Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Lexus LS 460 -- All New Flagship

When Toyota introduced its new luxury line in 1989, there was some skepticism. Could they really deliver a luxury car to compete with the established highline cars of the day, such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW? Didn’t Toyota build reliable economy cars?

Well, now we know. Lexus has been a huge success, and the new LS 460 is the fourth generation of the Lexus flagship sedan.

As I walked up to my Noble Spinel Mica (deep red) test vehicle, I could see that this car is completely redone. The original LS copied the Mercedes look, but now the LS joins its brethren in adopting Lexus’ L-finesse design language. Styled at Toyota’s Global Design center in Tokyo, it sports more dynamic sculpting from nose to tail while still retaining a dignified presence.

The more you look at the LS the more interesting design details pop out. The head and tail lamps bend way around the sides of the car. The taillamps protrude slightly from the sheet metal above them, and bend to follow the slight edge of the flat rear surface of the trunk. Up front, crystalline headlamps are just one upscale element. The hood line flows into the trapezoidal grille and down through the bumper for a forceful V shape.

As the LS has developed, it has become significantly more powerful. This new model uses an all-new 4.6-liter V8 that produces a mighty 380 horsepower and 367 lb.-ft. of torque. That pushes the 4,200-pound rear-wheel-drive sedan along from zero to 60 mph in just 5.4 seconds. And, the LS claims fuel economy of 19 City, 27 Highway. I averaged 17.1 mpg in a week of mixed driving (without zero-to-60 speed tests).

Lexus has paired this fine engine with the world’s first eight-speed automatic. Lexus claims that this ensures rapid take-off in the low gears but the best possible fuel economy and quietness in the upper gears. You never feel the gear changes with this high-tech unit, either.

The EPA rates the big Lexus at 7 for Air Pollution and 6 for Greenhouse Gases—quite good scores considering the size and power of this car. So, you can have it both ways—luxury and power combined with reasonable emissions.

The interior of the LS 460 is lovely to behold. The leather-covered seats coddle and the rich genuine-wood trim looks appropriate to a flagship. The center stack bulges with buttons that are large enough to hit correctly. Fit and finish are, of course, superb.

As is becoming increasingly common, the starter is a button. You can keep your key in your pocket and just push this button to start the car. I wasn’t able to figure out how to listen to the radio with the ignition off, however.

The most impressive feature of the interior is one you can’t see—silence. The Lexus folks spent a lot of time hunting down sources of unwanted vibrations and neutralizing them. They also made sure that the things that do make a noise, such as the power window motors, have the most pleasant sound possible. Even the door slam was put under the microscope.

The LS is filled with up-to-the-minute technology. The Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) stability system integrates and manages a batch of subsystems that monitor sensors and make adjustments automatically to keep things safe and secure. The driver and passengers receive these benefits without having to do a thing.

The Adaptive Front lighting System (AFS) swivels the headlamps in the direction of a turn. The Advanced Parking Guidance System (APGS) uses the backup camera, parking sonar sensors, and electric steering system to parallel park the LS for you. All you control in the process is the speed, using the brake.

For your ears, the optional Mark Levinson audio system offers an incredible 19 speakers among its many advanced features. You don’t need to go to the concert hall anymore.

The LS 460 is a grand vehicle, but if you want even more space for rear-seat passengers, opt for the new long-wheelbase LS 460 L. Besides gaining nearly five inches of legroom in back, the L model comes loaded with extras, including XM Radio with real time traffic, power door closers, and lots more.

The LS 460 starts at $61,000. My tester had about $10,000 worth of extras, including the aforementioned sensational audio system and the Comfort Plus Package. The latter package adds power rear seats with memory, a heated steering wheel, power rear sunshade, and more. The sticker stopped at $71,875.

What’s not to like with this kind of vehicle? Well, it’s hard to find a flaw. With the incredible work done to make the car perfect, Toyota may have actually succeeded. But it’s so quiet and smooth, how do you even know you’re driving it?

