By on February 11, 2011

Luxury means many things to many people, but nobody doubts luxury cars should be crammed full of the latest technology… and what says “technology” in today’s car market quite like “Hybrid”? In a strange inversion of history, Lexus created the world’s first hybrid luxury flagship from a vehicle that was clearly inspired by the Mercedes S-Class, and now Mercedes is fighting back with its first hybrid sedan, the S400 Hybrid. So, is Lexus’s hybrid head-start enough to fend off a challenge from the vehicle that inspired its birth over a twenty years ago? The only way to find out is in TTAC’s most expensive comparison test ever.

Despite catering to a similar crowd, the Lexus and Mercedes hybrids could not have more different missions in mind if they tried. Lexus’ fantastically complicated AWD hybrid system was designed with V12 performance in mind. Mercedes on the other hand decided to take the simplest route to hybridization possible by inserting a smallish electric motor between the engine and transmission. Either way you slice it, if you are shopping for a car to be driven in and still somehow care about the baby seals, these two cars will provide the best fuel economy in the luxo-barge market (which isn’t saying much). Let’s dig in.

The LS 600h L is best known for being the most expensive hybrid vehicle on the market, a fact that earns it endless county-club bragging rights, but demands that we talk price upfront. Starting with a base price of $111,350, our press car was fitted with the $10,835 optional “Package C” which included everything except the radar cruise control and delivered a total MSRP of $123,060 after the destination charge. For the fully-loaded buyer, the $12,335 “Package D” will ring the total up to $124,560.

While nearly 125-large may sound like a deal breaker for even the wealthy, the LS 600h L’s German competition starts at $91,000 in the form of the Mercedes S400 Hybrid. Comparably equipped, the S400 Hybrid ends up at an eye-bulging $116,275. And if option-ticking is your thing; $123,852 buys you a fully-loaded German hybrid. Of course if you have a driver, the cost of the vehicle is likely to be unimportant, but I am told by the wealthier set that a “discreet” ride is usually preferred to a Maybach or Rolls. Noblesse oblige. MSRP winner: LS 600h L.

When the LS 600h L arrived and I peered out my window, I was impressed by the fact that the styling didn’t impress. It’s not that the LS is boring, it’s just that the Camry shares many of the same lines. Taken by itself, the LS is a handsome vehicle, and parked next to a Camry you can see the LS is much, much larger, bolder, and has greater attention to detail. When separated, however, the resemblance comes to mind more easily. Oddly enough, Lexus decided not to use their mid-cycle refresh for the 2010 model year to differentiate the LS from the Toyota models, instead the LS received a three-bar grille that looks more Avalon than Lexus to me. In contrast, the S400 Hybrid may share some styling cues with the C300, but the overall Mercedes design is far less subtle than the Lexus. While I still long for the style of the W140 S-Class, there’s no mistaking the S-Class is the biggest Benz available on our shores. Exterior style winner: S400 Hybrid.

Lexus’ skills at cabin crafting are obvious inside the LS. The range topping Lexus gets full leather upholstery, complete with a single-needle stitched dash and door panels. While the shapes may be the same as the LS 600h L’s lesser cousin (the LS 460), the LS 600h L will make you feel a touch more special. Owners of the 460 appreciate the fact that a base LS delivers a world-class interior for 60-large, LS 600h L buyers may find the nearly identical interior a turn off. If you are spending the cost of a Midwest family home on a car, you probably expect something unique.

The S400 Hybrid has the odd benefit of being the cheapest S-Class in the USA. (Mercedes decided not to sell the short-wheelbase S350 here which would compete directly with the LS 460 in the 60K+ segment.) This brand positioning means that there is no $60,000 car on American roads with identical styling to your high-rolling-hybrid. Despite the fact that the LS 600h L delivers an interior put together with more sumptuous feel and precision than the Germans could hope for, the uniqueness factor pushes the S400 to the top on our interior scale. Interior style winner: S400 Hybrid.

