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Lexus LS600 Redefines Smooth

LEXUS LS600 SPECS:
Engine: 438 hp, 5 liter V-8 with electric motor
Acceleration: 0-60: 5.5 seconds
Braking: 4-wheel disc brakes with ABS, Emergency Brake Assist, Electric Parking Brake, Electronic Brake Force Distribution, 14 inch front rotors, 13.1 inch rear rotors
Sound system: Mark Levinson stereo/CD system with 19 speakers and USB and MP3 connections
Price: $ 110,875 as tested.

YOU WON’T CLIMB ANY HIGHER on the luxury sedan pyramid before sliding in to the Lexus LS line. Yet even here, Lexus insists on boosting the attraction. The shining beacon in its lighthouse is the 600h L model. Aside from having the largest powerplant in its portfolio and being the longest of its oversized sedans, this model is also a hybrid. If design, power and interior space weren’t icing enough, you’re now looking at bolstered fuel economy, unfathomable quietness and hold-on-to-your-hairpiece thrust.

Let’s start with the specifics: The combination of a large 5-liter V-8 supported by a far smaller electric engine results in a run silent electric mode at speeds under 15 mph (and at stop lights, where you most appreciate some solitude). But with a combined 438 horsepower between the two harmonious engines, instant thrust is plentiful. Zero to 60 time is a laudable 5.5 seconds. Best yet, its continuously variable transmission leaves no gear change even remotely detectable. Smooth is the operative word, redefined.

Admittedly, gas mileage is not going to be economy car-like. But nevertheless, 19 mpg in the city and 23 on highway-and the ample leg room in this sizable sedan-is over 15 percent better than non-hybrid sedans.

Mechanics aside, this Lexus is all about the life of luxury, particularly in the back seat. If upon climbing in to the rear section you feel the urge to compare it to a living room, you shan’t be the first. The overtly comfortable seats have two features that are unique. First, with a push of a button, the back of the seat and seat bottom move and tilt to accommodate you. But the real treat occurs with the depression of another button-and you’re treated to a back massage. Mechanical rollers careen up and down your spine, easing away worries (and perhaps the state of confounded gas pricing in Hawai’i).

Other buttons cause the video screen to drop down from the ceiling to watch a flick, or to control the sound system. Even wireless headphones are provided. Also in the ceiling are two drop-down mirrors.

Climate adjustments for the seats and the four rear air vents come from another set of controls. And with an impressive five power-controlled rear window shades, light can be let in or not. Your eye mask can remain at home, where it ought to.

Neither the driver nor the front passenger is left out of the luxury parade. Parallel parking can be performed with little or no need for driver participation. With the use of the rear camera and large dash video screen, the car determines how it handles the parking task, and performs it with a push of a button.

The screen also provides navigation guidance, Bluetooth phone serviceand information on all the stereo/CD functions. When the transmission is in reverse, a clear picture of rear of the car is provided. A single USB port and auxiliary line permit either music downloads into the stereo system or MP3, iPhone, iPod connections.

Like the back seats, controls allow you to either cool or heat the driver and passenger seats. That’s right: Cool. Finally a car maker has included our tropic climes in their seat temp technology.

Other buttons can raise or lower the car, change the shock absorber setting, and raise or lower the rear shades.

The driving experience is a combination of quiet power with the ability to absorb the worst road potholes with abandon. And there is no floating suspension feeling. In heavy traffic with the already quiet V-8 off at stops, the sensation of battery power moving you forward is almost eerie. Steering is quite light to the touch with a good directional feel. Styling says Lexus in a quiet, refined manner.

Some may say a luxury hybrid is a contradiction is in terms. However, it works-well-here to pair silent comfort with performance, particularly for those in the back seat.

Luxury Asides

THE ITALIANS ARE COMING!

The long-awaited (and partially owned by Chrysler) Fiat is en route to Hawaiian shores, with an array of new models.

The first will be the Fiat 500. With its diminutive size, light weight (in the 2,400 pound range) and 1.4-liter engine, gas mileage should be first rate. This 4-passenger 2-door is smaller than the Mini, but will be nicely equipped in even its base form. Expect pricing in the $16,000 range.

POWER TO THE PEOPLE (AND THEIR ENGINES)

An increasing trend in the luxury car field is the availability of “hot rod,” or souped-up versions of various models. BMW started with the M editions many years ago. The formula goes something like this: Either take an existing engine and tweak it with more horsepower, or take a larger engine and stick it in a small body. Not left alone are the suspension, chassis, and wheel/tire packages, each of which are modified for greater performance.

BMW has just announced the M treatment for its smallest sedan, the Series 1, by plunking in a 335 horsepower, 6 cylinder in the engine bay. BMW’s larger sedans, coupes, convertibles and even SUVs also will feature the upgraded option.

Likewise, Mercedes AMG line is covering almost its entire lineup of sports cars and sedans. Audi has the S line available on its smallest sports car (the TT), and various middle models sedans, coupes and convertibles.

The British high-end Jaguars and Land Rovers call theirs “Supercharger,” while the Cadillac’s smallest sedan and coupe, the CTS, has the letter V added to the title. This means a 6.2-liter V-8 with 556 horsepower can be found under the hood.

Lexus boasts its F line, which you can find in its smallest non-hybrid sedan, the IS. It crams a 416 horsepower V-8 into the engine bay.

New to the game is Infiniti, which launched a “Performance Line” evolving the G37 coup’s V-6 engine to 348 horsepower with a massaged suspension for better handling.

RADAR LOVE

Slowly but surely, radar or laser technology is being added to make cars safer. First, high-end cruise control systems are using multiple radar sensors to automatically slow the vehicle if it is approaching another too quickly. In the U.S. market, Mercedes has offered this system since the late 1990s, and others have followed. Recently, Dodge and Chrysler models have added similar laser-based systems.

Mercedes has extended its radar system and reworked the brakes to detect a stationary object ahead (or a vehicle braking), with a warning sent to the driver. If he or she does not react, the system takes over and slows the car.

The ultimate radar/laser system that takes over the driving completely may seem farfetched, but it seems to be just around the next bend.