The LS 600hL is the pinnacle of Toyota and Lexus engineering. It is the largest Lexus sedan, the brand’s most expensive model, the most expensive hybrid in the world and, with the death of BMW’s V8 ActiveHybrid system, it is once again the most powerful hybrid on sale. Yet the LS 600hL hasn’t had an easy time of things. The large luxury sedan has been lambasted for being the antithesis of green thanks to its EPA combined 20 MPG score. Critics also question whether the 600hL’s enormous premium over the LS 460L can ever be “justified.” I too questioned the logic behind the 600hL at first, but then I spoke with someone who changed my mind. Before we dive in, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. The 600hL starts at $119,910. With all the options checked, you land at $134,875. Without destination. Put your eye balls back in their sockets and click past the jump as we dive into an alternate universe.
I don’t live in a world filled with chauffeurs, champagne and caviar. Heck, I don’t even live in a world with indoor plumbing. (Seriously, my house doesn’t have an indoor shower, but that’s a story for a different time.) This meant I needed help in order to view the 600hL through the right lens. Fortunately I have a family connection with a guy in Atherton who is exactly the kind of guy I was looking for: one with deep pockets. Being the private jet/vacation mansion owning guy I was looking for, I expected him to be put off by the LS 600hL’s simple lines and unmistakably “discount” $71,990 LS 460 roots. Instead he had an opinion I hadn’t considered.
In a town where the money is piled high and deep, but paradoxically being flashy is considered tasteless, the LS 600hL strikes the right balance. Or so I am told. By looking like a lesser LS, it doesn’t scream “I spent twice your salary on my car,” but at the same time your neighbors will know your trust fund is still returning 15% a year. While he agreed that a similarly expensive 2014 S-Class was far more attractive and exciting, he felt it was too “nouveau riche.” From the mouth of babes…
$119,910 doesn’t buy you a leather-clad dashboard standard, if you want that you have to add a few options to your spendy hybrid. No matter what package you add, the age of the LS platform shows in the front seats. Sharing the same mechanisms with the pre-refresh 2012 LS, the seat fails to contort in the same variety of directions as the Germans, or even the cheaper Lexus GS which has more modern seat frames. Still, 600hL buyers are likely to only experience the front seats when Jeevs has a day off.
Because 2013 is more of an extensive refresh than a clean-sheet design, the LS 600hL doesn’t get a fancy LCD instrument cluster, opting instead for a four-dial arrangement with a “wine glass” shaped multi-function display in the center. A full-disco-dash arrangement isn’t a requirement for me as there are plenty of traditional gauges in this segment but I had hoped for more from a luxury car designed in a country obsessed with electronic gadgets. The same thing can be said for the large 12-inch display in the middle of the dash. The display is bright and crisp but the software hasn’t been significantly re-worked for some time making it feel dated.
Gadgets & Infotainment
No 600hL would be complete without the $7,555 Executive Package. For the cost of a used compact car Lexus adds an Alcantara headliner, deletes the middle rear seat for a fixed console, covers the dash in leather, wires up a 120V inverter, and installs the best rear seat available in America.
That seat is the 600hL’s raison d’être. It is also so mind-blowingly insane, I have decided it will hence forth be known as the “Lexus throne”. The 600hL’s throne contorts in 10 ways via controls in the substantial center console and boasts manual butterfly headrests. If that isn’t enough it will also vibrate and massage your royal personage while you put your feet up on the power ottoman. The massaging function isn’t like the systems employed by the German competition in the front seat. Those systems use a series of air bladders that inflate/deflate in a pattern to initiate a massage. The result feels more like a rodent trapped between the foam and the upholstery. The Lexus system uses a system more similar to the pneumatic rollers you find in airport “massage station chairs.” Only classier. And without the stench of the peasantry.
Activating the massage is easy once you get the hang of the 17-button remote control nestled next to the 26-button infotainment remote inside the 45-button console. If you rank your rides by button count, we have a winner. Lexus tosses in a blue-ray DVD player, wireless headphones and a single LCD that drops down from the ceiling. Although the Lexus Remote Touch joystick lives on up front, those being coddled in the rear can forget about the clunky controller and can control many of the car’s functions via the button bank. On the one hand this is less integrated than BMW’s iDrive for rear passengers that allow them top play with the nav system, but it does shield the owner of the LS 600hL from dealing with the evil that is Remote Touch.
The wealthy are frequently in a hurry and have the resources to pay Texas-sized speeding tickets. Unfortunately for them, Lexus hasn’t updated the 600hL’s hybrid system for the new model. While I still think of the 600hL’s setup as one of the most advanced hybrid systems in the world, I just can’t call it “powerful” anymore. Rated at 438 system horsepower, it is outclassed by a wide variety of V8s in everything from a Dodge Super Bee to the German’s base V8 options. That’s even before we talk about the V12 luxury barges Lexus is attempting to target. The “old” S65 AMG cranked out 631 horses and enough torque to cause the earth to rotate in the other direction. What will 2014 bring? You can bet the answer will be: more.