As a base model, the S400 doesn’t have to promise range-topping performance, which is good since this hybrid Benz receives an Atkinson-cycle version of Mercedes’ ubiquitous 3.5L V6. Typically Atkinson-cycle engines are down on power compared to their Otto-cycle versions, but interestingly Mercedes has fitted a new cylinder head, different pistons and a modified camshaft which actually increase the power over the version used in the other Merc models. In addition a 20HP, 118lb-ft electric motor is added, bringing the system total power to 295HP and 284lb-ft, topping the 268HP and 258lb-ft rating of the C350. While the S400 Hybrid delivers more power than the V8 S430 (circa 2006) and accelerates to 60 a tenth of a second faster (7.2 to 60 as tested), in this decade a luxury car with a 0-60 in the 7 second range is fairly slow.

Lexus has long embraced technology, but only recently come to admire performance. To this end the LS 600h L is equipped with a slightly de-tuned 5.0L V8 engine from IS-F (instead of the 4.6L from the LS460.) In LS duty, the large V8 makes 389HP at a lofty 6400RPM and 383lb-ft of twist at 4,000RPM. Since these numbers are not terribly exciting in their own right, Lexus added a pair of electric motors good for 221HP and 221lb-ft. Due to the way the hybrid synergy drive system works (tech nerds can find a wealth of information here), you don’t exactly add up 389HP and 221HP from the motors and get 610HP; rather, the system horsepower ends up at a conservative 438HP.

Lexus is fairly cagey on the combined torque output of the LS’s hybrid system, but I estimate it to be at least 400lb-ft and covering a very broad RPM range, thanks to the electric motors. When the engine is shut off at a stoplight (saving baby seals), a quick romp on the go pedal summons 60MPH in 5.4 seconds (TTAC tested), which matches the 5.4 second time Lexus quotes for the LS 460 L. What this number doesn’t indicate is the shockingly linear fashion with which the LS delivers this thrust: no shifts, no gaps, no acceleration swells, just constant press-you-back-in-your-seat thrust until you decide to lift. Lexus says the top speed of the LS hybrid is 160MPH. I believe it. Performance winner: LS 600h L.

When the going gets twisty, it’s frankly not important that a large luxury sedan handle well. What is important is that it gets the job done with no fuss, minimal squeals and no unnerving rear end motions. Since both sedans are equipped with load-leveling air suspension setups, I expected a fairly similar ride, and in practice both the S400 and LS 600h L lived up to my expectations. Both deliver extremely compliant rides on a variety of pavement, gravel and dirt roads. Both vehicles offer a “Sport” mode but only the Lexus seemed to actually deliver the hoped-for change to suspension behavior with Sport Mode activated. If you ever give Jeeves the day off, a this cetaceous mannerism-taming mode is a clear “must have.” While I would never call the LS 600h L a “corner carver,” grip is fairly impressive, and the AWD system provides an extremely well balanced feel, while the massive Brembo brakes stop the 5,360lb sedan without drama every time. In contrast, the S400’s personality doesn’t invite any hurried shenanigans, which is good because it just can’t muster the hustle of the Japanese competition. Handling winner: LS 600h L.

No luxury vehicle would be able to show its face at the country club without the latest in whiz-bang gadgets. Trouble is, both the S-Class and LS lines are getting old and luxury shoppers may be surprised to find that a new Ford may provide snazzier gimmicks than either luxury sedan. Both the LS 600h L and the S400 have USB music device integration, navigation, big LCD screens, Bluetooth hands-free, self-closing doors, four-zone climate control and more buttons and knobs than NASA mission control, but the graphics on both nav systems fail to achieve the “wow” factor that the latest iDrive delivers.

The Mercedes brings the latest in dynamic air-seats to the fight, which will massage Jeeves’ back and inflate bolsters to keep him planted while evading the paparazzi. The Lexus, however, delivers one of the better backseat experiences in the business. Not only does the LS 600h L’s right rear seat recline like the S-Class, but it has an ottoman, a walnut tray table and a superb vibrating shiatsu massage system to boot. Unlike other systems that use air bladders to attempt to work out your knots, the Lexus system appears to uses rollers inside the seat, and can deliver a surprisingly deep massage.

