When the Lexus LS 600h L (L for long wheelbase) arrived in 2007 as a 2008 model, it was the first car to combine a V8 gasoline engine with an electric motor for improved gas mileage and vigorous acceleration. The long wheelbase breached a stronghold held by its European competitors and the base price lifted the hybrid flagship model into the rarified atmosphere of prestige motorcars costing more than a $100,000.
Lexus aimed to sell 1,200 to 2,000 units a year in the U.S., but that has not happened. The best sales year was 2008, with 980 cars sold and the numbers have diminished every year with 2011 tallying only 84 units. Just 19 buyers stepped up in the first quarter of 2012.
Those disappointing numbers can mostly be attributed to the entry of other high-end luxury hybrids. Offerings from BMW, Infiniti, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche are not only thousands less, they also offer more engaging driving performance, and with some models, better fuel economy.
The LS 600h L received minor exterior styling updates for the model year 2010 and there are no significant changes for the 2012 model year. Base price is $112,750, and the EPA estimated fuel economy is 19/23 city/highway and 20 mpg combined.
Lexus Hybrid Drive
When the LS 600h L was introduced, Lexus began referring to the hybrid system in its luxury models as Lexus Hybrid Drive, replacing Hybrid Synergy Drive, which continues to describe the Toyota version.
As with the Lexus RX and GS hybrid models, the 600h’s “600” suffix refers not to the cubic capacity of the engine but to a relative power output. In this case, comparable to that of a 6.0-liter V12 normally aspirated engine. Clearly, Lexus is targeting the Mercedes-Benz S600, Audi’s A8 L W12 and BMW’s 760Li extended wheelbase sedans, all 6.0 liters and graced with elite 12 cylinder engines. However, the LS Hybrid comes up short in the power department, with total system output of 438 horsepower. Rivals Audi and Mercedes each produce 500 horsepower while the BMW 760Li resides in an entirely different motoring world, with a turbocharger churning out 544 horsepower from its V12.
The hybrid powertrain starts with a 5.0-liter specially tuned V8 that produces 389 horsepower. There are two motor generators, each performing specific functions and can operate as either a motor or a generator, although one is used as a starter motor and provides no motive force. The second motor, when combined with the V8 put out 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.
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. During normal driving conditions, power is split 40 percent front/60 percent rear via a Torsen limited-slip differential. If the road becomes dicey, it is capable of a near 50/50 split.
A dual-stage continuously variable transmission (CVT) with a sequential shift mode allows manual selection of eight different stages of acceleration response. It also features the selectable modes of the company’s conventional models: “power” and “snow” in addition to a “hybrid” mode.
Unrivaled Elegance and Comfort
The three previous generation LS sedans were often chided for a lack of expressive styling. Those remarks can be discarded – the long wheelbase 600h is a classic work of elegance and sophistication. It may be big, but it is sleek with complex, yet smooth flowing lines. The design was penned at Toyota’s Global Design center in Tokyo and received styling cues of Lexus’ latest design direction, called L-finesse. A key detail in the car’s appearance is its projector-type LED headlamps, which designers wanted to possess crystal-like properties. Actual crystal lenses were crafted in researching what was to become the final result.
There’s little to distinguish the hybrid from its gasoline-powered counterparts. The grille is slightly – but only slightly – bolder and special touches include discrete badges along with blue accents on head- and taillamps.
As its flagship, Lexus left no need unfulfilled or wish ungranted to driver and. There seems to be acres of supple leather accented by rich wood, which is sequenced matched, by the way. Press the starter button and strikingly sharp electroluminescent instrumentation jumps to life and complements a smart arrangement of clearly marked, easily reached controls that feel good to the touch and move with precision. Exclusive to the hybrid is a power-flow diagram on the dashboard’s central LCD screen.
Seats can be heated or cooled, moved up or down and back and forth, adjusted for lumbar support and reclined. Genuine leather on the steering wheel is buffed for three hours to create a supple touch.
For the preeminence in comfort and coddling, the 600h offers a rear seating option best described as the “Ultimate Barcalounger.” With a remote control, one can stretch back, raise an ottoman to desired height and then enjoy a massage that can ease the day’s tension of any chairman of the board.
The LS 600h L is one of the most technologically dense automobiles you can buy. There’s a power rear ceiling-mounted 3.0 VGA 9-inch entertainment screen. Occupants’ body heat is measured with infrared sensors to adjust the cabin temperature while ceiling climate diffusers gently distribute air movement.