Friday, November 23, 2007

Los Angeles Auto Show 2007

The Los Angeles Auto Show is one of the biggest in the United States, and the first major show of the season. It features introductions of new production and concept vehicles before they are available to the public.

I had never attended a major show before, but I was determined to change that this year. So, I got up early and flew Southwest down for the two days reserved for the automotive press before the show opens to the public.

An eager horde of reporters converged on the beautifully staged displays and crowded together for 28 different press conferences. We plowed through the complimentary breakfasts and lunches and ran back out for more activity.

The beauty of seeing the show this way is that everyone is available to talk with you. That meant that I could have tea with Ian Robertson, the chairman and chief executive of Rolls-Royce. I sat inside the new MINI Clubman and chatted with the vice president of MINI, Jim McDowell. At Bentley, I got a tour around the 600-horsepower Continental GT Speed from the chief designer of the car, Raul Pires; I also spoke with Bentley’s North American Marketing chief, Julian Jenkins. Both Rolls-Royce and Bentley are doing just fine, thank you.

Later, the chief designer of Jaguar joined me inside a Jaguar and discussed his newest project, the brand new XF performance sedan. Jaguar’s chief engineer for the XF project, Mick Mohan, was in the back seat adding commentary on how this beautiful vehicle got produced. Just before I left the Convention Center I spent time with Dennis Glavis, who has a lifetime of driving and working with Morgans, the amazingly powerful yet traditional sports cars.

But the show wasn’t only about incredibly powerful and expensive cars. At the Volkswagen stand they showed the space up! blue. This zero emissions concept, which resembles a tiny VW microbus, uses a the world’s first high temperature fuel cell and can go up to 65 miles on electricity alone. Its doors swing open from the outer edges on both sides, creating a complete see-through vehicle. Volkswagen may sell this amazing little car here in a couple years in some form.

Actually, green cars were a major feature of this year’s show. Notable here was Honda’s FCX Clarity fuel cell vehicle. Hydrogen cars have not only been out of reach of the public as they go through development, they’ve been pretty utilitarian looking as well. Not the Clarity. It’s a beautiful 21st-century ride and it will be leased in small but significant quantities to Southern Californians starting next summer for $600/month for three years. Why none in the San Francisco Bay Area yet? No place to fill up with hydrogen.

On the morning of the second press day, the Green Car Journal presented its Green Car of the Year award to the huge Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid. With its 6.0-liter gas/electric powertrain, the hybrid Tahoe gets 50 percent better mileage than the standard Tahoe, which uses a 5.3-liter V-8. Mileage of 21 City is impressive—you get a huge 7-passenger family hauler that drinks gas like a Toyota Camry four-cylinder sedan. Dodge showed its hybrid Durango, which will offer another choice for the same buyers.

After the Green Car award presentation, California Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger spoke with throngs of journalists about his enthusiasm for green vehicles in Caleeforneeah, and then cruised through the show with his retinue of photographers and bodyguards. I ran into him at the BMW stand and later at the Bentley area. I told people he was following me.

I communed with my personal favorite, the MINI Clubman. This slightly longer MINI, which debuts early next year, features nine-and-a-half extra inches of length and more than three additional inches of wheelbase. This gives rear passengers much more legroom and easier access through a passenger side extra door that flips open. The back of the car features twin “barn doors” that spring open with a gentle flip of the lever and add lots of loading capacity and utility. Prices will not be much more than the standard little MINIs.

Everyone was friendly. I struck up a conversation with Elizabeth, who was working at the Yokohama Tire stand. She was very excited about an audition she had coming up for a part in a small film. That’s LA for you. The Yokohama display featured a tire made with a high percentage of orange oil, which not only results in a very grippy and better-smelling tire, but uses much less petroleum in its manufacture.

