2010 Lexus LS 460: Mechanical perfection wrapped in a soothing package

September 30, 2010, 9:23 PM UTC

For one of the most significant cars of the last two decades, the Lexus LS 460 gets a lot of grief from enthusiasts.

A writer for “The Truth About Cars” website declared the Lexus “is for people who hate cars.” On Edmunds.com, the LS 460 was described as being “about as exciting as a PBS pledge drive.” What the enthusiasts hate about the Lexus is that it isolates the driver from the road by wrapping him in a cocoon of quiet, ease, and comfort. While Rolls-Royce may have invented the concept of wafting, Lexus really perfected it.

Which is precisely what made the development of the LS 460 so brilliant. The German luxury brands already owned the “We drive excitement” crowd while Cadillac was working through its pre-Art & Science identity crisis, and Jaguar was struggling with survival. The engineers at Toyota found the only white space on the board for the first LS: higher quality than the Germans were capable of at the time and more refined performance than Cadillac could muster.

When the original LS400 was introduced in 1989, it created a sensation. Toyota flew journalists to Germany where they could keep pace with Benzes and BMWs on the autobahn at 160 miles per hour while still holding a conversation with their passengers.

When the price was announced at the artificially low point of $35,000, jaws dropped from Detroit to Stuttgart.

Lexus dusted Nissan’s Infiniti line at the starting line and forced every other luxury manufacturer to raise its game in quality manufacturing and customer relations.

These days Lexus sells more SUVs and crossovers than cars but the LS 460 remains the flagship of the line. While the engine displacement has grown larger over the years (the original’s 4.0 liter got 250 horsepower; the current 4.6 liter engine produces 380 hp) the overall package remains the same: a superlative V-8 powered, rear-drive platform wrapped in a traditional luxury sedan mufti.

Inside, the quality of the materials and the functionality of the ergonomics are exemplary. In an era where luxury car controls have become as complex as a 747’s, the LS 460 remains a model of intuitive, accessible design. Oddly, the novelty of speedometer and tachometer needles that rotate upon ignition — which Lexus pioneered and has since been adopted by many manufacturers — has been abandoned on this car. Too common, apparently.

For 2010, the LS 460 is little-changed, with new front and rear facias, side mirror turn signals, and new-look wheels. Depending on the color, the overall impression is of elegance bordering on anonymity. That wasn’t a problem with my Matador Red Mica test car, a color that must be reserved for the extroverts in the Lexus owner club.

The base sticker price is a rock-bottom $64,680 but that’s a bit of a tease. Such lux-car essentials like heated seats, power truck openers, and navigation system are part of option packages that add $4,815 to the price. My test car also came equipped with a $6,185 sport package. Despite such add-ons as Brembo Brakes, 19” forged alloy wheels, and various trim items, the notion of a sporty Lexus still sounds oxymoronic. But the additional accent pieces did dress up what could be a rather austere package.

There was nothing austere about the performance. Power arrives from the 32-valve V-8 effortlessly, seamlessly, and, of course, quietly. Lexus claims a zero-to-60 time of 5.3 seconds — very quick by any measure. Alas, it isn’t possible to get the Lexus up to 160 mph any more — the car is speed-limited to a more reasonable 130 mph — but that doesn’t mitigate the driving pleasure.

Fuel economy is also exemplary, with an EPA highway rating of 24 miles per gallon. Several hundred miles of limited-access roads allowed me to nudge that up to 25 mpg. Around town, the Lexus only manages 16 mpg.

Overall, Lexus remains true to the original standards set by its Japanese engineers. It is not a car for enthusiasts and lacks only the availability of all-wheel-drive to make it an all-purpose premium automobile. But it remains firmly in the pantheon along with the great German brands and, increasingly, Jaguar.

At $76,714, the LS 460 is something of a bargain, given the rising value of the yen in comparison to the dollar. So rather than speculating in the financial markets, the purchase of a Lexus is an easy way to go long on Japanese currency — and experience exquisite driving pleasure at the same time.