When hiring a Jeeves, it’s important to remember to test parking skills in the interview. While Mercedes and Lexus both have parking aids to help the parallel-challenged, both managed only to bring new heights of frustration to the parking process for everyone involved. The Mercedes system won’t actually park for you, but it will attempt to guide you, provided the space is large enough for a greyhound bus and you follow the guide-lines on the screen with Germanic precision. Fail to follow ze commands visout qvestion and the system will give up on you. The Lexus on the other hand will parallel park or back your car into a perpendicular parking spot all-by-itself… If you give yourself a few hours to figure out which buttons to push and how to move the square into the right spot. Sadly Ford’s ultrasonic park assist in the Lincoln MKt, Ford Explorer and Focus are so easy to use and so fast, both the Lexus and Mercedes systems seem useless. Just hire a Jeeves that can park. Here the Lexus takes the lead because it can actually park itself (given enough patience). Gadget winner: LS 600h L.

The Germans have had a reputation for over-engineering things for decades; similarly the Japanese have had a reputation for engineering everything to perfection. Luxury buyers expect not only the finest in craftsmanship, but also the finest in engineering. In this category neither disappoints. While it seems superficially that Lexus has lost the technological edge over the past decade, the hybrid system in the LS 600h L will remind you who has a crazy R&D budget.

The Lexus CVT and AWD system are a true marvel, unlike a “regular” CVT, the Hybrid Synergy Drive transmission in the LS 600h L uses planetary gear sets and motors to change ratios. Although the idea is the same as the transmission in the Prius, the LS 600’s unit is far more complex, containing two power-split units and a two speed motor reduction gearbox on one of the electric motors designed to improve efficiency and reduce noise at speed. Even the gear-driven Torsen unit was specially designed for the LS’s transmission, to meet Lexus’ rigid standards for noise and physical dimensions.

By comparison, Mercedes’ hybrid system seems almost rushed. While the S400 may be the first lithium-ion hybrid on the market, the reason for the more dense battery design is that, due to a lack of space, Mercedes needed the battery to fit where the 12V battery normally goes. As you might guess this means there is no 12V battery in the S400, instead the lithium-ion battery and motor pack together replace the motor, alternator and starter. While bragging rights for being the first to carry a lithium-ion battery are nice, trying to explain how the Lexus’ transmission works to passengers delivers Lexus the lead here: Engineering winner: LS 600h L.

When selecting the perfect car to shuttle you to the board room, luxury features are by far the most important consideration. Out on the road in the LS, the first thing you will notice (while being massaged), is how quiet the cabin is. “Quiet” doesn’t do it justice, I’m talking eerily quiet. At the first push of the power button you are inclined to think “well it’s a hybrid so it’s quiet because the engine isn’t running.” In reality the engine was running, this car is just that quiet.

In contrast, the S400 delivers more wind noise at speed and a distinctly un-luxurious V6 noise from under the hood when pushed. While I would never choose a CVT over a traditional automatic for my own driving, the LS’ hybrid CVT is actually the perfect companion for executive transport (the last thing you would want is a harsh shift to spill your champers.) Speaking of that CVT, at 80MPH the engine in the LS 600h L is barely spinning faster than idle keeping engine noise at an absolute minimum. If you are late for your meeting, three digit speeds are attainable in both sedans, but again the LS retains its luxurious pose and low noise levels even at these speeds. If the LS is in your stable, don’t spare the whip. After all, it’s Jeeves’s license, not yours.  Luxury winner: LS 600h L.

Last, and quite appropriately, least, we arrive at fuel economy. Anyone who derides the S400 or LS 600h L for their low economy numbers obviously missed the point. If you really cared about economy you’d buy a Prius, and if you really cared about the environment you’d have Jeeves pedal you to work in a rickshaw. Instead the luxury hybrids are about technology, status and political correctness. Even so, in mixed driving we averaged 22.3MPG in the S400 over 800 miles. The best mileage recorded was a 50 mile highway journey averaging 65MPH and 29MPG. We can, of course, thank the V6 for these numbers, as the Euro-only S350L gets similar numbers on the highway.

