Lexus builds a hybrid luxury liner with more spark than bite
Lexus isn't after high-income buyers with the 2008 Lexus LS 600h L.
"These people don't have income," one Lexus official told us about the target buyer for the LS 600h. "They have wealth. Money isn't the concern. Instead they're concerned about prestige, appearance and the statement their car makes about them."
In other words, they don't buy a Lexus. In fact, Lexus says the company's V8-powered LS 460 isn't even considered. "These people have a very short shopping list and we're not on it" is the way one Lexus executive put it. "The sedans they buy are the 12-cylinder Mercedes S600, BMW 760Li and Audi A8."
To compete, Lexus needed a new flagship, one with a six-figure price tag and more power. So the company has created the LS 600h L, a V8-powered hybrid sedan that is first and foremost a luxury liner. It's built to provide the world's wealthiest citizens the same sort of serene, seamless and abundant thrust they would get in a 12-cylinder ultraluxury sedan, only without resorting to all those additional cylinders.
To accomplish this, Lexus has combined its largest ever V8 with a supplementary electric motor and battery pack. The result is the most expensive Lexus ever built and the only car in the ultraluxury class that qualifies as a Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (SULEV).
At 202.8 inches, the LS 600h L is the same length as its near-twin LS 460 L, but it's not particularly vast compared to the Mercedes S600, which stretches out 205.0 inches. In addition to all the equipment that an LS 460 L carries, the hybrid adds all-wheel drive with a front differential and a Torsen center differential, an additional planetary gearset, two "motor generator" electric motors, a power inverter, a nickel-metal hydride battery, and a long tangle of wires and cables. All of which weighs a ton.
Well, not really a ton, but it all does add 887 pounds to the car, which crushed our scales to the tune of 5,219 pounds. That's 887 pounds more than an LS 460 L, and 344 pounds more than the curb weight Mercedes claims for the S600 V12. And all that weight mutes this jumbo hybrid's performance.
It also leaves this big sedan with very little trunk. Hey, all that stuff has to go somewhere, and accommodating the batteries and motors shrinks trunk space 35 percent from the LS 460's 18 cubic feet to just 11.7.
To compensate for the weight increase, Lexus has added stroke to the all-aluminum 4.6-liter V8 it uses in the LS 460. It now displaces 5.0 liters, but the two engines are otherwise nearly identical, with double-overhead cams, 32 valves and variable valve-timing. Rated at 389 horsepower, nine more than the LS 460 V8, the engine feeds a continuously variable transmission that in turn is plumbed into the drivetrain, parallel with the electric motors.
With the V8 and the electric motors working together, there's a total (Lexus tells us) of 438 hp available to push around the LS 600h L. That's identical to BMW's claimed output for the 760Li's 6.0-liter V12, but behind the 510-hp Mercedes claims for the S600's 5.5-liter V12.
Fast, But Not Faster
The LS 600h L's hybrid system operates in three modes: "Hybrid," "Power" or "Snow." The default setting is "Hybrid," which is supposed to provide smooth operation. Meanwhile, "Power" sharpens accelerator response and "Snow" softens response to make acceleration on slippery surfaces more manageable.
Our best acceleration times in the preproduction test car came with the system set on "Power" and the transmission in Sport mode. The 0-to-60-mph sprint took 6.0 seconds and the quarter-mile went by in 14.3 seconds at 101 mph. For a big, heavy sedan, that's not bad, but the conventional LS 460 L is just as quick. It hits 60 mph in 5.9 seconds and rips through the quarter-mile in the same 14.3 seconds.
This isn't much of a surprise, since the LS 600h L and LS 460 L have similar power-to-weight ratios. Each of the hybrid's 438 ponies must lug 11.9 pounds, while each of the LS 460 L's carries 11.4, and the cheaper car doesn't have to overcome the parasitic drag inherent in an all-wheel-drive system.
Of course the compensating virtue of the hybrid drivetrain should be fuel economy. And since it will run solely on its battery at low speeds and shut off its V8 whenever the car comes to a stop, the LS 600h L does have an advantage in stop-and-go traffic. Lexus predicts that final EPA mileage ratings will have the hybrid LS rated at 20 mpg in the city compared to 16 mpg for the LS 460 L and 17 mpg for the shorter LS 460.
