A First Impression of the 2001 Lexus LS430

A First Impression

By Larkin Hill

The crisp autumn breeze created mini-hurricanes of dust and leaves on the pavement outside. The sun teased us through the clouds and Enya's soothing music filled the air as I reclined and activated the back massager. While my supple leather oasis heated up, my eyes became heavy and my head noded to the left. Between my half open eyes I caught a quizzical look from the frazzled parents next to me. I half-smiled. They half-smiled. I shifted my gaze to the right and dozed off to sleepy-land.

No, Iím not in my ground-level apartment. Nor am I in the mall at my favorite Brookstone store. The sanctuary I speak of is in the back seat of the all-new Lexus LS430 -- cruising down the highway at 70 miles per hour, or so.

First introduced in 1989 as a model year 1990, the Lexus LS400 rocked the luxury segment upside down. With the introduction of the Toyota backed Lexus brand, luxury car owners could have the prestige and comfort of a premium sedan, without the hassle of factoring surprise visits to their dealership mechanic. The Toyota backed Lexus promised to go-go-go and to do it in style.

1995 brought the second generation LS400, but there were few visible changes. A decade later, the third generation Lexus Flagship is over 90% new.

"While some structural parts, nuts and bolts were carried over from the previous generation LS...they didnít just head to the parts bin to slap on some new bells and whistles Ė nor did they just tweak the design." Declared Denny Clements, Lexus Group Vice President and General Manager for North America during the LS430's West Coast introduction in San Francisco this fall.

"The Chief Engineerís personal goal was to create a new image of the LS for the 21st century while maintaining a dominant performance, quality, and features,Ē continued Clements. "(Yasushi Tanaka)felt the best way to exceed the customerís expectations was to see the US luxury market with his own eyes, and talk directly with Lexus owners. So, he traveled to some (of the) key Lexus markets to meet owners." In fact, not only did they have group gatherings, but also some of the owners had engineers stay in their homes, so they could see, first hand, how they lived.

In fact, Lexus was so determined to produce their finest work ever that they sent their engineers to study fine craftsmen of various trades. Jewelry and guitar makers were observed, and the precise construction of jets and mansions was also analyzed. (A little over-the-top, if you ask me, but a good story nonetheless)

The drive

After a thorough technical introduction we proceeded outside for a walk-around review. We partnered up, were handed keys, and sent out to tackle the hilly streets of San Francisco and rolling hills of Marin County.

Usually, I start a test day by driving the base models, and then work myself up to the fully loaded versions, but knowing that the massage seats were only in the top-of-the-line "Ultra Luxury" model provided reason enough to deviate. In fact, thinking of them made me smile. Yet, as anxious as I was to try them, my driving partner seemed to need it than I did, so I ended up driving while he resigned himself to the back seat.

I ended up playing with the driverís seat, which provided entertainment enough and I wished that I'd paid more attention during the walk-around. The passenger seat had 10 power adjustments and the driver had 14 -- including upper and lower lumbar, and a bottom-seat extension. None of the three seating positions that were already programed fit, so I ended up fiddling with the controls for a few minutes.

I was delighted to find that the air conditioned and heated heats worked well via a small device that's embedded within the seatback and bottom cushion. By a reveral of the current's polarity, the device changes from really hot to nearly freezing in seconds and a fan pushes the air through perforated seats.

Glancing around, I was impressed by how simple and elegant the interior was. While there's more glossy wood than every before in all of the models, perforated leather seats and a suede-like roof distinguish the Ultra Luxury Model from the other three versions.

Touching one of the wood panels beneath the Navigation system revealed the 6-disk changer outlet, and began to load my favorite tunes. One by one, I pressed "load disk," waited for the green light to flash, and inserted the CDs. The process took a bit of time, considering I had to wait a few seconds for each "load", but it was much more convenient than having a 6-disk changer in the trunk since I was able change any of the six CD's while driving.

Conversation was a null since my partner was nearly comatose and drooling in the massage seat behing me, so I turned up the music and enjoyed the nimble handling and quick response. I played with the music selection and was disappointed to discover that the LCD screen managed stereo system was not as intuitive as I was hoping it would be. Again, I wished that Iíd paid more attention to the technical manager. In fact, I found myself wishing that my co-driver wasnít so relaxed in the back seat, and instead in the seat next to me playing with all of the nifty gadgets.

At lunch my partner and I convinced the technical manager to ride along with us for the drive back. Smart move. We used the voice recorder that has up to four minutes of playback time and found that it was most useful for directions. We also played with Lexus Link, which is one for the newest safety and convenience features for the LS430. Lexus Link, Allen Woodrum tell us, "Connects the vehicle, driver, and a concierge at a dedicated Lexus call centerÖ(enabling the driver to) get emergency assistance, route guidance or remote lock and unlock."

The Lexus Call Center can also initiate contact if they believe thereís an accident or the vehicle has been stolen. Immediately the call center knows who and where youíre located by GPS. In fact, often when vehicles are stolen the thieves take off the GPS antenna, rendering the satellite system useless. However, LS430 has been tested with and without, and regardless of whether itís taken off by hand or knocked off during and accident, the Lexus Link promises to stay connected. Once the button is pressed there's no way to cancel the call. Fortunately, the button is protected from accidentally being bumped, so the safety's added because a car-jacker or thief cannot disarm it once it's pressed.

Now, along with the additional safety that Lexus Link provides, the service also serves as a concierge. Hotel and restaurant location and reservations are provided via voice activation. Plus, the location and directions to surrounding gas stations, airports, and Lexus dealerships are also.

By activating the voice command via a small button on the steering wheel, the driver can say "Iím hungry" or "Italian" and numerous little restaurant or Italian eatery icons will appear on the navigation screen. By pressing one of the little icons, the name of the restaurant will appear at the top, along with an address and phone number. If the phoneís linked up, the driver can book reservations and get directions.