Does that make the S400 the winner? On paper, yes, but in practice, the LS 600h L surprised us with EPA crushing real world economy numbers. According to the government, the LS 600h L should deliver 20 MPG city and 22 Highway. On a 350 mile trip down to Los Angeles for the LA Auto Show, we averaged 23 MPG at an average speed of 77 MPH which included going over the Grapevine. I was however still prepared to write off the hybrid tech as useless until we got stuck in LA traffic, where the hybrid drive really shines. A 28-mile trip from downtown LA to Covina which took a grueling two hours resulted in a lofty 32 MPG average for the LS. If you live in New York or LA, the LS 600h L actually might be a penny-pincher in traffic. Of course, you can buy about 7,500 gallons of gasoline for difference in price of the LS 460 L and LS 600h L. Economy winner: Tie.

At the end our two week back-to-back test, it became obvious that the LS 600h L is the best pure hybrid luxury vehicle in the $100,000 price point. The isolation, the CVT and the AWD, all combine to make a vehicle that is perfect for the person to whom Luxury means floating on a cloud. The LS 600h L will never have the athleticism of the BMW 7-Series, and it may not have the brand cachet of the S-Class, but it does deliver the pinnacle in isolated transport.

Lexus and Mercedes provided the vehicles, insurance, and one tank of gas per vehicle for this review

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35 Comments on “Comparison Review: Mercedes S400 Hybrid vs. Lexus LS600h L...”

  • avatar

    The Mercedes’ dashboard is such a slavish copy of the E65 BMW’s that it made me throw up a little in my mouth. The description of Mercedes ‘light hybrid’ system made me a little more optimistic about the coming inescapable hybrid plague. Basically, it sounds like the hybrid badge is the most important change. That being said, this article has changed my opinion of the LS600h. I thought it was as really silly car that probably couldn’t make sense to anyone that I’d like to share a dinner table with, but it sounds like an interesting technical accomplishment with real world performance afterall. And being a Toyota instead of a Mercedes, its complexity doesn’t equate to a warranty period death clock.

  • avatar

    What happened to the front of the LS? It looks like some sort of alien insect. Overall, both of these cars are very stately looking. But I just can’t get past the front end of the Lexus. Impressive though.

  • avatar

    The LS460 has always seemed to me to basically be a nip/tuck version of the old ’01-’06 LS430, and nothing like Lexus’ “1989 all over again” nonsense. The interior is just a slightly more angular version of the old car, and the exterior is dull and anonymous. It has absolutely zero presence on the road.
    If you want to talk about “an interior put together with more sumptuous feel and precision”, the A8L W12 has that locked up. The Lexus has the same cheap plastic switchgear and ’80s digital displays as an ES350.

  • avatar

    Something about the inside of the LS always strikes me as just a shade cheesy.  I can’t put my finger on it, but maybe it’s the pedestrian-looking center stack?
    That said, I read the best summary of the LS years ago in Automobile Magazine by Jean Jennings and it went something like: “There is no better car to have waiting for you at the airport after a miserable flight.”

    • 0 avatar

      That pedestrian-looking center stack has much easier to use controls than those in anything from Germany. I’ve also found the interior in the LS hybrid to be more nicely finished than that in the regular LS, with soft leather or synthetic suede covering nearly every surface.

  • avatar

    Why does the wood in cars always look so weird?  It’s so dyed and coated in polyurethane that even the real stuff looks fake.  I assume it’s cheap and durable, but for the money can’t they get inspired by furniture and yacht builders who really know how to make wood look good?

    • 0 avatar

      I used to crew a Hinckley Sou’wester sailboat. We flew a couple Antiguans to whatever port we were in to mask and varnish the wood work on the boat every 4 to 6 weeks. Try exposing your furniture to the sun and the wear and tear a car interior experiences and it will age like milk. There are good reasons why the wood used in cars looks as processed and encased in epoxy as it does. Look at some junk yard Jaguar XJ6s and Maseratis for the alternative.