The amply sized LS 600h L – provided it has the right options – parks itself. Pull up to a space, select reverse and the car steers automatically into the gap, using sensors and a rear view camera. All the driver needs to do is modulate the brakes.
And if all that isn’t enough for your luxury needs, this hybrid pleasure cruiser also includes a stunning 19-speaker Mark Levinson audio system with Bluetooth streaming audio, iPod and MP3 connectivity voice-activated hard disk drive (HDD), satellite navigation, Lexus Enform and XM real-time traffic system.
Lexus’ VDIM stability system is an engineering masterpiece. It integrates and manages stability control, electronic controlled anti-lock brakes, electronic brake force distribution and engine torque via an electronically controlled throttle. The system anticipates the onset of a vehicle skid or slide while cornering and helps correct the situation in a way that is transparent to the driver.
A pre-collision system provides even better performance. Using a millimeter-wave radar and two cameras, this system can detect not just large metallic objects like cars, but for the first time, human pedestrians.
Another techno marvel is the Driver Monitor System. It uses a camera mounted on the steering column to monitor the orientation of the driver’s head. If it determines the driver is looking away from the road ahead at the same time as a collision threat is detected, the system will sound a warning chime and gently apply the brakes. To assist the driver in maneuvering around the obstacle, the system reprograms the steering ratio, increasing the intensity and quickness of the steering response.
While all of this is going on, passenger restraints are automatically cinched up, and the brake system is prepared for full force response.
Torque Arrives in a Rush
Lurking under the finely chiseled hood, the jewel-smooth V8 and hybrid wizardry is totally concealed by an engine bay cover. Press hard on the accelerator pedal, however, and the presence of the combo electric motor-gasoline engine is immediately known. Torque arrives in a rush, but the application to all four wheels seems almost graceful.
Drive a little too hard into a corner and there is a nicely controlled understeer. If you are an accomplished driver, the traction management system has an off position, allowing the tail to sneak out.
No traces of mechanical nastiness can be detected through either the steering wheel or the pedals. Shifts move from gear to gear so unobtrusively that the tach needle sometimes provides the only clue anything happened.
The car is superbly bolted together and is as quiet as a pharaoh’s tomb, whether driving 35 mph on city streets, 70 mph on interstates or 130 mph on a proving ground test track, as I did. Only the harshest of railroad crossings can disturb the Zen-like calmness.
But really, most owners will drive – or have someone drive – the 600h in a sensible manner and will be rewarded with what is one of the most serene motoring rides on the planet.
As for electric-only driving, a delicate foot on the pedal can move the big car for a short distance – around a mile or so – at speeds of close to 35 mph. It’s great for silent driving in the parking garage on the way to the top floor corner office.
The Lexus LS 600h L is an amazing showcase of Lexus’s creativity and technological sophistication, but it’s quite pricey. The base price of $112,750 makes it the most expensive hybrid in the world. In exchange for the price of one LS 600h L, you could buy four Prius Liftbacks, keep one for yourself, give three away as cute gifts and have nearly 10 Gs left over. Checking all of the option boxes adds $23,995, just five bucks short of another Prius Liftback.
There are other choices to consider for affluent eco-conscious buyers. BMW’s ActiveHybrid 7L is priced starting at $101,000 and equals the LS hybrid’s EPA combined fuel economy of 20 mpg. Another option is the Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid. While it doesn’t offer a stretched wheelbase, the V-6 hybrid powertrain has an EPA combined fuel economy rating of 21 mpg.
If all of the LS 600h L’s luxury, sophistication and high tech features are appealing, but the price isn’t, the gas powered LS 460 L with all-wheel drive is priced starting at $75,480. That’s $37,270 less than the hybrid version and the combined fuel economy of 18 mpg is just 2 mpg less.
The 2012 Lexus LS 600h plays in the ultra-luxury segment, the last rung on an automotive ladder that’s about more than mere transportation. It’s about image and comfort, the latest safety and convenience features, and performance that, at minimum, is unstressed. With its hybrid powertrain it offers a precious few more miles-per-gallon and also meets the Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle II (SULEV II) certification, a distinction envied by competitors.
And then there’s the Lexus dealership experience, which is renowned for giving customers the kind of coddling they probably receive in all the other areas of life.
Prices are manufacturer suggested retail price (MSRP) at time of publication and do not include destination charges, taxes or licensing.