Long one of our top recommendations to full-size luxury sedan buyers, the LS 430, like the LS 400s that came before it, caters to the sensible members of society's upper crust: In place of European brand prestige and true athleticism, it's as luxurious as they come (short of a Rolls or Maybach), built to exacting standards, as reliable as any Corolla, and relative to its competitors, affordable. Other cars may offer more personality, but none can promise such a hassle-free ownership experience.
Since the current-generation LS debuted in 2001, four other players in the high-dollar luxury sedan segment the Audi A8, BMW 7 Series, Infiniti Q45 and Jaguar XJ8 have been fully redesigned. Although the '03 LS 430 remained competitive alongside these cars, Lexus saw fit to give its flagship a midcycle freshening for 2004. Along with mild styling revisions, the LS picks up a variety of new standard equipment and options, including a six-speed automatic transmission, adaptive headlights, a keyless startup system and Pre-Collision, an accident preparedness system similar to Mercedes' Pre-Safe. On their own, the 2004 upgrades don't significantly alter the experience of driving and riding in an LS, but buyers can take comfort and pride in knowing that, feature for feature, this Lexus gives up nothing to the Germans.
The six-speed automatic takes what was already one of the smoothest, most refined drivetrains in existence and gives it an extra margin of performance. An extra overdrive gear makes the cabin all the more silent at cruise, and a shorter final drive ratio hastens acceleration. We previously timed a 2001 LS 430 at 6.4 seconds from zero to 60 mph; Lexus says this one can do it in 5.9. This claim seems reasonable to us, given that the new transmission also features an automanual gate that gives the driver full control over shift points: The transmission does not upshift for you in this mode, leaving it up to the driver to tap the shift lever when the engine approaches its 6,350-rpm redline. New maintenance-free transmission fluid further simplifies the service process.
Where vehicle dynamics are concerned, the LS sees minor upgrades new monotube shock absorbers (in place of the old twin-tube design), a revised steering gear and a shorter brake pedal stroke. During a brief test-drive, we noted that all of the car's traditionally likable attributes were intact. Our air suspension-equipped tester rode wonderfully in both the "sport" and "comfort" settings, and cornering was certainly competent, if not overly inspiring, in sport mode. The steering is still on the light side, but turn the wheel and you'll find it to be a very accurate rack for a large sedan. The brakes, too, were impressive, as the revised pedal action provides an intuitive, progressive feel while allowing the driver to bring the LS to a gentle stop with minimal effort. Opt for the Sport Package this year, and along with the customary firmer suspension tuning, you'll get 18-inch wheels and 245/45R18 tires.
For more confident nighttime maneuvers, the standard bi-xenon headlights (reshaped for '04 along with the grille and bumpers) now have the adaptive feature that debuted on the RX 330, allowing them to swivel in response to steering input. The taillight clusters sport a clear lens treatment for the turn signals along with LED brake lights. For added ease, LS 430s with the navigation system include a rear backup camera (another item first seen in the RX) that projects its images onto the center display screen. Though one could easily get by with the sedan's standard front and rear parking sensors, there's a lot to be said for an unobstructed view of exactly what's behind you.
"Pre-Collision" doesn't have quite the ring of "Pre-Safe," but safety-conscious shoppers will find it a worthwhile option nonetheless. Available as part of the Ultra and Custom Luxury Packages starting in January 2004, the Pre-Collision System (PCS) employs a radar sensor mounted at the front of the vehicle under the hood. This sensor detects the closing rate of obstacles in front of the LS and relays these numbers to a computer that keeps track of vehicle speed, steering angle and yaw rate. If after comparing this information PCS determines that a collision with an object ahead is unavoidable, it preemptively tightens the seatbelts, activates full braking force (BrakeAssist) once the driver applies the brakes and, on vehicles with the air suspension, switches to the firmer sport setting. All of this is done of course to minimize injury to the occupants and damage to their LS 430. Buyers who opt for Pre-Collision will get radar-based adaptive cruise control (which makes use of the same radar unit), rather than the laser-based adaptive cruise available to other buyers.
Other safety upgrades include standard knee airbags to lessen the possibility of leg injury to the driver and front passenger in collisions, as well as larger seat-mounted side airbags for the front occupants. A tire-pressure monitoring system is new this year to provide early warning to those who never inspect their tires.
Getting into an LS 430 is easier than before on vehicles with the optional SmartAccess system. Identical in function to Mercedes' Keyless Go system, SmartAccess allows the driver to open the door (or doors, depending on how owners decide to program it) so long as the key fob is in a pocket or purse upon approaching the LS. Once inside, there's no need to take the extra step of inserting the key simply twist the ignition switch and everything comes to life. Although it doesn't get much easier than this, we're a little surprised that Lexus decided not to go with a simple "start" button as in Benzes with Keyless Go or Cadillac's XLR. Twisting a switch isn't too hard, but pressing a button is even easier.
The front seats in the LS are as comfortable as ever we could have spent hours in them without complaint and the interior materials, including the rich wood surfaces and the suede material used on the headliner, pillars and visors, look and feel top-grade. The gauges have white indicator needles in place of red this year, and Antique Walnut has been added to the selection of wood.
Formerly, buyers had to pay extra to get relative basics like a sunroof and a power-operated rear sunshade, but Lexus has added these to the standard equipment list for 2004. However, the company has somewhat tied buyers' hands when it comes time to option an LS, as you can no longer get the superb 11-speaker Mark Levinson audio system without springing for the DVD-based navigation system as well. At least, both systems get a few upgrades this year to help justify the greater outlay of money.
The Mark Levinson stereo incorporates a position-optimized sound feature that can be set for the driver only, the front seats only or the rear seats only. The nav system now draws from a database with 5.6 million points of interest (compared to 750,000 in 2003), and for the first time, its voice command system covers basic climate and stereo functions along with nav-related queries. After briefly trying it out, we still think the voice recognition system could stand a few more improvements. Though we appreciated the ease of being able to verbally change the temperature setting or turn off the radio, we could not use voice control to select satellite radio stations (XM is a dealer-installed option on the LS) as we could in the 2004 Acura TL definitely worthwhile from the standpoint of safety and convenience when you consider that satellite radio listeners typically have their fingers glued to the tuning knob. In other news, nav-equipped LS 430s benefit from Bluetooth technology, allowing owners to link up to four Bluetooth-enabled cell phones for hands-free dialing and conversation in the car.
It goes without saying that this year's LS is not radically different from the 2003 model and we expect that most buyers would be satisfied with either model. However, for those who are measuring the performance, technology and safety features of the Lexus against the offerings from Audi, BMW and Mercedes, these changes could make the difference. Unless you're looking for a sporting driving experience or an all-encompassing vehicle management system like the 7 Series' iDrive, the LS meets or beats the competition in just about any category. Take into account the negligible price increase for 2004, and the LS 430 is definitely worth a second look.