  • avatar

    Could you elaborate on the LS interior being better, a bit?
    A review I have been waiting for. Thanks. Consistently the LS600 is reviewed as great and I believe it.
    Seen little of the Active7.

  • avatar

    Consumer Reports agrees with you.  The Lexus is the highest scoring car they’ve tested this year, with a 99 out of 100 overall score. 

    • 0 avatar

      Neither CR nor this review seems to have criticized the LS for its steering, as other reviews have. Haven’t driven the LS 600h myself, so I can’t personally comment. I would like to test the new Sport variant of the LS.
      Reliability would likely be in the Lexus’s favor, but unfortunately TrueDelta doesn’t have a large enough sample of either car to say. Hopefully in the future.
      To assist with the Car Reliability Survey:

  • avatar

    I wonder what a transmission rebuild will cost on the LSh?

    • 0 avatar

      @ Contrarian
      I wonder what a transmission rebuild will cost on the LSh?
      Why? Because you don’t understand it?

    • 0 avatar

      Nearly nothing, because the transmission itself is a simple planetary gearset. If you include the electric motors in the “rebuild” than whatever the cost is to rewind them, and replace a couple bearings.

    • 0 avatar

      @ Mbella
      You got it. ;)
      I’d bet the cost of a Mercedes 8-speed tear down and rebuild is eye watering by comparison.

    • 0 avatar

      Rebuilding the automatic in my old Mercedes-Benz 240D cost 70% as much as the car did. I sold it shortly after the transmission failure, as the rebuild made the transmission behave differently than it had when new and I never had any faith in it again.

  • avatar

    My grandfather owns a 2010 LS460L; it’s a conservative but handsome car, especially in lighter colors. His example has all the features of a loaded S-Class (radar cruise, power sunshades, reclining heated & cooled rear seats, etc.) for a $20k lower MSRP. The interior does lack the aesthetic sensibility of the Germans, and some of the plastic switches could be higher-quality.

    Pro: excellent quality, leather everywhere, faultless ergonomics, silent freeway cruising

    Con: huge blind spots at the C-pillars, absolutely no fun to drive

  • avatar

    “but nobody doubts luxury cars should be crammed full of the latest technology”

    I guess I’m “nobody” then. I find that all the “technology” in cars is better described as “garish” or even “vulgar.”

    The fancy wood and supple leather mark these cars as “luxury” if your into the “function follows form” aesthetic, but aren’t those features available in the basic LS and S-class?

  • avatar

    Take it from an S-class owner…THE LEXUS DEFINITELY WINS THIS MATCH.
    I did this exact same comparison almost a year ago. I was so angry with Mercedes for making the S400 I just kept shaking my head.
    I guess the S400 is for those people who want an S, but just don’t want the poor fuel efficiency. Isn’t there a way they could have just made a smaller engine?  A 4.5 Liter maybe?  
    I LOVE MY ENGINE.  I just couldn’t do this to myself.

    • 0 avatar

      bigtruckseries, I enjoyed your various car reviews on that site. While I’d probably have different conclusions (heck, I wouldn’t turn down any cars in this class, even the MKS toots my horn), it’s always interesting to see how similar cars go about luxury in different ways.

  • avatar

    The long forgotten Farago said the LS600h has the best drive train in the world. He’s right.

  • avatar

    meh, I’ll take Jeeves in a rickshaw and keep him fueled on burritos. You can buy a lot of burritos for the difference in price lol. Maybe I’ll find some Lexus badges on ebay and stick them on the back of my rickshaw, should really improve my nvh

  • avatar

    When I took the class for the S400, they made a comment about the price difference of the two. The Mercedes is the base S-Class, and it is just shy of $100K. They pointed out the $110K price tag of the Lexus, and how that is 6 figures, a lot of money for a Toyota. This is the type of thinking that I think poses trouble for Mercedes. To an extent, the people at Daimler think that as long as you put a three pointed start on the hood, it automatically becomes the best car in the world.

