Driving a Mercedes E63 AMG just prior to testing the Lexus LS 460 was a big mistake. The German and Japanese machines define the opposite poles of the luxury sedan spectrum. The E63 is for driving enthusiasts. The LS 460 is for people who hate cars.
At first glance, the LS 460 has finally stopped cribbing its design cues from Mercedes– and started cribbing from the BMW 7 Series. In the flesh, it’s clear that Lexus has turned inwards for inspiration. As I patrolled my dealer’s lot to scan color variations, I couldn’t distinguish an ES from an LS. In fact, the Japanese brand’s “L-finesse” design philosophy Lacks-finesse across the entire model range. There are no exterior character lines worth mentioning. I like the way the LS’ exhaust pipes integrate into the rear valence. And, um that’s it.
This deeply conservative (not to say bland) approach carries over into the interior, which seems carefully designed to avoid offense. While you can’t fault the LS 460's ergonomics or the luster of its wood accents, the $61k-and-up car's cabin comes off just a little bit, well, cheap. The buttons are made from plastic that Audi wouldn't use for the A8's trunk release. And Lexus can buff that leather as much as it wants; it still feels like it came out of a Camry. Of course, the LS 460 boats— I mean boasts every luxury car toy on earth, including intuitive parking assist (Danger Will Robinson!) and power everything you can imagine (and much you can’t or wouldn’t).
The LS’ optional beat box is the cabin's highlight. Mark Levinson's ICE includes 19 speakers and 15 bridged amplifier channels running 450 watts of power (continuous average power, all channels driven, at 0.1% THD; 20 – 20,000 Hz, in case you thought that was a bit woosy). The system can play Dolby Digital 5.1 DVD audio, MP3 and WMA files. An eight gigabyte hard drive automatically records up to 2k songs as you play them. The only features missing are internet access and a built-in Play Station 3, which are no doubt available in Japan. And the sound– you could blow $100k on a home system that doesn’t sound half as good.
Firing-up the LS’ 4.6-liter V8 is about as aurally exciting as switching on a pool heater– which is fair enough. The driving experience is a bit like swimming in warm water. Helming the LS, I thought I'd become an automotive quadriplegic; my mind was operating the vehicle rather than my extremities. I had no sensation whatsoever from the steering wheel, throttle or brakes. Every control involved with the vehicle’s operation lay just within the range of human perception.
The LS 460’s electronic brakes were designed for women wearing high heels; the slightest touch of a stiletto brings the car to a complete stop. Steering feel isn’t. There's only one way to know the slushbox is changing gears: watch the tacho needle bouncing gently up and down. Unless you depress the throttle at 45mph. Then there's an unacceptable hesitation as the transmission rows through a few gear changes before finding the meaty part of the engine’s torque range. Remind me again why Lexus needs an eight speed transmission? Oh yes; Mercedes has a seven speed.
The LS 460’s handling reminded me of a 10-month old Golden Retriever puppy: affectionate but clumsy. Turn-in is irrelevant. You can’t feel the car settling into a corner and you only realize that you are exceeding the vehicle’s limits when the door’s angle of attack relative to the road exceeds 15 degrees, and the traction control wrests control (you mean I was driving?) away from the driver.
Lexus claims the LS 460 wafts from zero to 60 in 5.4 seconds. Given 380 horsepower and 367 lb. ft. of torque in a 4244 pound luxobarge, that sounds about right. But it felt a lot slower. It could be the complete lack of sensual feedback or the effects of that pesky E63 again. Anyway, the LS 460 desperately needs a sport package. Alas, none is available. I suspect Lexus knows its target audience will be more impressed with (though not concerned about) the sedan's extraordinary 21 city and 27 highway miles per gallon.
I last drove an LS in 1990. Compared to the competition over at Mercedes and BMW, the LS was a breath of fresh air: bargain-priced and elegantly engineered. I almost bought one. OK, I’m trying to impress you with my open-mindedness. And it's true: I can see the virtue of a machine that functions without any apparent effort from man or machine. But I struggled not to giggle at the LS 460’s “Luxury Car for Dummies” perfection. If Lexus added an in-dash popcorn maker, I’d find more reason to buy this mobile entertainment lounge. But nowhere near enough.