The show was an exhausting but exhilarating experience. I’m already planning to attend next year.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Find Me a Home in Your Heart

I wrote this song about a guy who fell in love with a beautiful real estate agent.

For fifteen years she's worked in real estate
She's got it down to a fine art
For me the business plan is simple
Find me a home in your heart.

I'm not interested in condominiums
Unless the agent is a part
You're holding my heart in escrow
Find me a home in your heart.

My love for you is an investment
In time and energy and pain
I want to move into your neighborhood
You're my beloved capital gain.

Just say the word and we can close the deal
And let all the paperwork start
I'll sign a hundred pounds of documents if it'll
Buy me a home in your heart.

Friday, November 9, 2007

21 Ways to Drive Green (Some Aren't Expensive)

Do you want to cut back on harmful emissions and get good fuel mileage while you drive? Here are 10 hybrid and 11 non-hybrid vehicles you can buy—new or used— to lower your impact on the environment and your gasoline bill. And some of them are quite affordable.

Top Green Vehicles -- Ten Hybrids Plus One

Let’s start with the ten planet-saving hybrids. These cars achieve the top scores for cleanliness and economy thanks to their gasoline/electric powertrains. All of these models achieve a 9 or 10 out of 10 on both of the EPA’s Green Vehicle Guide scores: Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gases. Fuel mileage ranges from 48 City/45 Highway for the top-rated Prius to 28 City/25 Highway for the Toyota Highlander and Lexus RX.

This list includes an eleventh member, the Honda Civic GX, which burns compressed natural gas (CNG). Although it is not a hybrid, its excellent EPA Green Vehicle Guide scores (9/9) and fuel mileage of 26 City/31 Highway place it in this group.

The list is in order of fuel economy, with the best at the top. The years in which the vehicle was sold are shown. Please note that there are major differences in the size, functionality, and price of these cars. For example, the Prius is a midsized four-door hatchback, the Insight is a tiny two seater, and the Lexus RX 400h is an expensive luxury crossover.

1. Toyota Prius – 2001-08
2. Honda Insight – 2001-2006
3. Honda Civic – 2003-08
4. Nissan Altima – 2007-08
5. Ford Escape – 2005-08 (same as Mazda Tribute and Mercury Mariner)
6. Mazda Tribute – 2006, 2008
7. Mercury Mariner – 2006-2008
8. Toyota Camry – 2007-08
9. Toyota Highlander – 2006-08
10. Lexus RX 400h – 2006-08
11. Honda Civic CNG – 2001-08

Top Ten Non-Hybrid Vehicles to Save the Planet

Here is a list of 10 cars with excellent green credentials that, by eliminating the hybrid packaging, are less expensive, even when new. Most are compact or subcompact sedans, although the Nissan Altima is a midsized car. These vehicles all earned a 9 for the Air Pollution score in the EPA Green Vehicle Guide and a 9 or an 8 for Greenhouse Gases. Fuel economy ranges from 25 City/33 Highway to 22/32, just below the scores of the cars on the hybrid list. Again, entries are listed in order with the best fuel economy at the top.

Nissan Sentra – 2001-05
Hyundai Elantra – 2007-08
Ford Focus – 2006-08
Mazda3 – 2004-08
Honda Civic – 2006-08
Pontiac G5 – 2008 (same as Chevrolet Cobalt)
Chevrolet Cobalt – 2008
Kia Spectra – 2007-08
Saturn Ion – 2006-07
Nissan Altima – 2007-08

It Doesn’t Have to Cost a Fortune

You don’t have to spend a lot of green to go green. A 2008 Kia Spectra LX with manual transmission starts at just $13,520, including destination charges. Or, choose an older model of any of these cars and it can be a downright deal. For example, a 2003 Nissan Sentra XE with a five-speed manual, in excellent condition, has a retail value of $8,845 according to the Kelley Blue Book. Private sellers will probably charge less.

For complete information, go to the EPA’s Green Vehicle Guide at http://www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/Index.do.