Technicals

The DVD based navigation system is required to completely take advantage of the Lexus Link system. Requiring only one map CD for the entire US, the speech recognition feature enables the driver to operate the system hands-free, and with the integration of a mobile phone, it allows the diver to browse their address list and book reservations with a touch of the navigation screen.

The diving features, Woodrum informed us, include ABS, BA, EBD, TRAC, and VSC. Dizzied by acronyms, we go on to learn that BA, or Brake Assist will automatically increase the braking pressure if it feels that the driver is attempting to, but not succeeding, in pushing as hard as possible on the brake pedal. BA will work with the ABS system to make sure that the vehicle stops as quickly and as accurately as possible, without losing regardless of the driver's physical leg strength.

The EBD, or Electronic Brake-force Distribution has sensors that read the front and rear weight of the LS430 and will apply the most appropriate balance of braking force automatically. Basically, if it senses that the car is loaded down with people and that more weight is in the rear, it will send more braking power to the rear, thus providing better control and a shorter stopping distance. Typically most of the weight is in the front because of the engine -- most cars are fixed to have a 60/40 balance between the front and rear which is not always the ideal configuration.

TRAC is short for Traction Control and VSC is Vehicle Skid Control, both of them keep the car from going out of control when accelerating or turning, respectively. TRAC will do it's best to keep the tires from spinning and VSC will help keep the car stay in the best position if you oversteer or understeer while going around a corner.

An ECU-controlled air suspension system offers both Sport and Normal driving modes. And a European-tuned Sport suspension that provides tighter and more aggressive handling are finally offered as options for the 2001 model.

With regards to the engine that powers Lexusí premium flagship, the LS went from a 400 to a 430 designation. Just as the alphanumeric naming system indicates, the LS engine size went from a 4-liter to a 4.3-liter V8. Keeping the same fuel economy as the 4-liter, the 4.3-liter 3UZ-FE engine has a high performance that scoots from 0-60 in 6.3 seconds.

Yet, while the output is more impressive, the 2001 LS430 system qualifies as an Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (ULEV) in all fifty states. It also has reduced lead content. Backed by 28 computers, the LS430 comes equipped with Intuitive Powertrain Control, and as Woodrum explains, "(it) compensates for variation in the torque curve and maintains a constant g-force during acceleration...(meaning) it provides for a smoother driving style" Ė something that Lexus is well known for. Coupled with VVT-I (Variable Valve Timing with intelligence) the engine provides strong and even power, regardless of the speed or gear the vehicle is in.

I think the new 2001 LS430 looks stumpier than its predecessor, yet it was tested in the same wind tunnel as the bullet trains in Japan and was found to have the best drag coefficient of any passenger car in the world, a mere .25 (with the sport suspension). The standard package offered .28 coefficient of drag, which is still pretty good.

Another nifty driving feature thatís new for 2001 is the Lexus Dynamic Laser Cruise Control. Switching from standard cruise to the Laser system is done with a simple press of the cruise control button. The driver can program three designated distances (long, medium, and short) that they want to travel from the vehicle in front of them and the vehicle will adjust itís acceleration and braking accordingly. In fact if a vehicle cuts in front of the person youíre following, the system will first shift its gears down and then apply brakes if further deceleration is needed. Then, once the traffic opens up, the system will slowly accelerate back to the pre-set original speed. Of course, for safety purposes, the driver can override the system at any time.

Like Cruise Control when it was first introduced, the Dynamic Laser system feels strange and somewhat invasive. It's as though the car's driving itself -- which is it. Unlike, standard Cruise Control, however, the Dynamic Laser system will start the braking process if the vehicle it's following slams on the brakes -- a definite safety bonus.

Of course, because the system uses lasers that bounce off the reflectors of the vehicle that it's following, it needs a clear path to read the distance properly. Basically, the Dynamic Laser system shouldn't be used in foggy or rainy conditions, since the area between both vehicles is significantly obstructed.

As for luxury and safety equipment, as expected, the LS430 comes fully loaded. Dual-zone climate controls with "swing air register" adjust the temperature to accommodate individual preferences. If one of the sides is receiving more sun (as is often the case when driving in the afternoon) sensors make note of it and send cooler air to that side. The system also automatically recirculates if it detects harmful exhaust gases, and it will adjust for superior cooling in the summer and defogging in the winter. Also, the air filter not only deodorizes incoming air, but it also cleanses it of pollen and dust and informs the owner when it needs to be changed via a "Change A/C Filter" note on the message board.

The ride back into San Francisco felt shorter than the ride out, thanks to Allen Woodrum and his infinite supply of information. The technical details and abundance of gadgets reminded me of the technology abundant Mercedes S-Class. Of course, that's no coincidence or keen observation on my part, as the S-Class was mentioned several times throughout the day and is, according to Lexus, the LS430's primary competition.

How does it stack up to the S-Class? Well, to begin with it's less expensive, even with the "Ultra Luxury" package. While it's not as intuitive as I'd hoped, it's still easier to operate the stereo, air conditioning, and navigation system than in the Mercedes. And, while driving and riding in the S-Class, you feel like you're in a large (albeit nimble) vehicle --whereas the LS430 has the comfort and convenience of a large vehicle, but feels like it's smaller than it is. So, it basically comes down to image and body preference. If you want the name Mercedes, by all means, go for it. However, if you want Lexus' customer service, and a comfortable, reliable luxury sedan, then the LS430 is an exceptional value.

Overall

The LS430 is a bona-fide technical wonderland. The luxury, safety, and mechanical features will impress the most finicky enthusiast, but are intuitive enough to use everyday -- without having to memorize the manual!


 

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