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Car reviews - Lexus - LS - LS430 sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Smooth silence on the road, equipment levels, performance, comfort
Room for improvement
The styling might belong somewhere, but not in today's Western world

12 Apr 2001

JUST when you thought that yes, here at last is a Japanese car-maker getting its act together on luxury car styling, along comes the Lexus LS430.

If previous flagship Lexus models had been accused of blatancy in their carefully planned attack on the top-end luxury market, carefully emulating the styling cues established by the likes of BMW and Mercedes, the latest version shows an almost amazing naiveté in its blatant copycat looks.

Naïve, because the car is a dead-ringer for the previous, unloved Mercedes S-class - perhaps the last thing you would use as inspiration for a luxury car.

The German company itself is probably keen to forget the last S-class. It represented the old order at Mercedes-Benz, the arrogant years when the company dictated to the customer what a luxury car should be.

The previous S-class displayed the excesses of an era where social responsibility and political correctness were not the issues they are today. It had a relatively short lifespan for a Mercedes, put to rest after six years and replaced by an externally smaller, more lithe, more efficient car.

Yet here we have a new Lexus that almost looks as if it simply picked up the tooling of the previous S-class, slightly modified the front-end styling and added Lexus badges. The heavy slab sides, the intimidating bulk - they are all there. Could it be the big Lexus is aimed more at the sometimes incomprehensible home-market tastes than the international market? A pity, because the LS430 certainly has the goods when it comes to leading edge luxury. It really is up there with Mercedes and BMW in pure dynamics, quality, safety and comfort.

And it is not politically incorrect either, because it is no greedy consumer of fuel while it also runs cleanly enough to meet European "Step IV" emission requirements as well as the California Air Research Board's ultra-low emission standards.

The new big Lexus has grown in size and weight compared to the outgoing model, and uses a larger-capacity version of the all-alloy V8 for propulsion, but it actually consumes less fuel, on both highway and city cycles.

Surprisingly, engine power is fractionally less than the previous 4.0-litre engine, dropping from 209kW to 207kW, but this is at lower rpm (5600 compared to 6000) and there is more torque, once again at lower rpm, stepping up from 398Nm at 4000rpm to 417Nm at 3500rpm.

All this is enough to counteract the weight gain, so the new car responds better to the new (fly by wire) accelerator.

The improved highway fuel economy is helped along by quite astonishing aerodynamics (a surprise when you look at the massive, blunt front end) that are claimed to make the LS430, with a Cd of just 0.26, the most slippery sedan car on the market.

This is achieved as much by smoothing out the underbody as by carefully fashioning the upper body.

The driving experience is worth trying if you were ever wondering just how quiet and plush it is possible to make a car. Lexus claims a "functional" wind-noise level of zero, whatever that means. On a highway cruise, it is doubtful there is anything quieter than the LS430.

Road noise, tyre noise, engine noise and, yes, wind noise, are all muffled into virtual oblivion. There is some muted rustling from the exterior rearview mirrors at speed, so obviously these fall outside the functional-zero wind noise rating.

The interior is tastefully presented, with an abundance of big, useful storage areas in the doors (driver and passenger doors easily carry large street directories), the double glovebox and the centre console. Californian walnut is used lavishly throughout and of course the seats are trimmed in quality leather.

They are big seats, too, with plenty of power adjustment in the front to take care of people of all statures.

Interior space has been improved over the previous car, which means the Lexus will seat five adult passengers with ease - although, typically, centre rear-seat passengers tend to perch higher and less comfortably than those sitting in the outer seats. This is not a phenomenon suffered only by the Lexus - the S-class Mercedes is not dissimilar.

Foot room under the front seats is also perhaps a little less than expected. An optional "rear seat enhancement" package offers power adjustment as well as an in-built massager and side window blinds. A power operated rear window blind is standard.

The driver is confronted by the standard-issue Lexus fluoro instruments, while the wood and leather-trimmed steering wheel power-adjusts for height and reach.

It also moves up and out of the way on removal of the ignition key for easier entry and exit.

A very good (though not the best) sound system incorporates a six-disc CD stacker concealed behind a walnut panel above the centre console, and powers through seven speakers. Output adjusts automatically dependent on road speed, although the Lexus is so quiet inside that hearing the stereo is not really a problem in all normal circumstances.

The range of standard gear is extraordinary, backing the company's claims that it really undercuts its German rivals when compared on a feature-for-feature basis.

Things like a low-reflective windscreen, to prevent glare off the top of the instrument panel, rain-repellent front side glass (side windows are also laminated), rain-sensing wipers, anti-glare exterior rearview mirrors, auto-closing doors and boot, courtesy lights built into the exterior rearview mirrors, rear air-conditioning and audio controls, climate-control front seats, park assist and a keyless entry/engine start system merely embellish all the standard items expected on a car priced in the $170,000 region.

A BMW-style touch is remote operation of all windows and the sunroof to allow some cooling air into the vehicle before climbing aboard on a hot day, although it?s a surprise that satellite navigation does not get a mention in the options list.

Dynamically the LS430 is thoroughly competent, with a balanced suspension system supported by all the latest electronic aids to help avoid accidents.

Thus the LS430 gets VSC stability control, traction control, four-channel anti lock brakes with brake assist and electronic brake force distribution.

The big car feels well-planted on the road, steering with precision through a nicely modulated rack and pinion system.

The 1.8-tonne weight is always evident, yet the car will scamper through tight and twisting roads with balance and precision. The 4.3-litre V8 uses its torque to advantage and is helped along by a smooth-shifting five-speed automatic.

It has all the usual intelligence enabling it to find and hold the appropriate gear in situations where lesser autos would be hunting aimlessly.

A surprise is that it does not have a sequential manual-style function, relying rather on the Benz-style gated shift to allow the driver to select and hold a required gear. It works well enough with practice but a sequential shifter would be better.

For a long highway cruise, the Lexus is rather special. The big seats give long-term comfort, with a minimum of squirming required after a few hours at the wheel and the fuel economy readout will register as low as 10 litres per 100km on a steady 110km/h cruise.

It will dip more deeply into the new, forward-mounted 84-litre fuel tank in the city, but a reasonably careful foot will still see surprising economy. Another pleasant discovery in the city is a tight 10.4-metre turning circle that makes the Lexus relatively easy to manoeuvre in tight situations.

Passive safety is taken care of by dual front airbags, front side airbags and full-length window bags, and by a newly designed structure with improved impact performance in all directions. The car is also designed in a way that minimises damage to other "smaller" vehicles.

A surprise when opening the bonnet is that no Benz-style latch pops out from the grille, although there is the obligatory recycled plastic cosmetic shielding of all the under-bonnet ugly bits.

Quality control is a given at Lexus and the new car is claimed to have significant improvements over the already outstanding LS400, with body measurements digitised down to 1/1000th of a millimetre, or ten times the previous accuracy.

The LS430 is also practical, with a big, well-shaped boot able to contain 573 litres of luggage, which is 19 percent better than the previous model.

The boot is not quite as deep as expected however, and it does lack the convenience of a load-through from the back seat. Perhaps this sort of utility is not quite the thing in a top-end luxury saloon.

No, the Lexus LS430 is a car that will see many of its owners spending their travelling time in the rear seat, maybe enjoying a gentle massage and a drink from the coolbox while reviewing the last board meeting.

The driver will be the one to appreciate the benefits of the protective gloves included in the comprehensive tool kit, as well as the fact this is about as good a driver's car as you will see at the top end of the market.

If only the front end did not look as if it was really meant for a 46-passenger bus.

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