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The Lexus LS 430 is among the easiest of the big luxury cars to live with. It whisks occupants along in supreme comfort. Its ride is silky smooth. It handles well, with effortless steering and excellent grip. Its powerful V8 delivers strong performance and is paired with a smooth six-speed automatic.
Inside is a beautiful driving environment with rich wood accents and buttery soft leather trim, seats so comfortable that you never think about them, and controls that are a paragon of ergonomic excellence. Every convenience feature imaginable is provided and, for the most part, those features are easy to operate. In every way, the LS 430 is the hassle-free luxury car. It may not have the cache of the European cars, but it's far easier to operate than the BMW 7 Series and it's more up to date than the aging Mercedes S-Class.
Safety is state-of-the-art. Every LS 430 comes with no less than eight airbags, plus seatbelts with pre-tensioners. Its headlights swivel to help drivers see around corners. An optional Pre-Collision Safety System actually anticipates accidents, preemptively tightening the front seat belts and pre-arming the Brake Assist. Also optional are a backup camera for seeing what's behind you, and Dynamic Laser Cruise Control that maintains a set following distance from the car ahead. Other high-tech options like Bluetooth and SmartAccess allow you to unlock the doors, start the car, drive off, and make hands-free phone calls without even pulling your key or your cell phone out of your pocket or purse.
The LS changed the rules for luxury car ownership when it was originally introduced, combining quality, technology, dependability and excellent dealer service, and that continues today. Lexus has been the highest-ranking brand in the J.D. Power and Associates dependability study for more than a decade; based on surveys of owners, the study named the LS 430 the most problem-free car in its class after three years of ownership. The LS 430 is also a perennial leader in the firm's Initial Quality Study, which surveys buyers after 90 days of ownership.
Several leather upgrades are available, however, including Ecru ($1,460), Black Semi-Aniline ($2,100) and Saddle Comfort Nappa ($2,100); all three require the purchase of an additional upgrade package, and Saddle Comfort Nappa is restricted to models painted Black Onyx or Flint Mica.
The Premium Package ($1,390) adds climate-controlled front seats with fans that circulate heated or chilled air, heated rear seats, and sonar-based Intuitive Parking Assist.
The Modern Luxury Package ($4,980) bundles a Mark Levinson audio system, navigation system, reversing camera, Bluetooth communications technology, climate controlled front seats, heated rear seats, and Intuitive Parking Assist.
The Custom Luxury Selection ($5,935) includes the Mark Levinson audio, navigation system, rear backup camera, Bluetooth, Dynamic Laser Cruise Control, Intuitive Parking Assist, climate-controlled front seats, rear seat heaters, headlamp washers, and power door closers.
The Ultra Luxury Selection ($11,320) features all that plus Adaptive Variable Air Suspension, SmartAccess keyless entry and ignition, and a number of amenities for rear seat passengers, including: sunshades for the rear passenger doors, a rear-seat adjuster with memory, climate-controlled rear seats with a massage feature, and a rear air conditioner with optical deodorizer. The Custom Luxury and Ultra Luxury packages can be paired with the Pre-Collision Safety System, in which case Dynamic Radar Cruise Control is substituted for the laser system.
The Sport Package ($220) combines a handling-tuned suspension with 18-inch wheels and summer tires. The same package with chromed wheels costs a bit more ($1,920).
The LS 430 comes with a 278-horsepower 4.3-liter aluminum V8 and a six-speed automatic transmission. (The same engine was rated 290 horsepower last year, which might lead some consumers to wonder how Lexus let those 12 horses get away. What has in fact happened is that the Society of Automotive Engineers, or SAE, has revised its test procedures for horsepower and torque, and as a result some of the numbers are coming out lower this year. So in fact all the ponies are still in the stable; but the racing commission is counting them differently. There is no change in performance over last year's model as it's the same.)
Passive safety features include seat-mounted side-impact airbags (for torso protection), rear side curtain airbags (for head protection), and knee airbags, in addition to the federally mandated dual frontal airbags. Most important are the seatbelts, which feature pre-tensioners, force limiters, and retractors; be sure to use them as they're the first line of defense in a collision. The optional Pre-Collision System uses radar to detect obstacles in front of the car and, if it determines an accident is unavoidable, can preemptively retract the driver's and front passenger's seatbelts, which can help reduce injuries. The system also pre-pressurizes the Brake Assist which, after the driver applies the brakes, automatically applies increased braking force to help reduce collision speed.
