First impressions count for a lot with a car, particularly a luxury car. First impression on opening the door of Lexus's biggest luxury sedan, the LS 460? That someone had loaded up a shotgun with metallic-finish plastic Chiclets and fired it at the dashboard.
Yes, there are a lot of buttons in the LS. Unlike much of its German competition, Lexus has resisted the urge to integrate all of the LS 460's electronic functions into one unit with a central control knob.
Instead, aside from the audio and navigation controls that share the large touch screen on the dash, every system has its own set of switches or knobs.
On the one hand, this reduces the learning curve for drivers just getting into the car: you don't have to dig through a series of menus to find the settings you want.
On the other hand, it turns the dashboard (not to mention the centre console and the rear armrest) into a cluttered, inelegant mess, with more than 100 switches for everything from the automatic parking brake to the temperature control to a switch that controls whether the mirrors automatically fold or not.
The steering wheel is loaded with buttons, too. In addition to audio, there are switches to operate the phone and several buttons dedicated to the operation of the radar-guided cruise control, allowing you to vary the distance the car maintains to the car in front. There's even a redundant switch for the parking brake.
Add more options to the LS — my tester didn't have the self-parking feature, the rear-seat ottoman or other goodies — and you get even more buttons.
In these technology-addled times, it's worth noting that the LS 460's Bluetooth functionality is not the best. While other cars give you full access to your phone's address book once connected, you have to manually download contacts from your phone into the car in blocks, meaning that if you change contact information on your phone, the changes aren't reflected in the car.
Lexus does earn points, however, for the super-bright screen and the navigation system's instant response time. The same hard drive that stores the navigation information can also be used to record songs from a CD for later playback.
Get past all these buttons and more — there are even more controls in the back for the seats, heater and sunshade — and you find a cabin that manages to feel spacious and intimate at the same time.
Even though my tester was a short-wheelbase version (the 2008 LS is the first Lexus to come in two lengths), there was enough room in the back seat for passengers to fully stretch their legs while reclining the seat. Up front, the seats have a huge range of adjustment and are comfortable for a wide range of physiques, thanks to the ability to adjust the length of the seats' bottom cushions.
Where the feeling of intimacy comes from is the warmth of the materials used and the quality and solidity of their assembly. Leather is draped in artful curves over the top of the door panels and across the armrests; indeed, everything you touch with any part of your body has a welcoming plushness to it, whether it's the seat backs or the shift knob.
Wood and metal are sculpted into complex shapes, giving the centre console a feel of old-world cabinetry. The plastics are of exceptional quality and fit together well; there are no squeaks and rattles, which is a rarity for this class, given how many individual pieces make up the typical interior. Lexus has even managed to give the colour grey a warmth and depth that it usually lacks.
Though styling is ultimately a matter of personal taste, I think that Lexus's new L-Finesse design philosophy works best on its largest car. With a gorgeous hand-rubbed paint finish and intriguing details (check out the hefty door handles or the integrated exhaust pipes), the Lexus is elegant and purposeful without resorting to styling gimmicks, like the Mercedes S-Class's cycle fenders or the BMW 7 Series' stepped trunk lid.
Conversely, it's not a car that gets noticed as much as those German cars, either, despite playing in roughly the same price range. While the base LS starts at under $87,000, most buyers will opt for one of several option packages and roll out the door having spent upwards of $100,000.
This is definitely a car built for comfort. The plush seats and serene ride quality make it a great freeway cruiser; at speed, wind noise is nonexistent and road noise is a mere murmur beneath the floor.
The 380 hp 4.6-litre V8 is nearly silent, except under hard acceleration, when you hear the faint sound of silk being ripped. The eight-speed automatic (the world's first) shifts both quickly and seamlessly.
Start to push a bit harder and you discover that Lexus has engineered more fun into the chassis than the previous LS.
The steering has an almost sporty weight to it once you're on the move and it guides the front wheels with accuracy. The brakes, which can feel touchy and inconsistent when you're puttering around town, have huge stopping power and fine pedal feel. And the suspension offers up more cornering grip than expected of such a large car on all-season tires.
It's still a long way off a 750i or an A8 for pure driving pleasure, but the LS is more involving than it used to be and more refined than either of those cars when cruising.
It's also one that proved to be significantly more fuel efficient than any big V8-powered German; in mostly urban conditions, I managed less than 12 L/100 km — a Mercedes S-Class I drove averaged about 14.
What the new car offers, though, is the intelligence of LS ownership along with the indulgences that define the word luxury: a plush interior (with oh so many gadgets!), an improved driving experience and an original style all its own.
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