Operating much like a Prius hybrid system on steroids, a 385 horsepower 5.0L V8 engine is mated directly to a planetary gearset employing two motor/generator units. The larger motor is capable of 221HP on its own, but the battery pack in the trunk of the LS can only supply 53 HP at a time limiting the EV mode to around 30 MPH. The engine and motors work together to provide seamless and linear acceleration unlike anything on the market save a Tesla Model S. This design is quite different from the pancake motor sandwiched between the engine and transmission that you find in the German hybrids. Lexus won’t comment on how much torque the combined unit is good for, but my gut tells me it is around 450 lb0-ft combined.
Lexus continues to use a 288V Ni-MH battery pack that is similar to the one used in the Lexus RX hybrid. The 1.6kWh battery pack isn’t as space efficient as the more modern Lithium based batteries but had a proven track record and allows high current discharges with a smaller number of cells. Unfortunately it’s not as slim as the trendier cells and occupies a large portion of the trunk. Combined with the plumbing for the four zone climate control and the massaging throne, they slice trunk capacity from 18 cubes to 13 making it difficult to fit large luggage in the rear.
With 5,500 pounds of luxury sedan riding (yes, you read that number correctly) on an air suspension, you can cross corner carving off your list. I suspect that such activities are frowned upon when the help is driving you anyway, but the weight and relatively narrow 245/45R19 tires mean stopping distances are long as well. Dynamically the LS has always been an excellent vehicle with a well controlled chassis, nearly perfect weight balance and a solid feel. When scaled up to the 600hL, you can tell those traits are still there but they are masked by the weight and the standard adaptive air suspension.
If I might digress for a moment, the LS platform is the perfect vehicle to experience an air suspension in on a test drive. There aren’t many cars that have a standard steel-coil suspension and an air suspension available in the same car and the LS is one. Air suspensions have an entirely different feel to them so when you compare an S-Class with Airmatic with a 7-Series that had only a partial rear air suspension it’s difficult to compare unless you’ve experienced what the air bags do to the feel of the car. I encourage anyone looking in this segment to give the LS a spin with and without the air suspension so you can really be familiar with the changes these systems make to the feel of a car.
Back on topic, let’s talk thrust. At the stoplight races the LS 600hL accelerates faster if the engine is already on. This is fairly logical since some of the motor’s twist would be consumed by starting the engine. Our numbers were taken with the engine “stopped” by the hybrid system which is the normal state of affairs. Thanks to the massive torque from the electric motor and the 5.0L V8, we hit 30 MPH after a scant 2.36 seconds. After this point the heavy curb weight comes into play with 60 MPH happening after 5.44 seconds followed by a 13.96 second quarter-mile. A BMW 750 and Mercedes S550 scoot to 60 about a half second faster while the V12 BMW 760 is a full second quicker. On the flip side even the new 8-speed ZF transmission feels like a farm tractor compared to the Lexus Hybrid Drive system. Acceleration in the 600hL is extraordinarily linear, unbelievably smooth and eerily silent. Comparisons to the Tesla Model S in terms of acceleration linearity and feel are entirely appropriate. All of a sudden the hybrid drivetrain combined with the throne in the back make sense: if I’m being driven, I want a smooth experience. Forget about the driver having fun, it’s all about the party in the back.
After a week with the LS 600hL I still have problems looking at the expensive cruiser in the “right” way, but I am closer to understanding the point. That point is less about fuel economy (which was 21.8 MPG over all by the way) and more about silently and smoothly cruising below the radar. If that’s your mission, then mission accomplished. The LS 600hL is also the least expensive vehicle that I know of designed with the chauffeured set in mind. Except that makes the LS 600hL the oddest duck I’ve met. Being obviously designed for owners with drivers it makes a value proposition that logically shouldn’t matter to the intended audience. If you’re being driven, the smallest part of the expense structure over the life of a vehicle is the price of the vehicle. Your driver and his benefits are likely to eat the bulk of your budget. My sounding board in this process is still trying to convince me that looking at the LS 600hL in this light is missing the point. Perhaps, but it does explain why the LS 600hL sells in such small numbers. It also explains why he still has a 2010 XJ8.
- Best. Back. Seat. Ever.
- Avatar on Blue Ray never sounded so good.
- Everyone will wonder why you didn’t buy an S-Class.
- 438 ponies is hardly class-topping in 2013.
- Despite being told otherwise, 21.8 MPG still seems to be missing the point.
Lexus provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review
1/4 Mile: 13.96 @ 105 MPH
Average Observed Fuel Economy: 21.8 MPG over 623 miles