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A couple of weeks ago, I received an intriguing flyer advertising Consumer Reports. "We'll tell you the best car we ever tested," the teaser headline on the cover said. When you turned to the text inside, it revealed that the car in question -- the best one the magazine ever tested -- was a Lexus LS 430.
This made me wonder: Dollar for dollar, is the top-of-the-line Lexus sedan the best luxury car on the market?
FANCY ADD-ONS. By any measure, the vehicle, made by Toyota (TM), certainly ranks as a strong candidate. If money is no object, you might opt for a superluxury sedan such as the $165,000 Bentley Flying Spur. And a real driving aficionado might prefer a BMW 7 Series or an Audi A8. Indeed, lovers of European cars often privately deride the Lexus as soulless -- lacking the road feel and distinctive styling of classic Continental luxury cars.
But when you factor in price, it's hard to beat a Lexus. The LS 430 routinely tops the quality charts. Yet it starts out at about $57,000 (for either an '05 or the largely unchanged '06) and comes standard with high-end features such as leather upholstery, interior wood trim, rain-sensitive windshield wipers, tire-pressure monitors, a moonroof, and a powerful 4.3-liter V8 engine.
Various upgrade packages make the car increasingly fancy. The $1,390 starter group of options adds climate-controlled front seats, heated rear seats, and a sonar-based parking-assist system.
CONVENIENCES APLENTY. The most expensive package, the Ultra Luxury Selection, which adds $11,320 to the base price ($13,570 for the '06 with a new radar-based accident-avoidance system), enables drivers to do all sorts of empowering things, including:
Clean the headlights with a fluid spray at the push of a button on the dash
Push a button to lower shades in the rear and side-rear windows to keep the sun from shining on passengers in the back
Turn on the lumbar vibrator in the rear seats to ease lower-back strain during long drives
See what's underfoot as you approach the car in the pitch dark (outer footlights come on automatically)
Set the vehicle-to-vehicle distance control to automatically follow the car or truck ahead of you at a distance of 100, 165, or 245 feet
View what's behind you -- while you're backing up -- via a little screen in the passenger compartment
Lower the whole car closer to the pavement for high-speed driving
Rival top-of-the-line cars offer most of this, too, but not for the $70,000 price that the loaded Lexus tops out at. By contrast, you can easily end up paying more than $100,000 for a high-end BMW or Mercedes (DCX).
RETRO TOUCH, TOO. Even without all the bells and whistles, the LS 430 is an incredible automobile. It has a flawless interior. My '05 test car (the vehicle remains essentially the same in '06) listed for $65,124 and had a sweet coffee-and-cream-colored leather interior with burnished-maple veneer inlays.
I found the controls easy to use. You can even change the radio station with an old-fashioned knob instead of fumbling with electronic controls. The seats are roomy, supportive, and almost infinitely adjustable. Both front and rear provide a tremendous amount of head, leg, and shoulder space. The trunk is huge, even by luxury car standards.
Exterior fit and finish is very tight and uniform, one reason the LS 430 has an exceptionally low 0.26 coefficient of drag (a measure of a car's sleekness). The slippery exterior greatly lowers the wind noise at highway speed. It also helps the Lexus earn an EPA mileage rating of 18 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway -- thrifty for a luxury car.
"A BIT SOFT." Yet the Lexus is far from pokey. It will jump from 0 to 60 in less than 6 seconds. Trying to beat rush-hour traffic early one morning, I sped into Manhattan from Pennsylvania and did a lot of weaving in and out of lanes speedily. The LS 430 moves so quickly and handles so well that you feel sure you can drive your way out of just about any pinch.
The LS 430 is no boat, but its steering and ride tend to be a bit soft, so I'd consider adding the Sport Package, which includes a sport-tuned suspension, performance summer tires, and 18-inch wheels. The basic '06 package costs $800.
The LS 430's main weakness lies in its dull styling. It looks too much like a Mercedes rip-off for my taste. My other complaint: Luxury cars like the Lexus are just getting too complicated.
CRASH PREVENTION. The LS 430 comes with a 500-plus page owner's manual, a separate 179-page tome explaining how to use the navigation system, a 125-page booklet explaining the warranty and laying out the maintenance schedule, and a mercifully short 18-pager on how to use the dynamic radar/laser cruise control system. Wading through it all felt like reading War and Peace.
Nonetheless, some of the fancy features on the Lexus really do come in handy. For example, you can adjust the driver's seat -- the part you sit on, not the back -- to make it longer or shorter. By giving you more support under your thighs, it really does make extended highway drives easier.
The rear-view camera system, which comes on automatically when you back up, is also genuinely useful. At first, the image that appears on a little screen inside the car looks like a moonscape. But once you get used to it, it does help you avoid fender benders.
BURIES RIVALS. However, some of the add-ons strike me as extraneous. Do we really need heated steering wheels and seats that vibrate to massage your lower back? Ditto with the the climate-controlled seats that blow cool air upward through little holes in the leather to keep you from sweating and sticking to the upholstery. It made me feel as though I'd split the seams of my pants.
Still, those complaints apply to any luxury car. Lexus is trying to set a new standard of excellence, and it has to keep up with its rivals. The good thing about a Lexus is that you can get all the techie features you want and still get better value than you do with rival models.