  • avatar

    What is taking MB so long to bring over S350 BlueTEC?

  • avatar

    I think the entire full size luxury sedan class is very quiet, but Lexus really knows how to silence a car. Our LS430 registers 59dbA at 100km/h on my Radio Shack sound meter. To put that in perspective, it’s the same sound reading as our Camry at 50 km/h. There’s audible induction roar that makes the V8 sound more like a CD-ROM drive spooling up, but there’s zero exhaust noise in the cockpit at full throttle unless the windows are open.
    I haven’t driven the new LS600hL yet, but I feel they’re making a mistake with their hybrids. What I want to replace my car is an LS with AWD, a V6/I4 hybrid engine, and at least an 18 cu.ft trunk. I could care less about 0-60 times as long as the car is silent and has good waftability.
    Fortunately, I can let Lexus figure it out later because our car’s been reliable enough that I can entertain the possibility of keeping it 15-20 years without a mechanic on speed-dial, knock on wood.

  • avatar

    “While I still long for the style of the W140 S-Class, there’s no mistaking the S-Class is the biggest Benz available on our shores.”
    Really?  To me, the W140 was as ugly as the Rolls Royce Carmargue (which resembled an ungainly, oversize Fiat 124 coupe).  The W126 and W116 looked much more like an executive sedan than the W140 “shoebox on wheels”.

  • avatar

    Having massaging seats in an automobile appeals to me even if I can’t afford it. What is mystifying is why Lexus decided to only put it in the rear – and only in one rear seat at that (sexism comes to mind). Yeah I know it’s probably aimed at an executive, traveling in Toyota’s mind without their significant-other. Why put much effort into coddling the front driver and passenger, then?

    • 0 avatar

      In Japan, the driver drives on the right hand side.  It is custom for the executive to ride directly behind the driver.
      Although I understand there isn’t enough space in the car for two recliners – massage seats should have been included in all four seats. Hyundai screwed up the Equus and did the exact same thing. The front passenger gets no massage.

    • 0 avatar

      I think it’s in the back-right in a LHD so that the front seat can move up.

  • avatar

    The Lexus LS is outsold about 10:1 on average by the S-Class, 7 Series AND the A8 here in the Netherlands (and I suspect much the same for the rest of Europe). Even the Jag XJ outsells it comfortably. Apart from lacking brand cachet, I guess it’s just too generic looking inside and out to get people out of their European luxobarges. I have to say it doesn’t appeal to me either, but given the choice between these two I might still choose it over the Mercedes. That’s mainly because I never liked the W221’s design either and the Lexus seems to be the better car.

    Side note on the S-Class; it’s a shame that the quilted Designo upholstery (as seen on last week’s TopGear episode) is seemingly only available on the (rediculous) S65 AMG. It brings the otherwise not that great looking interior up a couple of notches and they’d do better to make it available to the lesser versions as well.

  • avatar

    Well done writeup.
    I don’t get these cars. Or having a Jeeves. I like driving alone.
    For $120K, you could have an M5 and NICE vacation.
    OTOH, if you’re keeping long term, the difference could easily go to your mechanic / BMW dealer. I suspect Lexus wins there, too.

    • 0 avatar

      Of course you don’t. You are sensible.
      Americans don’t know how to be wealthy, these cars are for being chauffeured in, only status seeking idiots buy these cars to drive themselves around in.

  • avatar

    Finally, I can get self-closing doors.  Those will come in handy when I, uh, ummmm.  Oh wait, I’ve got it: when the electronics in the driver door fail and I have to crawl in from the passenger side.  I won’t have to reach back to close the door.  Awesome.
    Interesting review, Alex, but it sounds like you gave the S400 a pity-win on the interior!

  • avatar

    Considering that Car & Driver found the Equus to be “more fun” to drive than the LS460L, does that make the Equus more fun to drive than the S Class?

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