Most 2.4 tonne, 450bhp cars appear only marginally more environmentally friendly than the Exxon Valdez. Here's one that's very different. Jonathan Crouch runs the rule over the improved Lexus LS600h
Ten Second Review
Given that perception is often more important than actuality, perhaps few need question the green credentials of this improved Lexus LS600h. It makes a brilliant statement for company chairmen and politicians who don't want to give up the luxuries but need to wear their environmental badge conspicuously. Salving the conscience has never been so cosseting.
There have been some tweaks to this car for the latest model year but they don't add up to much. A styling nip and tuck, a hybrid Drive system that now meets Euro V emissions standards, more compact hybrid battery packaging and a new ECO driving mode with efficiency-adjusted throttle and air conditioning performance. Otherwise, it's as you were, this remaining the only hybrid offering in the super-luxury saloon sector. For efficiency-minded boardroom buyers, it's this or something with a diesel engine. With a 5.0-litre V8 under the bonnet, this doesn't seem the obvious candidate for the moneyed tree hugger but if you've ever driven either the RX450h or the GS450h, you'll know that these petrol/electric hybrids can genuinely live up to what seem like implausible claims.
Although this may be a hybrid, it's a luxury car first and foremost and one of the key requirements for a car of this ilk is plenty of power to put the proletariat in its place. The LS600h certainly doesn't disappoint in this regard. There's a total of 439bhp on tap, courtesy of the now Euro V-compatible 388bhp 5.0-litre V8 petrol engine and a 221bhp electric motor which part combine to devastating effect. Drive the Lexus LS600h as if you stole it and it will accelerate to 60mph in 6.0 seconds and run on to an electronically limited top speed of 155mph. Unlike the old LS460 petrol model, the hybrid gets a clever variable transmission that's mated to a Torsen differential that divides the engine's power between the front and rear wheels. Yes, you read that right. This car is a four-wheel drive. As you'd expect from Lexus, the LS600h majors on refinement and the silent wafting around town on just the electric motor will require vigilance as pedestrians won't hear it coming. Don't expect a sports car, as the 2,355kg kerb weight means this is a hefty piece of automotive real estate, but the LS600h can corner with some tenacity when pushed.
Design and Build
There are a few styling changes on the latest version of this car - but they're pretty minor. Lexus experts will recognise the redesigned four-bar grille and front bumper with revised air intakes and foglamps. The headlamps have a smarter running light design and are finished in Lexus hybrid blue, giving the car a distinctive appearance befitting its flagship status. There are also revised door mirrors that incorporate twin LED turn signals and puddle lamps, with chrome highlights. This generation LS model was the first to really have its own distinct design, rather than trying to copy other cars. As before, the look of this LS could be nothing other than Japanese and although it's very different in execution to the likes of BMW, Audi and Mercedes, it's no less effective. Although the fascia could never be described as pretty, being illuminated like Shinjuku at night, it's easy to access all the major functions of which there are a lot. In the cabin the instrument binnacle has been revised to include a new full colour, TFT LCD display. A new meter design features a three-ring analogue dial with a central speedometer, a tachometer and coolant temperature gauge to the left, and a fuel gauge and hybrid system indicator to the right. A display in the centre of the speedometer can be customised to display vehicle information, turn-by-turn navigation instructions and hybrid system status. Build quality is excellent, space in the front and back of the standard wheelbase car is excellent while the long wheelbase car offers enough room to really stretch out and warrants the employment of a chauffeur. The only minor grumble is the relatively mean boot. The hybrid battery packs are now more compact but it's still pretty small compared to rivals.
Market and Model
The big issue that most prospective buyers will have to hurdle is the price. Whichever way you slice or dice it, the sum that many owners will budget for the LS600h is a serious amount of money to pay for any sort of vehicle, let alone one with a 5.0-litre V8 petrol engine that attempts to underline green credentials. As you would expect from Lexus, equipment levels are dizzying. The swivelling LED headlights give the car a distinctive front end and now feature an Automatic High Beam system that dips the lights for you in the face of oncoming traffic. The cabin is just dripping in electronic gizmos from adaptive cruise control to lane departure warning systems, cameras that monitor your head position and warn you if the car thinks you're nodding off at the wheel, a 19-speaker stereo system, full colour satellite navigation, reversing camera, optional massaging Ottoman chairs, you name it, and it seems Lexus can offer it. Most of us associate environmental awareness with a certain element of self sacrifice. Lexus clearly hasn't bought into that school of thought.
Cost of Ownership
So we move onto the big question - what sort of economy do you get from the Lexus LS600h and how clean is it? Lexus claims a 30.4mpg combined fuel consumption figure which is incredible for a car of this size and weight. Our experience with Lexus hybrids suggests that if most of your motoring is high speed motorway work, you will see very little fuel economy benefit over a standard petrol-engined car. If, on the other hand, you're set for a fair amount of stop and start city traffic, then the fuel economy savings really do start to stack up. Emissions of 219g/km are about on a par with a 2.5-litre Ford Mondeo. The issue of depreciation may not be quite so rose-tinted. Many engineers view petrol-electric hybrid vehicles as an inelegant and rather temporary solution to reducing carbon emissions and the whole life costs of these cars from producing the batteries to disposing of them is high. Will used buyers be willing to take on a product of such overwhelming complexity? That's a question that will certainly affect take up and impact pence per mile running figures.
The Lexus LS600h is a fascinating technical showpiece, a piece of engineering of estimable quality and a statement underlining environmental responsibility that's impossible to ignore. However, it still makes more sense as a statement than it does as an economic proposition. Your chief executive officer may well plump for one to demonstrate his commitment to environmental concerns whilst at the same time expecting you to ditch your 3 Series and get a Prius instead. As laudable as its aims are, there are aspects of the LS600h that just don't add up. But it's a fascinating piece of technology nonetheless.