2008 Lexus LS 600h

My car is looking at me. I use the term, ?my car,? loosely: technically, I don?t own the Lexus LS 600h sedan. The first six-figure Lexus has a price tag that exceeds what I paid for my townhome. But on a nice, sunny day in Pasadena, the good folks at Lexus have given me a couple of hours behind the wheel on the Angeles Crest Highway. It certainly beats a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

That the car is looking at me is no exaggeration. There?s a camera mounted on the steering wheel that monitors my head movements. Every millisecond, it takes a picture. If I should happen to doze off and drift towards a guardrail it will set off an audible alarm. If the alarm doesn?t work, a flashing red light appears on the instrument panel. After that, the car takes over, setting up the brakes, seatbelt retractors and steering wheel for what Lexus engineers call a ?pre-collision assist.? In other words, the car will help me avoid an accident by applying the brakes faster, and helps me survive by tightening my seat belt.

The driver monitor camera is a first for Lexus, but the biggest story is the LS 600h engine: the automaker?s first fully hybrid V8. The 5-liter engine works in tandem with electric motors to produce the equivalent of 436 horsepower. The sedan accelerates from zero-to sixty in 5.5 seconds, and has a top speed of 130 miles per hour. It?s all-wheel drive, and rides on standard 19-inch wheels with low profile tires. It brakes on a dime. It?s a very comfy hot rod.

Prius on steroids

Lexus uses the same basic hybrid technology in the LS 600h that Toyota uses in the Prius. But while Prius engineers used the hybrid synergy drive to produce exceptional fuel economy, the Lexus engineering team had power as its primary target. While the 20/22 mile-per-gallon fuel economy ratings for the LS 600h are much better than traditional gas engines with comparable power, they don?t come close to the 60/51 m.p.g. rating for the Prius.

One reason is vehicle weight. The LS 600h has a curb weight of just over 5,000 pounds: 700 pounds more than the other LS sedans, and 2000 more than the Prius. All of that cushy leather inside the car makes it bulky, as does the extensive list of comfort and convenience features.

The biggest difference, however, is performance. Hybrids are known for their ability to accelerate hard, since the electric motors develop maximum torque at very low speeds. The LS 600h is a rocketship. Goosing the accelerator, the car will jump from forty to eighty. Because passenger cabin is so quiet, and the continuously variable transmission doesn?t downshift, it?s easy to lose sight of just how fast the car is moving.

Unlike some luxury sedans, the 600h is very solid in the corners, due to adaptive variable suspension. The driver chooses from three modes, ranging from comfort to sport, using a switch behind the shift lever. The sport mode keeps the car level during aggressive driving maneuvers. An optional active stabilizer suspension adjusts the front and rear stabilizer bars according to the steering angle and vehicle speed. In other words, the speed at which a driver can maneuver through a series of S-turns depends strictly on the driver?s skill. The car will stay flat and in control at warp speed.

Since the car can?t downshift, engineers have developed a braking mode that gently applies the brakes to slow down the car. The amount of braking depends on vehicle speed. While all of the Lexus hybrids I?ve driven feel a bit nose-heavy compared to their gasoline-powered equivalents, that front bias is much less obvious on the new sedan. The sequential braking does a pretty good job of keeping the car under control through tight turns on a downward slope, as long as the driver keeps the speed somewhat reasonable.

Electronic traction controls adjust the system for slippery surfaces. A power mode minimizes control when the driver wants to go fast, and have more interaction with the steering and suspension. The hybrid mode is for normal driving: a compromise between the two extremes.

The sedan?s 19-inch wheels and low-profile tires provide a large, stable footprint. The air suspension prevents the ride from becoming too harsh. All-wheel drive is standard equipment, in case the driver wants to cruise along some unimproved roads. Ground clearance is a mere 5.3 inches, so I wouldn?t recommend trying anything where roots or large rocks are commonplace.

A pure-electric mode allows the driver to go short distances on the electric motors alone. Depending on battery charge, the range is 30 seconds to three minutes. It was described to the journalists as a ?sneak into the garage feature,? although I can?t imagine why anyone who can afford a $104,000 car would need to sneak into his own garage.

Taj Mahal on wheels

Entering the cabin, the first thing one notices is leather everywhere, from the 16-way power driver?s seat to the hand crafted leather instrument panel. The power tilt and telescoping steering wheel is leather and wood veneer. Center consoles: leather. Door panels: leather. Alcantara headliner: suede-like. It?s all very touchy-feely, though not vegetarian friendly.

The standard navigation system is easy to read, with a large screen and clear color graphics in the middle of the instrument panel. Buttons on either side of the information display help the driver and front passenger navigate through the system, which displays climate, audio, and fuel meter settings. The two-tier glove box is huge, as is the bin in the front center console. Inside is a tray to hold small electronic devices, a 12-volt outlet and MP3 plug-in. The two cupholders are large enough for water bottles. There are map pockets in the side doors.

A Mark Levinson, 19-speaker, 450-watt surround sound system is standard, as is satellite radio. Bluetooth technology gives the driver hands-free phone operation through the audio system. The navigation graphics are clear and easy to understand, with controls that are easy to reach from either front seating position.

Like all new luxury cars, keyless ignition is standard. The driver enters the car with the key card in his wallet and pushes the start button. Just don?t forget to give the card to the parking valet, or he won?t be able to turn the ignition off.

The rear seats have as much leg, shoulder and headroom as any sedan I?ve been in. The power moonroof lets plenty of ambient light into the second row. A rear-seat center console incorporates a storage bin and cupholders, similar to the one in front. Second-row passengers have separate audio controls, heated and cooled seatbacks, power reclining and headrest features, and a cooler box behind the center console. No passenger in this car rides coach.

The trunk is unusually small, partly because the nickel-hydride battery pack and electric motors are positioned between the trunk and rear seats. Lexus claims that the trunk will hold four golf bags: it certainly won?t hold a bicycle. There?s a small cargo net on the left side to keep a grocery bag or two in place.

Electronic safety systems include vehicle stability control, traction control, antilock braking and eleven airbags. Air suspension with three settings is standard. The test car has dynamic cruise control that maintains a preset distance between the Lexus and the car in front of it, parking assist, and LED headlamps that swivel to light corners in the road. Lexus Link emergency roadside assistance, electronic variable effort steering, and liquid filled engine mounts that reduce noise and vibration are standard equipment on all models. The Starship Enterprise seems like a tinker toy by comparison.

Limited edition

Lexus execs expect to sell about 2000 of the LS 600h sedans annually. The $104,000 base price doesn?t include a $715 destination charge. There are three option packages. A special launch edition of the sedan being marketed in collaboration with Neiman Marcus sells for $121,000. Average transaction price will be in the mid teens, according to the marketing folks.

The LS 600h is being built at Toyota?s Tahara assembly plant in Japan. Look for the first models to appear in dealerships stateside this summer.

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