Do you recall the TV ads with champagne glasses stacked in a pyramid on the hood of a car with the engine running?
The glasses never quivered, but they sent a shock wave through the automotive luxury market. The year was 1989 and the car was the 1990 Lexus LS, the first entrant from Toyota’s new luxury division.
A departure from the European notion of luxury sedans, the flagship LS was created for the American market and has impressed buyers from the very beginning with its remarkable quality, attention to detail and levels of comfort and convenience.
It is often said that lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place. However, never content to rest on its market success, Lexus again created tremors throughout the luxury car arena with the introduction of the fourth generation LS in 2007. This latest flagship edition not only blended new levels of luxury refinements, sophistication, performance and contemporary styling, a long-wheel base model breached the stronghold held by its European competitors.
And if that wasn’t enough, Lexus shook things up even more with the announcement of the LS 600h L, a long-wheel base hybrid model – the first automobile to mate an electric drive system to a V8 gasoline engine.
But it’s been six years between major redesigns-a long time in the auto world-and the LS has languished as rivals introduced new stylish, technology-laden models, including hybrid offerings. The Lexus top-of-the-line sedan was no longer on the top-of-the-heap in a relatively exclusive segment.
Almost All New For 2013
After receiving minor exterior updates in 2010, the LS 600h L, along with the gasoline-powered LS models, has been significantly revised for 2013. More than a refresh, but not quite a clean-sheet redesign, the new LS struts a bold new exterior, an updated driver-focused interior, more tech gadgets and added creature comforts.
Lexus says that more than 3,000 of the 6,000-plus parts in the LS series are new or have been refreshed for the 2013 model year. For example, the only parts carried over from last year’s exterior are the doors.
In addition to the nearly $120,000 LS Hybrid, the non-hybrid model lineup includes the standard length rear-wheel drive LS 460 that has a starting price of $71,990; all-wheel drive adds $2,945. The extended length version, LS 460 L, starts at $78,290 for rear drive; $81,775 for A-WD.
New for 2013 is the performance-oriented LS 460 F Sport model. It combines a more aggressively styled exterior with an exclusive sport interior, a sport tuned air suspension that has been lowered 0.4 inches, a Torsen limited slip rear differential, Brembo six-piston caliper brakes, and 19-inch forged wheels with summer or all-season tires. The F Sport rear drive starts at $81,990, and $84,885 with A-WD.
For 2013, the LS 600h L has a sticker price of $119,910, a hefty jump of $7,160 over the outgoing model. Estimated EPA fuel economy carries over from last year at 19 city/23 highway and 20 mpg combined.
Familiar Hybrid Powertrain
The LS 600h L returns with a largely unchanged gasoline-electric powertrain, save reprogramming of the electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (eCVT) and minor changes that make the regenerative braking stronger with better brake pedal feel.
As with other Lexus hybrid models, the LS hybrid’s “600” suffix doesn’t refer to the engine’s cubic capacity as it does with gasoline-powered vehicles. Instead, the LS 600h L refers to the comparable power of a 6.0-liter engine when the hybrid’s 5.0-liter V8 gas engine is mated to the electric motor.
The normally aspirated V8 produces 389 horsepower and 385 pounds-feet of torque. It features a dual-injector system that combines direct fuel injection with port fuel injection for each cylinder, which achieves significant improvements in torque, fuel economy and emissions. It is also equipped with Lexus’’ dual VVT-i variable intake and exhaust valve timing system that incorporates an electric motor to control intake valve timing.
The engine’s low-friction and extremely precise low-tolerance design allows it to use thin, economical OW-20 engine oil.
There are two electric motor generators, each executing specific functions. One performs as the primary generator and engine starter but provides no motive force. The second drives the wheels and manages regenerative braking that converts kinetic energy to electrical energy to recharge the nickel-metal hydride battery pack. When combined with the gas engine, total system output is 438 horsepower.
The system is a “full hybrid,” meaning the car can be powered by the gas engine only, the electric motor only, or both at the same time. The big car can operate on electric power only for about one mile at speeds up 25 mph. When the car comes to stop the engines shuts off, and then starts again when the brake pedal is released.
Unlike its gasoline-only cousins, the LS 460 and LS 460 L, both of which are rear wheel-driven with optional all-wheel drive, the hybrid limousine is an all-wheel drive configuration only. A Torsen limited-slip differential splits torque 40 percent front/60 percent rear during normal driving conditions. If the road surface becomes slippery, it is capable of a near 50/50 split.
