Driving the back straight at Wisconsin’s Road America, is guaranteed to get the hairs on the back of your neck standing to attention.
There’s not an inch of run-off area along the mile-long ribbon of blacktop. Concrete barriers line each side. Wire-net fencing prevents pirouetting race cars from disappearing into the shrubbery.
We’re pulling 75 as we scribe an arc through the 180-degree Carousel. There’s just a touch of body roll as the car settles into the corner; just a hint of stabilizing understeer as the steering loads up.
Then it’s back on the gas; red line at 6400, and into fourth. Resist the temptation to lift for The Kink, hard through Kettle and then applaud the car’s awesome braking power as you shed speed for Canada.
At this point, you have to remind yourself that you are driving a Lexus. And an LS luxo-barge at that; the anti-enthusiast car that offered marshmallow ride and limp steering alongside supreme comfort and refinement.Terrific handling?
The supreme comfort and hushed refinement still top the list of the new LS430’s qualities. But you can now add terrific luxury car handling, and yes, dare we say it, driver involvement, all for a price which is likely to stay around the same as the outgoing LS400’s $54,000.
Lexus has created a technical tour de force in the LS430, which should start arriving in showrooms October 15. This is a car that drives supremely well, but takes occupant comfort, convenience and luxury to a stratospheric level.
2001 Lexus LS 430 rear
Among chief engineer Yasushi Tanaka’s claims for the new LS: it’s the world’s most aerodynamic production car; the world’s most-refined; a car that virtually eliminates wind noise.
And, with every imaginable feature, from refrigerated seats to water-repellent side glass, to power door closers, it’s also possibly the most well-equipped.
Apart from a few clips, fasteners and structural panels, the LS430 is fresh from the ground up. It’s new, more-chiseled body comes with a three inches longer wheelbase, and a roof that’s 1.5 inches taller. That means a more spacious cabin and larger trunk, but without an increase in the car’s overall length.
Body styling is, as you’d expect, more evolution than revolution, with Lexus designers not straying too far from influences of Stuttgart. The lines are certainly crisper, particularly at the front end which is dominated by those swept-back xenon headlamps and thrusting grille. Nice too, the way the edge of the rear door sweeps down to the rocker, creating a stylish curve. But the rear-end still looks like it was cloned from an E-Class Benz or Acura RL.
2001 Lexus LS 430 interior
What is truly impressive, however, is the way the car has been sculpted to cleave the air more efficiently than any other luxury car on the road. Its drag coefficient of 0.25 is only equaled by the soap bar-shaped Honda Insight and by occasional Robin Williams acting roles. To help obtain that low coefficient of drag, Lexus engineers used the same giant wind tunnel where the Japanese Shinkansen bullet trains are developed.
For obsessive attention to detail, look no further than the plastic wings that deflect air around the rear suspension. These, and the car’s almost unbelievably narrow gaps between its body panels. The massive presses that stamp out the panels now work to a 1/1000th of a millimeter tolerance – 10 times more precise than the 1/100th mm used before.
Powering the new LS is a new 4.3-liter V-8 that’s derived from the 4.7-liter V-8 that motivates the big Lexus LX470. It delivers the same 290 hp as the previous 4.0-liter, but at 3400 rpm instead of 4000. What’s changed is the amount of torque on tap, which climbs from 300 lb-ft at 4000 rpm to 320 lb-ft at 3400 rpm. That, according to Lexus, should see a drop in 0-60 mph sprinting, from the 400’s 6.7-sec time, to 6.3 secs.
2001 Lexus LS 430 engine
Twist the key and there’s the same eerie silence from under the hood as before. Only the initial twitch of the tacho needle tells you that the V-8 is indeed turning. Accelerate hard and as the needle sweeps past the 4000-rpm mark, the engine seems almost as silent as it is at idle. And even at the 6350-rpm red line, there is little more than a remote whir to break the cabin’s coffin-like quiet.
This silky-smoothness is matched by a five-speed automatic that slurs from one ratio to the next with the fluidity of honey flowing from a jar. It’s now more intuitive than before, holding gears on inclines, and changing down when the driver hits the brakes.
The big change, however, comes in the car’s suspension. It’s an all-new double wishbone design, with higher-mounted upper arms for increased spring travel, stiffer coils, thicker rear anti-roll bar, and new valving in the dampers to better mop up ruts and ridges. They also moved the steering rack from behind the front cross-member to in front to give improved steering feel during high-speed cornering.
It still doesn’t feel ultra-sporty in the way a 740i BMW does; the car still rolls into curves, and the steering feels a little over-assisted, a little numb in the straight ahead. But the car now has the relaxed, easy feel of a Merc S430, and the same uncanny ability to disguise speed. It also changes direction – and stops – with far more authority than before, and certainly has impressive high-speed stability, as we discovered at Road America. Compared to the current LS400, it’s like night and day.
When it comes to refinement, the new LS really does stand in a league of its own.
At a steady 80 mph, there is virtually no wind noise to be heard, and the noise from the engine is just a distant hum. Only the muted rumble of the tires over coarse surfaces breaks the eerie silence.
Inside, there are few more cosseting places than the driver’s seat of the new 430. The 14-way power adjustment coupled with more rearward travel, and a power tilt/telescope wheel, makes it hard not to find the perfect driving position.
Feeling hot? Click on the industry’s first refrigerated front seats. Fans blow air over a thermo-electric cooling element and up through perforations in the leather seat cushion and backrest. Got a stiff back? The built-in massager will jiggle your vertebrae at between one and 60 Hz.
Rear seat passengers also get the royal treatment. That stretched wheelbase means even more leg room in the back, and now the rear seat reclines and has built-in heaters and massagers. Fancy a cold drink? There’s a refrigerated cooler behind the center armrest that holds half a dozen cans. Back seat passengers also get their own controls for temperature and fan speed, and audio volume and tuning.
As before, the whole cabin is superbly crafted. But the rather cold, sterile feel of the previous LS has been reduced thanks to a lot more wood – 170 percent more, in fact – and softer leather.
From being an also-ran in the true luxury car stakes, this new Lexus becomes a powerful and worthy opponent to Europe’s finest.
|2001 Lexus LS430
Base price range:
Engine: 4.3-liter V-8, 290 hp
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Length/width/height: 196.7 in/72.0 in/58.7 in
Wheelbase: 115.2 in
Curb weight: 3955 lb
EPA city/highway: 18/25 mpg
Safety equipment: seat-mounted side airbags, side front and rear curtain airbags,
seat belt pretensioners, vehicle skid control system
Major standard equipment:
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles
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