Rating: 9
Bottom Line:
The 2008 Lexus LS 600h L hybrid borrows heavily from its LS 460 sibling, but adds some tech tricks of its own.
  • Ultra Quiet
  • Excellent audio system
  • Easy-to-use touch-screen interface
  • Steep price
  • Awkward position of volume controls on steering wheel
  • Bluetooth hands-free system doesn't transfer phone book

In certain parts of Los Angeles, unless you're behind the wheel of a really exclusive ride, your car won't warrant a second look. So when I pulled into the parking lot of a trendy shopping center in moneyed Malibu in a preproduction 2008 Lexus LS 600h L hybrid, I wasn't surprised that the big and bold Lex got lots of looks.

But I was amazed by the number of people—and not necessarily car people—that approached me to ask about the Lexus during a long weekend of test driving it. "Is that the new hybrid?" A woman driving an expensive European convertible wanted to know, for example, when I stopped in Malibu for an afternoon cup of coffee.

While I lived in L.A. long enough to know that image is everything, and the long wheelbase, $100,000-plus LS 600h L certainly projects enough exclusivity and eco-chic style to impress even jaded Angelenos, I found that in this case beauty is much more than skin deep. It's really what's under the hood and inside the LS 600h L that makes it stand out.

Borrowed Style
The LS 600h L borrows its body style and a good bit of its technology from the Lexus LS 460, which was launched last year in both a standard and long wheelbase LS 460 L version. But the big brother hybrid has several exclusives, including what Lexus claims as the world's first "full hybrid" V8 powertrain. It's also all-wheel drive instead of rear-wheel drive like the LS 460, and it's the first vehicle to feature LED headlights for night and low-beam use.

Unfortunately, our pre-production model didn't have all the bells and whistles, such as the Advance Parking Guidance System that the mainstream press latched on to at the time of LS 460's introduction. I tried the system out on an LS 460 and found it to work well enough, although it seemed more of a gimmick than an everyday useful feature.

The LS 600h L I tested also didn't have the special-order Executive Class Seating Package available on the LS 460 L, which includes a reclining right rear seat with a legrest and back massager, a wood-trimmed table that pops out of the center console, a 9-inch video screen that folds down from the ceiling and a "cool box" in the center console for beverages. If it did, I would have had to hire a driver.

But the LS 600h L did have the best-in-class 19-speaker, 450-watt Mark Levinson Reference Surround Sound Audio System that made its debut on the LS 460. When I tested the LS 460, I was impressed by how the car's quiet interior is a great venue for the Mark Levinson system—and the hushed hybrid improves on that even more.

The system will play just about any type of disc you can throw at it—CD, DVD-Audio, DVD-Video—and with an onboard 8-gigabyte hard-disc drive you can store up to 2,000 songs by ripping them from your favorite CDs. The only quibble I have with the system is the awkward placement on the steering-wheel volume controls at the 8 o'clock position.

Faster Guidance
For faster processing and route guidance, the navigation system in the LS 600h L also uses a hard drive to store maps and data instead of employing a DVD drive. Plus, the nav system is teamed with one of the best voice-activation systems available.

I was able to trip it up only once, when it couldn't decipher the word "Alla" in a destination on Alla Road in Los Angeles. After several attempts, I simply used the touch-screen in the dash to input the address, which itself is far easier to use than the multifunction controllers found in most luxury cars.

The LS 600h L also has one of the most easy-to-use Bluetooth hands-free phone systems. It was a snap to pair my BlackBerry with the system, although I was a bit disappointed that it doesn't also import the phone book. But as with the navigation system, it was easy enough to use voice commands to dial a phone number.

Tech also figures prominently in the safety features of the LS 600h L. A Pre-Collision System (PCS) uses a radar sensor to scan the road ahead for potential problems. And if the system senses that a collision is imminent, it tightens the front seat belts and readies the Brake Assist system for hard braking.

Our LS 600h L prototype also didn't come with another Lexus safety-tech first: the Driver Monitor System, which uses a camera on the steering column to determine whether the driver is paying attention to what's ahead. When the Pre-Collision system is activated, the Driver Monitor System will sound a warning and begin to apply the brakes if the driver is looking away.

Looking My Way
While driving the LS 600h L in L.A., I kept my eyes on the road, even though I could tell people were looking my way. And if that—combined with the innovative technology and relatively good fuel economy for a car this size—was any indication of how the Lexus LS 600h L will be received when it becomes available later this year, then a star is born.

Doug Newcomb has been writing about car electronics since 1988, as editor of Car Audio and Electronics, Car Stereo Review, Mobile Entertainment, Road & Track Road Gear and as a freelance writer. His new book, Car Audio for Dummies, is available from Wiley Publications. He lives in Hood River, Oregon.