2008 Lexus LS600hL Hybrid Review
By Chris Haak
I’ve been trying to get my hands on an LS600hL to test for a while. I’ve spent extensive seat time in nearly every vehicle in Toyota’s lineup, from the Corolla S to the IS350; from the Scion xD to the Sequoia and Tundra. However, those vehicles are “just cars.” I mean, the IS350 was a really fun car to drive, but it was just a big engine in a small car that happened to enjoy being thrown around on back roads. I wanted an LS600hL so that I could see what Toyota’s state-of-the-art was. I had extremely high expectations for the LS600hL; it not only represents the flagship of Toyota’s automotive empire, but basically represents the best that Toyota can do when building a luxury car on par with the S-class Mercedes and BMW 7-series. Also, the car had better be pretty great considering its $115,000-plus price tag.
The Lexus LS is a large car even in its standard form; the long wheelbase (which manifests itself mostly in the cavernous back seat) available in the conventionally-powered LS460 (called the LS460L) makes a big car even bigger. The car appears perhaps longer and wider than it is because it sits fairly low to the ground. I find the LS to be arguably the most attractive Lexus – in fact, the most attractive Toyota product – because it has some attractive lines and actually has a fairly original shape. It shares Lexus’ so-called “L-Finesse” design language with the brand’s other cars, but seems to feel the most comfortable in its clothes. I attribute the LS’s relative styling success to its size (it doesn’t look squashed or angry like the IS does thanks to its length) as well as the fact that L-Finesse has had a chance to evolve to the point that the LS is the newest sedan in the Lexus range. Unlike the first-generation LS, which was unashamedly conservative, and unlike the last-generation BMW 7-series, which was unashamedly unconservative, I find that the LS strikes an appropriate balance between the conservatism expected in an expensive car’s style with a desire to make the car’s design as modern and appealing as possible. The LS succeeds from a styling standpoint because the only part of the car’s styling that is an obvious knockoff is the Bangle-like trunklid bulge; otherwise, the only unfortunate thing about the styling is that Lexus made its front wheel drive ES350 look a little too similar to the LS for my comfort. The LS600hL has fairly subtle hybrid badging to let the world know that you’re driving the most expensive of Lexus models.
If there’s one key theme that Lexus manages to hammer home every time you spend seat time in the LS600hL, it’s the car’s incredible attention to detail. ‘Attention to detail’ doesn’t even touch on how obsessive some of this car’s features are. Things that never occurred to me as a problem have been addressed with this car, such as the indignities of re-opening a partially-closed door that didn’t latch properly (all four doors will close themselves automatically if they weren’t closed properly) or moving a front seat seatbelt anchor by hand (there’s a little electrical up/down switch by the front door handle to power the anchor up and down). The trunk doesn’t just electrically release; it also electrically opens completely, and with a touch of a button inside the trunklid, will also close electrically. All seating positions, are, of course, both heated and cooled, and all four seats recline. The front seats have power bottom cushion extenders to allow both short and tall occupants to ride in comfort, and the leather on the seats is the softest (and least vinyl-like) of any I’ve experienced this side of a Rolls Royce Phantom.
Other nice touches in the interior include a velvety-soft headliner material, high-gloss (real) wood trim, nice ambient lighting, a large navigation/information screen, and a booming 19-speaker Mark Levinson reference audio system. The audio system includes a hard drive for storing music files, a CD changer, XM Satellite Radio with NavTraffic, and AM/FM. My test vehicle was also equipped with the Premium Luxury Package II, which to me is a must-have if you’re going to spend six figures on a car. This $7,570 package includes rear power seats (slide, recline, and adjustable headrests), rear seat entertainment system with motorized drop-down video screen, rear audio/climate control panel in the center armrest, power rear door sunshade (the backlight sunshade is standard). Oh, and it also includes the well-publicized Advanced Parking Guidance System; yes, this is the car that “can park itself.”
The self-parking feature, while clearly an interesting conversation piece/parlor trick (“What are you driving this week?” “A Lexus LS600hL – the car that can parallel park itself.” “Oh, ok.”) honestly serves very little practical value. It’s not a matter of pulling next to the car forward of the empty space and pushing a button and letting the car do its thing. Instead, you have to pull up to that spot forward of the empty space, put the car into reverse, activate the parking guidance system with a button on the navigation screen, then aim the target using arrows on the navigation screen. Finally, pressing “OK” on the navigation screen activates the system. The driver then has to release the brake, and the car will turn the steering wheel automatically as needed to get the car into its spot. If you touch the gas pedal or the steering wheel, the parking is cancelled. It’s pretty neat technology (my three year old was impressed by the steering wheel turning itself when we tested it together), but in the real world, it’s just not practical. Think about this: parallel parking is usually easier in the suburbs than in urban areas because of the extra space and lighter traffic, so a system like this isn’t needed. In an urban area, parallel parking is usually a fairly high-stress task because there’s bound to be a line of cars trying to get around a parking car, and the spaces are often a little too small. Frankly, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to go through the steps required to use the system in the LS600hL in a real-world setting just because the process is so convoluted. If you know how to parallel park a car, it’s probably three or four times quicker to do it yourself than to let the Advanced Parking Guidance System do it for you. With the standard sonar parking assist sensors on the bumpers, old fashioned manual parallel parking isn’t that difficult anyway.