Power is directed to all four wheels through the dual stage eCVT that features sequential shift modes, allowing manual selection of eight different stages of acceleration response. The transmission also has three driver selectable modes-normal, power and snow.
Additionally, a control knob allows drivers to choose the way they want to operate the hybrid powertrain: Normal is a balance between fuel economy and performance; Eco dials back throttle response for the best fuel mileage; and the Sport S+ mode disregards fuel consumption to deliver maximum performance. There is also an EV mode for driving under full electric power at low speeds.
Finally, Styling That Grabs Attention
In the past, the LS was technologically top-notch. Comfort was first class and refinement was exceptional-but styling was boxy and shapeless. In comparison, Lexus has finally nailed it with the 2013 model and the LS 600h L looks good from any angle. Yes, it’s still big but now it’s sleek with flowing lines and has an imposing presence.
The signature styling feature is its sewing spindle-shaped trapezoidal grille that made its debut on the GS sport sedans. The upper grille and slanted lower grille have been combined and integrated into a single element that projects an aggressive frontal design. Jelly bean-shaped headlamps have been replaced with swept back lens design that flows into bulging front fenders.
In profile, a sculpted lower rocker panel carries the dramatic new look rearward to the rear, which has a tapered appearance, conforming to the front styling. A pair of large chromed exhaust tips underlines the car’s performance characteristics.
The newly shaped exterior is more than just eye pleasing. Numerous stabilizing fins and underbody air management result in a drag coefficient of just .26, making the LS Hybrid one of the most aerodynamic cars in its segment.
A Cabin That Indulges
As the standard-bearer that has to take on the elite of the world, the 2013 Lexus LS 600h L leaves no need unfulfilled or wish ungranted to driver and passengers. The cabin has always been relaxing but the 2013 model is even more sumptuous, with front and rear occupants cosseted like passengers in an executive-class jet.
Space is simply not an issue. With its long wheelbase configuration, the LS hybrid’s interior is positively cavernous providing ample room for legs, heads and arms in all directions.
Seats adjust in more ways than the average body thought possible. The four-zone climate control can sense individual body heat and adjust the temperature accordingly, and includes an overhead air diffuser.
The rear of the cabin is positively regal. An Executive Class Seating Package forgoes the standard five-seat layout for two rear seats with seat heating and cooling. It features a right rear seat with a remote control that reclines the seatback 45 degrees, raises an ottoman and then gives a relaxing shiatsu-style massage that can ease the day’s tension of any chairman of the board.
Need to make some notes? A hide-away wood table takes care of that. Want a chilled beverage? A cool box is available. How about a movie? The entertainment system features a Blu-ray DVD player, an SD card slot and a retractable, ceiling mounted, nine-inch full-color VGA screen.
And if all that doesn’t fulfill your luxury needs, this hybrid pleasure cruiser also offers the superb Mark Levinson audio system. It’s like having the best seat in the house at a concert.
Opulent? This thing’s a Ritz Carlton hotel on four wheels.
Complementing the luxury amenities, the 2013 LS 600h L adopts the two-zone dash layout of all new Lexus vehicles. The design is stylish in a business-like manner and refreshingly simple to use, despite a vast array of equipment.
Most notable is a 12.3-inch LCD screen in the center of the dashboard. It displays the navigation system, climate, phone and stereo, with redundant buttons for the climate arranged below it. Tons of tech features are easy to figure out including the navigation system and the Lexus Enform App Suite that allows connection to the Bing search engine, iHeartRadio and Pandora, ordering movie tickets and making dinner reservations. The display is maneuverable with an easy-to-use, but somewhat sensitive joystick in the center console.
The passenger-focused interior is well crafted with an abundance of rich leather and shimamoku (“striped wood”) and other real wood accents. Meticulous attention to detail ensures that all the fixtures and fittings feel solid and precise in operation.
High-Tech Safety Showcase
This is a car that can slam on the brakes if it thinks you’re going to crash, move headrests if it senses a rear-ender and constantly watches you face to make sure you’re paying attention.
Nod off or look out the side window when your eyes should be looking at the car that suddenly lurches in front of you from a side road it will ring bells, flash lights and even brake to jolt you out of your inattention.
Lane assist will help keep you in the intended lane, while a blind spot monitor keeps track and alerts you when vehicles are in rear-side blind spots. A forward-looking radar sensor and two cameras help detect obstacles in the car’s path, including pedestrians and at speeds lower than 24 miles per hour, automatically bring the LS to a full stop.