But on the highway, where the LS 600h L's larger V8 is always running — always hauling around 887 additional pounds, and always churning all four wheels — the advantage is clearly with the LS 460 models. Both the LS 460 and LS 460 L are rated by the EPA at a commendable 24 mpg on the highway while the LS 600h L (Lexus predicts), will carry a 22 mpg rating on the highway.
Clearly what fuel economy benefits the LS 600h L might have depend on conditions. Driven like a New York City taxicab, the LS 600h L drinks less fuel than an LS 460 L. But on the open highway, the laws of physics work against it, and the conventional car will be more parsimonious.
Lavish, Luscious and Creamy
Like all the cars in this lofty class of transportation, the LS 600h L comes loaded with equipment ranging from power everything to a Mark Levinson sound system that seems to put the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the backseat. There's also a navigation system, abundant safety systems and enough tiny little switches strewn about the cockpit to intimidate a veteran pilot of a Boeing 747.
The seats are covered in buttery leather and they're all heated (the fronts are cooled, too). And if that's not enough, buyers can opt for the "Executive Class Seating Package" which turns the rear seat into a mobile office and massage center. Trouble is, there's virtually no amenity available on the LS 600h L that isn't also optional on the LS 460.
And of course, this is the car that parks itself.
Not a Sport Sedan
If the Lexus LS has been criticized for anything it's a lack of passion in its driving experience, and the same can be said for the LS 600h L. The machinations of the hybrid system, while subdued, add another layer of insulation between the driver and the road. As an automotive isolation chamber, the LS 600h is among the world's best, but this is not a sport sedan by any stretch of the imagination.
But it's not meant to be. It's responsive and it handles well, but even with the standard air suspension set in Sport mode this is a softly sprung car. And the electric power steering, while accurate, is numb despite being connected to the road by big 245/45R19 tires.
Those big tires, all-wheel drive and the optional antiroll system Lexus calls Active Power Stabilizer System do make the LS 600h L more athletic than an LS 460 L. It recorded 0.82g on our skid pad and snaked through our slalom at 62.6 mph. Neither performance is exactly in the sporting category, but they both represent improvements over the LS 460 L.
The larger brakes from the LS 460 L Touring package are also standard and stop this heavy sedan in just 120 feet, some 16 feet shorter than the LS 460 L which wore the standard brakes.
Tough To Justify
In a class where exclusivity counts, the $104,715 hybrid LS should rattle a few cages. Only 2,000 will be built this year for sale in the United States, and we have little doubt each will be sold quickly.
Still, this car is hard to justify on its merits. It's no quicker or more refined than its far cheaper, conventional brother, the LS 460 L, and it has a smaller trunk. Even its fuel economy advantage is conditional at best.
Truth be told, for those who want a socially responsible luxury car, the LS 600h L isn't even the best choice at the Lexus store. The slightly smaller GS 450h is also a hybrid, but uses a V6 instead of a V8 and consequently gets better fuel economy — an EPA-rated 25 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway. An argument can even be made that the base LS 460 is the "green" LS model. It's simpler to assemble, uses fewer energy-intensive parts, should be easier to recycle at the end of its life, and gets 16 mpg city and 24 mpg highway.
With the word "Hybrid" boldly displayed on each of its rear doors, the LS 600h L certainly makes a unique and strong statement in the luxury-car world. It's certainly the world's first politically correct luxury automobile, but we think it should be more than that.
Inside Line Editor in Chief Scott Oldham says:
If you like the Lexus LS 460 L you'll like the Lexus LS 600h L. If you love the Lexus LS 460 L you'll love the Lexus LS 600h L. And it really is that simple.
But if you're truly concerned with man's impact on the environment, you'll buy a Honda Fit. Get the Sport model with the optional leather.
I know, ain't gonna happen. You're rich beyond belief and wouldn't be caught dead in a subcompact. But you also have five 10,000-square-foot homes that you're constantly heating and air-conditioning, plus a Gulfstream G550 so you can avoid the ticket counter, and you're feeling a little guilty about it.
Don't. Leave the guilt for the middle class.
Instead, do what Al Gore does, buy some of those Carbon Credits and fire up the jet for another ski weekend. Aspen is lovely this time of year. Oh, and buy yourself a Mercedes S600. Its 5.5-liter V12 cranks out 510 hp and a colossal 612 lb-ft of torque, enough to blow the Lexus LS 600h L into the weeds. It even qualifies for a ULEV II emissions rating. That's ULEV as in Ultra Low Emission Vehicle. In other words you can kiss the tailpipe for a week without any side effects, including guilt.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.