the available massaging rear seat.
Back-seat entertainment may be provided by what Lexus calls the world's first 9-inch DVD screen. Ten speakers deliver music to the LS occupants, but audiophiles have the option of a 19-speaker Mark Levinson system that holds up to 4,000 songs on the hard drive, and produces 450 watts of output with a mere 0.7 percent total harmonic distortion.
The new Generation 5 navigation system uses the car's 30 Gigabyte hard drive and a VGA-quality video screen. You can select destinations from 8 million points of interest, and speech recognition functions for commands. A backup video camera standard with navigation, and XM NavTraffic is available.
Intuitive Parking Assist is available, with warnings that keep you away from obstacles. Or, you can go all the way with Lexus's Advanced Parking Guidance System, which actually steers the LS 460 into position in a parking space.
Whether on the German Autobahn or easing down two-lane roads that skirt the Austrian lakes, Lexus's top sedan performed with ease and grace. With an air suspension, in particular, the LS 460 eases over mild bumps without disturbance. You note a quick reaction, then nothing further. Sport mode yields a satisfying, mildly taut feel with little (if any) ride-comfort penalty. Still, Normal mode is just about as good for stability.
Plenty of energy lurks beneath the hood, but expect just a little transmission delay when it's time to downshift and pass. When the gas pedal is floored, too, some mild engine noise appears.
Even in regular-wheelbase form, this is a big car, but it handles like a semi-sporty one. Quick and positive steering response helps produce a confident feel. Mirrors give excellent views for passing.
Expect plenty of room in front, plus abundant seat adjustments to fit each occupant. The wide glovebox contains two sections. White-on-black illuminated gauges are exceptionally easy to read, and Lexus's navigation screen (if installed) is among the easiest to view. Most controls are not overly complex, but you do need to study layout and/or manual beforehand, to know what's there.
Whether you're behind the wheel or outside the car, the Advanced Parking Guidance System is simply astounding to observe as it leads the suitably-equipped LS into a desired parallel-parking spot or a back-in location. Before the car can steer itself safely into place, it's up to you to position it properly and follow the parking instructions carefully. You're the one who has to apply the brakes, to make sure the LS doesn't bump an adjoining automobile or overshoot the end of the space.
Sales of the standard-length and long-wheelbase LS 460 sedans begin in October. Next spring, Lexus will introduce a hybrid-powertrain LS 600h L sedan as a 2008 model, with all-wheel drive. Rivals include the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, BMW 7-Series, and Jaguar XJ. Extras in the LS 460 L include sunshades, a heated steering wheel; power trunk opening/closing; heated/cooled front seats; and heated rear seats.
About 30 percent of LS sedans are expected to be the long-wheelbase "L" version. Around two-thirds of buyers will be male, typically age 55 to 60, with an income of $200-250,000 per year.