Lexus champions an effortless driving experience. They succeed, and it's fine, until you consider the strong possibility that driving excitement comes from effort--more opposite lock on the steering wheel, a stronger foot on the brake pedal, a perfectly coordinated heel and toe. The visceral snap that's present in a Jaguar XJ, BMW 7er or Benz S-Class is missing, and that's kept the LS from pulling alongside those cars in the real luxury sweepstakes.
We've spent thousands of miles in LS sedans since they first emerged in 1990, and the uniformity of the experience is amazing. Each one has poured out buttery-smooth power with nary a hair out of place--noises quelled, vibrations damped out. The trend continues with the current lineup, which includes a 380-horsepower, 4.6-liter V-8 coupled to an eight-speed automatic transmission, in rear-drive form or fitted with optional all-wheel drive (in which case the engine makes 357 hp and slightly less torque, but gets a limited-slip differential with a torque bias of 40:60 that can vary from 30:70 to 50:50 depending on road conditions).
The LS can't be faulted for its responsiveness: Lexus says 0-60 mph times of 5.4 seconds are within reach, or a half-second more for AWD versions. The transmission does seem indecisive at times, since it has so many gears from which to choose, but it doesn't demand anything from the driver--unless they've chosen the Sport model, which is fitted with paddle shift controls.
The effortlessness pervades the LS on the road, even in the Sport edition. Cars with the base suspension ride well but are a bit too soft for crisp handling response, and numb, light steering don't encourage enthusiasm. Though it's fitted with low-profile tires and a tauter, adjustable suspension, the LS Sport is only mildly more assertive than the base LS, and still less responsive and less crisp than an S-Class or an Audi A8. The plushness plays through the steering, which remains a light-touch affair. Long-wheelbase cars have exceptionally controlled, smooth rides even in the air suspension's stiffest mode.
In the LS 600h L, Lexus teams a 5.0-liter V-8 engine and a hybrid drive system for V-12-like power. The gasoline V-8 makes 389 horsepower on its own, but altogether the system achieves 438 horsepower. The hybrid system dispatches its power through a full-time all-wheel-drive system and a "shiftless" continuously variable transmission (CVT). For more control during sporty driving, the CVT can simulate eight manually shifted gears. The full-hybrid system can operate for short distances, almost silently, on electric power alone. There's even an EV button-a feature never before used on a Toyota hybrid in the U.S. market-that forces the system to use only electric power for several minutes. It recharges its nickel-metal-hydride battery packs either via the engine or through a regenerative braking system.
The LS 600h L also moves very quickly, and with the same almost-uncanny quiet; the only time you hear the gasoline engine is when accelerating hard. Acceleration is just as quick—Lexus claims a 0-60 mph run of 5.5 seconds—but the LS 600h L delivers an EPA-rated 20 mpg city, 22 highway.
Like its kin, the LS 600h L doesn't feel sporty either, but with its adaptive suspension it steers well and corners surprisingly flat, thanks to the three modes-Comfort, Power, and Sport-that afford different ranges of response for the throttle, steering, and suspension.