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The Lexus LS 600H L: Not Just Another Production Car

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It’s the world’s first V8 hybrid with all-wheel drive. And with the Lexus RX 400 h being the first, the Lexus GS 450h the second, it is the third production luxury hybrid on the planet.

When you get to a realm of vehicles like the Mercedes-Benz S600, the Audi A8L W12, and the BMW 760 Li, you are in a place where there is a degree of engineering that is above the norm. For example, the Audi provides not only an all-aluminum frame, but a W12 engine that provides 450 hp. The BMW also has a 12-cylinder engine, although this one is a V configuration that provides 438 hp. And similarly, the S600 has a V12 engine, albeit one that, with twin-turbos, provides 510 hp. Of course, these vehicles are not just about what’s under the hood, as each of them has an assortment of technologies that is meant to up the ante to Monte Carlo-like stakes (i.e., as in the Principality of Monaco, not the now-out-of-production Chevy), and wood, carbon fiber, leather, etc. that would be befitting to a club that Bertie Wooster would feel comfortable in (well, the carbon fiber would be a stretch, but???). 

Clearly, one name is missing from that list. Lexus. Which may be comparatively late to the game of vehicles that have a rather distinctive specialization. It’s not that the LS 460 L is down-market, but it’s not just as up-market as the aforementioned. And so the brand that is in the process of undertaking a global rollout of its products has come to the table with a vehicle that the others cannot match, one based on the LS 460 L, which is the long-wheelbase version of the LS 460. The 2008 LS 600h L is, in the words of Bob Carter, group vice president and general manager, “the ultimate Lexus statement. It provides the highest level of performance and technology, and the truest expression of luxury and ________ of any vehicle we have created.” Yes, there has been a word left out for the moment. It is the kind of word that one doesn’t necessarily associate with the vehicles in this class. So let’s look at the other words.

  • Performance: 0 to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds. 50 to 70 mph: 3.5 seconds.
  • Technology: Yes, this is a hybrid. There is a new 5.0-liter V8 engine with Variable Valve Timing with intelligence and Electrically controlled intake cam (VVT-iE) that provides 389 hp @ 6,400 rpm and 385 lb-ft of torque @ 4,000 rpm. Added to which is an electronically controlled, continuously variable transmission with Torsen all-wheel drive. And the piece-de-resistance, the hybrid drive system that, like other Toyota/Lexus hybrid systems, uses two motor generators, with the first, MG1, used to start the gasoline engine when working as a motor, then becoming a generator to produce electricity to power MG2 and to recharge the 288-V nickel metal hydride battery. The second motor generator, MG2, provides 221 hp, so the total output of the internal combustion engine and electric system is rated at 438 hp. (Yes, the vehicle can operate at low speeds with electric drive alone; there is even an EV switch that can be activated for rolling through residential areas and parking garages.) Getting beyond the powertrain, there is a banquet of other technologies (standard and optional). Among them: Adaptive Front lighting System (AFS), wherein the low-beam LED headlamps (there are a total of 9 lamps in each housing; halogen bulbs are used for high beams) are steerable asymmetrically depending on speed and turning direction; an Advanced Pre-Collision System (APCS) that uses two small cameras and millimeter-wave radar so that it is possible to detect small, non-metallic objects in the vehicle’s path—such as people; and what is said to be the world’s first Driver Monitor System. This option deploys a camera that’s mounted on the steering column so as to monitor the orientation of the driver’s face. If said driver is spending too much time looking elsewhere, not directly ahead, and if there is an obstacle detected by the aforementioned array of sensors, then the driver is alerted by an audible chime and a flashing light. Meanwhile, the vehicle’s steering ratio is reprogrammed (there is electric power steering with variable gear ratio) so that the response is amplified (thereby facilitating steering around the impending obstacle), the seatbelts are cinched up, and the brake system is prepared to respond with full force when the pedal is mashed. That system certainly eclipses the available Advanced Parking Guidance System that uses the rear back-up camera and sonar sensors (on a standard LS 600h L there are 10 sonar distance-ranging sensors, four in the rear and six in the front; this optional parking systems adds two more, one each on the front sides of the vehicle) to figure out how to drive the electric steering to slot the car into a parking space.
  • Luxury. Well, there are the heated steer-ing wheel, leather-trimmed instrument panel, Alcantara headliner, Mark Levinson 450-W Reference Surround audio system (19 speakers), and the like. But what has to be the ne plus ultra of automotive luxury is available in the Executive Class seating package. This configuration provides seating for four, with the luckiest being the right-side rear passenger. That seat features an ottoman leg rest; the seat reclines up to 45° and provides not only heating and cooling, but a message function.

So what about that missing word in Carter’s comment? It’s this: “efficiency”: “the truest expression of luxury and efficiency of any vehicle we have created.” That word, which generally means the ability to do something with little waste (muda), isn’t the sort of term used in conjunction with “luxury.” But there it is. And it brings us to Moritaka Yoshida, the chief engineer for the LS, a man who worked on the steering and suspension of the original LS 400, which was launched in the U.S. in 1989 and really defined the brand in this market. In his development for the LS 600h L, he went to places like Beverly Hills and South Florida. And one of the things Yoshida and his team discovered—and, surprisingly, admit: “We knew that the LS had not previously been on the shopping lists of the affluent buyer.” They also concluded, “We knew innovation and distinctiveness would get us there.” They knew that they needed to have more power. They thought about a V12. But that would put them on par with their European competitors. What’s more, according to Yoshida, “Simply dropping in a larger displacement engine would have required no creativity. We had the opportunity to be innovative and to expand the segment.” And they took a different approach to developing the powertrain. “To begin our challenge,” he said, “we first pinpointed our performance, fuel mileage and emission targets, then we calculated what size the engine should be. This is the first time we have ever developed an engine in this manner.” The result was the development of the hybrid system that helps provide the performance of a V12, but the efficiencies of a V8. For example, according to Lexus-supplied numbers, the total horsepower of the LS 600h L is 438 and the vehicle miles per gallon are rated (2008 EPA-adjusted figures) at 20 city, 22 highway, and 21 combined. The BMW 760Li, with a 6.0 liter V12 also has 438 hp. But its EPA numbers are 14/22/17 mpg.

One more thing to know. The LS 600h L is being produced at the Toyota Tahara plant in Japan. Like the other LS models, the build of this new model is watched over by takumi, or “Master Craftsmen.” There are 10 takumi, each of whom oversees one of 10 areas of the build: engine casting, engine machining, engine assembly, plastics molding, plastics painting, vehicle assembly, body painting, welding, stamping, and final inspection/quality control. These people make sure the work is done to superb standards. But it is about production. Cars must be built. Speaking of the capabilities of Tahara to ramp up production, Bob Carter described it as “one of the greatest advantages we have.” He noted, “We will adjust our run rates as we do with every car.” The Lexus approach to the market is akin to the Toyota Production System in that it is about customer pull, not push.

But here’s the thing: the plans call for just 2,000 LS 600h Ls annually. Carter: “The LS series, and in particular the 600h, showcases the Lexus belief that every element and phase of production is vital and that building cars is more than just a business—it is an art form.” The 600h is not just another production car.