The adaptive cruise control can now operate at any speed, plus it is able to bring the vehicle to a complete stop and then accelerate once the flow of traffic has resumed.
Driving The LS Hybrid
Lexus staged the West Cost media introduction of the 2013 LS 600h L at the Lodge at Torrez Pines in La Jolla, California. Appropriate, since the lodge is rated one of the top luxury resorts in the nation and earned the highest level from the California Green Lodging Program. Its location also offers easy access to a variety of driving situations—city, freeway and challenging two-lane twisty roads in nearby foothills.
There are few cars, if any, as quiet as the LS hybrid, and not just when the car is stopped and the gas engine shuts off. It is so remarkably hushed that frequent checks of the tachometer are required to know what’’ going on.
On the streets of La Jolla, the hybrid system was a paradigm of smoothness, so much so that it was near impossible to detect the transition from electric power to engine power and vice versa. Electric-only driving was best accomplished by accelerating from stop to around 30 mph then lifting off. From there, a light foot can indeed propel the car with electrons for the Lexus claimed mile or so.
We found that Eco mode was livable for in town driving. It significantly dials back throttle response, but on crowded streets why not save a little fuel.
Street ride quality is what you would expect from a luxury sedan of this caliber-very sweet. Select the standard air suspension’s “Comfort” mode and the supple suspension easily absorbs any road imperfections. Few modes of transport can whisk you along a roadway in such a comfortable, serene manner.
The big Lexus doesn’t pretend to be a sports sedan, but switching the air suspension mode to Sport introduces a different personality. The throttle input perceptibly changes, the suspension firms up and steering becomes more resistant.
All-wheel drive provides substantial grip and the car drives considerably lighter than its 5,200-pound curb weight implies. Despite its heft and girth, it easily strings a few corners together with enviable flair. The revised electric power steering is tighter and is responsive with good road feel. Brakes are light but not touchy, reassuring but not grabby.
There’s silence when you pull away, but mash the throttle and the 5.0-litre V8 kicks in with a lovely, smooth crescendo: the LS feels every bit as quick as its claimed 5.5- second 0-60 mph time suggests.
Of course most owners will drive, or have someone drive, the 600h in a sensible manner and will be rewarded with a serene ride. However, should an owner want to sneak away from the top floor corner office and head for a backcountry road, the drive can ease the tension of a stressful day.
Lexus LS 600h L In The Marketplace
The LS 600h L caters to environmentally conscious luxury sedan buyers, a very discerning clientele. When introduced in 2007, Lexus aimed to sell 1,200 to 2,000 units a year in the U.S., but that never happened. The best sales year was 2008, with 980 cars sold and the numbers have diminished every year with 2012 tallying only 54 units.
Those disappointing numbers can be attributed to a shrinking number of buyers caused by the economic turndown and the entry of other luxury hybrid models. For 2013, Lexus says it projecting sales of four to five units per month.
While the 600h is a brilliant showcase of elegance and technological sophistication, the base price of $119,910 makes it the most expensive gasoline-electric hybrid in the world. Add option packages and the price jumps to north of $130,000.
Affluent eco-minded buyers have other choices starting with the all-new 2013 BMW ActiveHighbrid 7L. Like the Lexus, it is offered in only a long-wheel base configuration and is also available with similar creature comforts such as a massaging rear seat and a host of high-tech equipment.
What makes the BMW a formidable competitor is price and fuel economy. The 2013 edition had a dramatic price decrease from $101,000 for the outgoing model to $84,000 and has an EPA estimated 22 city/30 highway and 25 combined.
Another option is the Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid. While it doesn’t offer a stretched wheelbase, the V6 hybrid powertrain has a fuel economy rating of 19 city/25 highway and 21 combined. It’s priced starting at $92,000.
If performance and handling is a priority, Porsche’s Panamera S Hybrid can fulfill that need while matching the BMW’s fuel economy numbers, but at a cost-$96,150.
Lexus is marketing the LS 600h L as a responsible flagship, something best presented in hybrid form. It is surely the quietest, serene luxury-class sedan available. It offers an excellent combination of comfort, space silence and features. It’s also the most electronics-intensive car I’ve experienced.
If silent, luxurious transportation with a hybrid powertrain that offers a precious few more miles-per-gallon appeals to you, and you can afford the price, this is the car to have.
Prices are Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) at time of publication and do not include destination charges, taxes or licensing.