The Lexus LS 430 sets the benchmark for smooth ride quality. This is one smooth, quiet car, and riding in it is very pleasant. The engine is barely audible. Mechanical and road vibration is damped out. No other automaker does a better job than Lexus in creating a zone of serenity for driver and passengers.
The soft suspension and slow steering lead some to conclude the LS 430 doesn't handle as well as European models such as the BMW 7 Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Indeed, when pushed to the limits the big Lexus does not handle as well as the big BMW. However, the LS 430 is not a sloppy luxo-barge. In fact, the LS 430 can be driven quite hard and with confidence, whereupon it reveals lots of grip and very good handling. It responds predictably when driven to the limit of the tires in corners, though it doesn't necessarily encourage you to do so the way a BMW does. The softness of the suspension results in squirmy transient response when compared with the BMW 745i. But the LS 430 does generate lots of grip and offers the responsiveness afforded by rear-wheel drive and double-wishbone suspension front and rear and it handles predictably. Its monotube shock absorbers were made larger and more technologically advanced for the 2004 model year, and this has resulted in flatter cornering response and a smoother ride. The steering system was improved at the same time, providing more road feel, more feedback, and more precision.
The adaptive air suspension included in the Ultra Luxury package allows the driver to switch between two shock-damping modes (and to raise the ride height for driving in deep snow). However, the car floats a little more on the air suspension, even in the Sport mode, making it feel bigger, more boatlike.
We much prefer the Sport Package, which combines a sport-tuned suspension with 18-inch wheels and summer/performance tires. This improves handling feel while maintaining a smooth, comfortable ride. While other manufacturers offer sport suspensions that result in a harsh, choppy ride, this isn't one of them; even with the sport suspension, the LS 430 rides smoothly and softly. We highly recommend it and think it's a bargain.
To say the Lexus V8 is smooth and quiet is an understatement, and the six-speed automatic transmission shifts so smoothly it's almost seamless. By the SAE's new reckoning, the 4.3-liter V8 generates 278 horsepower and 312 pound-feet of torque, the latter figure contributing, along with the six-speed transmission, to the LS 430's impressive acceleration performance. Lexus says the LS 430 can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds. Yet the LS 430 still earns an EPA-estimated 18/25 mpg City/Highway, a benefit of its transmission's long-legged fifth and sixth gears. The driver can manually control shifting, though we prefer to put it in Drive and let the machine do its job. It does this very well. Engine and transmission are designed to favor smoothness over performance. The upside is you get silky smooth performance. The downside is do not offer the crispness of a BMW powertrain, the other end of the spectrum. Lexus' electronic throttle control (drive-by-wire) system helps smooth acceleration from a standing start by very slightly delaying throttle opening when the driver steps on the accelerator pedal. Still, the Lexus V8 and six-speed automatic are a powerful team, delivering strong acceleration performance for quick passing and freeway merging. All in all, it's a great setup.
The brakes are responsive and easy to modulate for smooth stopping power. Four-channel, four-sensor ABS helps the driver maintain steering control during panic stops. Brake Assist is designed to determine if the driver is attempting emergency braking; if the driver has not stepped hard enough on the brake pedal to activate the anti-lock brake system, Brake Assist applies maximum braking pressure until pedal pressure is released. Vehicle Stability Control (VSC)
The Lexus LS 430 excels as a luxury sedan with a cabin that's quiet, comfortable, and luxurious. It is a meticulously crafted car that offers every luxury amenity imaginable, plus a few we would not have imagined. Its construction quality is the best in the industry. Everything about its operation is smooth. Its powerful V8 and six-speed automatic are a smooth, silent team. Its ride is silky, its steering is smooth and precise, its brakes allow easy modulation for smooth stops. If you want a premium luxury sedan that delivers no-hassle smooth, luxurious sailing, the Lexus LS 430 should be at the top of your list.
New Car Test Drive editor Mitch McCullough filed this report from Laguna Beach, California.