The Lexus LS600hL is an extraordinarily comfortable car. The seats are some of the best I’ve experienced (though not hugely supportive in curves) and made me feel like every time I hopped into the car, I could just drive for hours. Being a hybrid is, of course, electrically assisted, but feedback was better than average for electric power steering systems (actually, it felt better than a Toyota Sienna’s 100% hydraulic system). The LS600hL also comes with standard air suspension, which has three modes (comfort, sport, and normal) that seemed to do a decent job of keeping the car’s substantial heft under control, but the laws of physics can’t be repealed. The air suspension automatically adjusts ride height based on the weight of passengers and cargo, and the driver can also press a button to raise the height of the car for driving on perhaps stone roads or snow-covered roads.
Under the hood is both a 5.0 liter V8 and two electric motors; combined output is a substantial 438 horsepower, although this output (13 more horsepower than the Dodge Challenger SRT8 and 18 more than the Jaguar XF Supercharaged) has to contend with moving a very heavy car. Like other full hybrids, the LS600hL is capable of driving on electric power only at low speeds if the traction battery is sufficiently charged and the engine is warmed up. One enhancement that this car in particular has, though, is an “EV mode,” activated by a button on the dash that keeps the engine off until you exceed 25-30 miles per hour or press the gas pedal too hard. The car courteously gives a warning in the instrument cluster’s message center before it deactivates EV mode (telling you why it’s doing so, as well). Transitions between electric and gasoline modes are smoother than any other hybrid I’ve driven (Prius, Camry Hybrid, Durango Hybrid), perhaps due to the inherent silky smoothness of the Lexus V8.
Although the transitions between modes are better than in other hybrids, they still are detectable. Further, the car’s CVT gives the unusual sensation of the car jumping into a relatively high engine speed and staying there as the rush of acceleration takes over. Full throttle acceleration gives more interesting sensations; the electric motors help the car with more torque off the line than you’d expect, then the gas engine takes over. The sensation is similarly repeated when asking the car to kick down for a passing maneuver on a two-lane road; torque comes on sooner than expected in a rush. Straight line speed is absolutely effortless; at one point, I thought I was going about 70 based on wind noise and how much time I had my foot into the floor, but a glance at the speedometer showed – let’s just say a lot more than 70. The wind noise duped me because the car is so darn quiet; sound insulation everywhere plus tricks like dual-pane windows help with that. Still, the car’s acceleration is not as linear as a conventionally-powered vehicle would be; this lack of linearity – which I’ve found to be a hallmark of all four hybrids I’ve spent time with – is somewhat out of character in such a comfortable, expensive luxury car.
When I took the LS600hL to my favorite backroad spot for a quick jaunt in sport mode, I was let down mostly by the 19″ tires, which literally howled when turning the steering wheel just one inch off center (I had to have the window down to hear this, naturally). The car’s weight also did its best to obey the laws of physics, in spite of the air suspension’s best efforts to do otherwise. Finally, a few minutes of hard acceleration and deceleration on my backroad course absolutely killed the traction battery’s charge state, taking it from about 7/8 charge to 1/4 charge.
I observed about 19 miles per gallon in combined fuel economy, which is below the EPA’s 20 city/22 highway (the conventionally-powered LS460L is rated at 16 city/24 highway), but the city driving that I did wasn’t extremely slow stop-and-go traffic, so I wasn’t able to take enough advantage of the electric portion of the hybrid drivetrain to improve my city mileage.
Pricing of the Lexus LS600hL starts at $104,765 including destination. My test vehicle had the aforementioned $7,570 Premium Luxury Package II, the $2,850 Lexus Pre-Collision System and Dynamic Radar Cruise, and the $240 Preferred Accessory Package (trunk mat, cargo net, and wheel locks). The total tab was $115,425. That’s a lot of money, but this is a lot of car. Short of some contemporary features such as lane departure warning/prevention, or the Mercedes-Benz system that allows the car to move in bumper to bumper traffic without the driver touching the pedals, the car has pretty much everything that a modern flagship luxury car is expected to have, including real leather trim on the dashboard and the tops of the door panels. Even if I had the means to afford a $115,425 car, I don’t think I’d buy this one; the LS460 gives perhaps 75% of the car for 60% of the price (starting at $69,925 for 2009). If all I did was drive highway mileage by myself or perhaps with only adult passengers without much luggage, I’d love to spend every day driving an LS. But I have more appreciation for a car that can handle curves and has a more buttoned-down ride, so a big car like the LS600hL would not be on my shortlist. Boy, do I wish I had this car a week earlier for a weekend with 12 hours on the highway, though. The big guy would have truly been in its element in that situation.
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