Autos: High-End for the High-Minded

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The vehicle’s two tons of elegance lope flat and steady at 140 mph on the banked oval at the Toyota Arizona Proving Ground (TAPG), the automaker’s vehicle-testing facility near Phoenix. Count Basie’s “Satin Doll” plays loudly on this big, broad, and luxurious sedan’s 19-speaker, 450-watt surround-sound system. Up front, a 5-liter V-8 produces a different song. In back, the passengers enjoy as much legroom as they would find in a limousine. And throughout the car, devices prevent it from rolling over, colliding with other vehicles, or running into coyotes.

This car, the LS600hL from Lexus, also is a hybrid, which no doubt will surprise those who have rejected green automobiles as cramped, tinny, ugly, and an unthinkable compromise for real drivers.

To the hybrid class, Lexus has brought a level of luxury, a kind of performance, and an amount of cabin space—lined by fine leather and rich woods—that suit the wealthier lifestyle. This should be welcome news to those who, despite having environmental sympathies, had resisted hybrids because they did not want friends and family to know they would tolerate a ton of trade-offs to be aligned with green keepers Al Gore and Ed Begley Jr.

The LS600hL (h for hybrid, L for long wheelbase) is the world’s first V-8 hybrid. With a zero-to-60-mph time of 5.5 seconds and a top speed of 140 mph from 438 hp (by combining both gasoline and electric motor power sources), its performance is a match for some V-12 machines. At the same time, the car is fuel efficient and virtually emissions free.

So claims Lexus. However, while the LS600hL certainly qualifies for an EPA classification as an SULEV (Super Ultra-Low-Emission Vehicle), its initial acceleration is considerably inferior to those of the V-12s in question: the Audi A8L, the BMW 760Li, and the Mercedes S600. Also, the LS600hL burns only slightly less gas than do the BMW and Audi, delivering a city/highway average of just 21 mpg. That rating is about the same as that of the more prestigious Jaguar XJ8. The cost of purchasing an LS600hL, of helping to plug holes in the ozone and prevent icebergs from melting to ice cubes, is about $110,000, which is a price far higher than the Jaguar’s.

 

Like other hybrids, the LS600hL blends gasoline propulsion with power from high-output electric motors mated to a virtually indestructible nickel-hydride battery pack. The batteries are guaranteed for eight years, their life expectancy is 15 years, and no Lexus or Toyota hybrid, claim the companies, has experienced a catastrophic battery failure. Sometimes the car travels silently on battery power, sometimes on internal combustion while the V-8 charges the batteries, and sometimes, such as at 140 mph at the TAPG, it whistles along on a combination of gasoline and electric power.

The car is undeniably significant within the hybrid class, with technology that includes the abilities to parallel park itself and to brake and steer clear of collisions automatically. It is quick, fast, comfortable, and lusciously equipped, although the styling falls to the right of conservative. Then again, it may be a luxury hybrid, but it also is a Lexus.

Lexus, www.lexus.com

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