Lexus LS460

Driving. You know - throttle, steering, braking, parking and so on. Well, that's over now; the new Lexus LS does it all for you. John Simister feels a bit redundant, if supremely comfortable

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Model: Lexus LS460
Price: from £60,000 approx (on sale January)
Engine: 4,608cc, V8 cylinders, 32 valves, 380bhp at 6,400rpm, 364lb ft at 4,100rpm
Transmission: eight-speed automatic gearbox, rear-wheel drive
Performance: 155mph, 0-62mph in 5.7sec, 25.5mpg official average
CO2: 261g/km

I could tell you about how the new Lexus LS460 is one of the most technologically-dense cars you can buy. How it has a spy in the cab to make sure you're looking where you're going; how it puts the brakes and stability systems on alert if you're not paying attention; how it detects obstacles.

Then there's the eight-speed gearbox. Eight speeds? This smacks of overkill. In some markets, there's a long-wheelbase version that even measures occupants' body heat with infra-red sensors to adjust the cabin temperature.

But I'm not sure you want to know all this straight off. You'll be more intrigued by this killer fact: the amply-sized LS460 is the car - provided it has the right options - that parks itself.

This is what you do. Drive past a likely-looking space - either side - then select reverse. The rear-view camera sends a colour image to the dashboard screen, in which feasible parking spaces are outlined in green. Touch the desired space with a finger, apply light pressure to the accelerator and the Lexus steers itself into the slot. It really does. You have to be ready with the brake, but there are plenty of beeps to warn of imminent contact.

OK, it's not perfect. When I tried it, the Lexus wasn't quite parallel to the kerb. And it can't shuffle back and forth; the space must be big enough for a single-move entry. But it's impressive.

So, too, are other aspects. The paint is wet-flatted between coats for a perfect finish. The engine crankshaft is polished, and the completed engine undergoes a vibration check and is listened to all over with a stethoscope.

But then, a Lexus LS was ever thus. It had to be, for this premium-brand-from-nowhere to make its mark back in 1989. I balanced a 50p piece on its edge atop an idling LS V8 back then, and it didn't even move. There was a depth of quality and restrained precision in that car that made even a Mercedes seem a bit cheap. The Lexus sent a shock wave through the industry, and its market success was tempered only by its lumpen looks.

Each successive LS has been less remarkable, partly because the opposition has caught up in quality and precision, partly because the cars never broke free of that visual blandness and timidity. But Lexus decided on a new design language a couple of years ago, seen so far in the GS and IS cars and dubbed L-finesse. You can chuckle at this, and chuckle some more at how it evokes - I quote - incisive simplicity, intriguing elegance and seamless anticipation. In fact, the visual contrast between the first two of these is the essence of L-finesse. Of course it is. But it's a good-looking car with its fastback tail (rather more so than the Mercedes S-class, another hugely techno-dense car), and it's the first LS to have a brand-distinctive identity. The technology is designed to set it apart, beginning with the engine and gearbox. At 4.6 litres the engine, though hefty, is smaller and hence lighter than those of top-end BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes. So to produce the required pace it has to spin more quickly, and this calls for that remarkable eight-speed automatic transmission. Fortunately, it can miss out gears when changing up or down as required, so you're not aware of constant and irritating gearshifts.

All this makes for a very fuel-efficient engine, in big-car terms. Electrically controlled variable-valve timing, able to alter itself even at idle and tune the engine optimally for a cold start, helps here, as do two fuel injectors per cylinder - one a normal indirect one, the other used for direct injection into the cylinder. This 380bhp V8 emits little more than half the CO2 exhausted by a 400bhp Maserati Quattroporte's V8. That's very impressive, especially as the LS surges to 60mph in 5.5 seconds. (There's a hybrid on the way, too.)

Fine. And it can prime the "active" headrests if cameras detect a looming rear-end impact, it can help you stay in lane by applying steering movements (like the Honda system, but jerkier), and it can apply brakes for a deceleration of up to 0.7G if it detects an obstacle - not just a metal one - that you haven't, even after hints such as beeps and a "brake" indicator.

But is there a soul in the machine? Hard to say. The LS460 does its best to ensure that every interface between you and the world, apart from peering through glass, is electronic. This is the biggest car in production with electric power steering, and there's a 42-volt supply to feed it. The steering ratio can be varied electronically, like a BMW Active Steering system but to a lesser extent. The response quickens when it senses the driver needs to take rapid avoiding action, and the system can also help correct skids and keep the LS braking in a straight line.

The brakes are electro-hydraulic, needed for that automatic braking to work easily. They have an excellent automatic-hold feature which prevents creeping in traffic, so you don't have to keep your foot on the brake pedal and annoy other drivers with the dazzle, but the pedal response is snatchy and unnatural - more so in the first car I drove than in the second.

You get the picture: techno-wizardry compromises the natural car/driver interaction. Forsaking the warmth of analogue communication, the LS has gone all digital on us. It does have a fabulous stereo, though.

But is it a truly special Lexus any more? It's quick, very quiet and very comfortable - choose the 18in wheels rather than the 19in for optimum smoothness - but some of the magic has gone. The wood is so shiny, and turns through such unfeasibly tight angles, that it looks like plastic. The soft vinyl facia covering looks cheap and feels sticky: "It's a pre-production car," I'm told, but I report as I find.

The pull-out door pockets lack the expected linings; that paranoia-inducing facial monitor on the steering column looks like a cheap aftermarket accessory; and - horror - on opening the bonnet I find a crass plastic representation of an engine covering the real aluminium article. Why do carmakers do this? And while it's jolly nice to have an electrically opening and closing boot, if it's that slow I'd really rather do it myself.

So, there it is. The Lexus LS has gone all techno on us - and the machine has lost its ghost.

The Rivals

JAGUAR XJ8 4.2 SOVEREIGN £56,540

All-aluminium, like the Audi, but the design looks dated even after a recent makeover. It's smooth and quiet for passengers, and rewarding for the driver.

MERCEDES-BENZ S500 £69,770

Expensive, very sophisticated, this blends quiet, comfort and driver-pleasing dynamics like no car before. Styling is challenging; engine has 388bhp.

AUDI A8 4.2 QUATTRO SE £59,815

All-aluminium structure makes the all-wheel-drive Audi light for its size, and it looks luscious inside and out. Direct-injection V8 engine gives 350bhp.

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