Lexus LS 600h L Hybrid Is Big on Power, Luxury, Short on Eco-Cred

Feb. 5 (Bloomberg) — Families can be weird, yet few first cousins are as odd together as the ugly, gas-miserly Toyota Prius and the princely, spendthrift Lexus LS 600h L. The Prius is, well, a Prius, and the Lexus is an uber- luxury sedan aimed at the type of power player who can afford to be driven.

Compare the two by horsepower (110 versus 438) or by price ($20,000-something versus $100,000-something), and the lineage doesn’t compute. Like Pee-Wee Herman being related to James Bond.

Yet they’re both full hybrids, the fruits of Toyota’s dominance in the technology.

The original Prius was released in the U.S. as a 2000 model, and its gas-electric hybrid system paved the way for the Lexus’s tandem V-8 and dual electric motors.

Leaving aside the pint-sized Prius, the better comparison to the long-wheelbase LS 600h is its brother, the conventionally powered LS 460 L luxury sedan.

I reviewed the LS 460 last March and found it stuffed with tech toys, highly comfortable and not much fun to drive. Even with its 380 horsepower, it struck me as rather sleepy.

I take the LS 600h on a six-hour drive up to Vermont’s Sugarbush ski area. The car is all-wheel-drive and has all- season tires, so I hope it will handle bad weather. And I want to see what kind of mileage one can realistically expect.

Road Tripping

What I don’t expect is its ideal road-tripping nature. The car is almost unfairly comfortable: The seats might give your couch at home a run for the money. I’m traveling solo, so no one enjoys the almost 5 inches of extra rear legroom provided by the long-wheelbase version.

The tester, with a $104,000 base, also has a $7,570 premium package with add-ons such as power rear seats and sunshades and an advanced parking-guidance system that I’m sure most owners never use. The luxury I’m most struck by, though, is the Mark Levinson stereo system, with surround sound and 19 speakers.

The other surprise is the dynamic range of power. Electric motors inherently possess mighty low-end torque. (The Prius’s electric motor alone is rated 295 pound-feet.) Mated with a V-8, the LS 600h is a luxury sedan with the heart of a cyborg lion, ready to merge with a roar.

Lexus says the LS 600h will do 0 to 60 in 5.5 seconds — fun. More fun, though, is that it will accelerate from 50 mph to 70 in about 3.5 seconds, the perfect range to pass on the freeway.

Lexus crows that they’re the first to equip a hybrid with a V-8. If you’re thinking that sounds a bit oxymoronic, well, you’re forgiven.

Gas Mileage

Certainly it’s no Prius in the gas-savings department. That model claims a combined mileage of 46 mpg, while the estimated gas mileage on the LS 600h is 22 mpg on the highway and 20 mpg in the city — not exactly Al Gore territory. Even more troubling, the conventional LS 460 is actually rated better on the highway, at 24 mpg (though only 16 mpg in the city).

Over 700 miles of driving — including city traffic, highway and curvy roads — I clock 19.4 miles per gallon. Part of the issue is the hybrid components’ extra weight, such as the 288-volt nickel-metal-hydride battery pack behind the rear seats. The hybrid’s curb weight is 5,049 pounds. By comparison, the LS 460 weighs 700 pounds less.

Still, the LS 600h qualifies as a Super Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicle. That SULEV designation may sound like a phrase from “Wayne’s World” (“Super ultra-low, Garth!”), yet it signifies that an auto creates far less smog-forming emissions.

Drivers control the level of torque by toggling between three modes: “hybrid” (the optimal mix of power sources), “power” or a snow option.

Snowy Roads

A mode I eventually need. The touch-screen GPS navigation system directs me to the shortest route, over a mountain pass. It’s late, dark and without cell-phone coverage — and the steep winding road hasn’t been plowed. A thick coating of fresh powder skims the road: great on the slope, not so ideal now.

The LS moves cleanly through the snow, slipping minimally, and I creep to the top of the pass and then down the other side.

Minutes later I’m next to a warm fireplace at the lodge at Sugarbush, feet up on a couch, almost as comfortable as my perch in the car.

In the end, Lexus’s green monster simply can’t claim the kind of eco cred as its homely cousin, the Prius. Yet for some luxury lovers, it may be a $100,000 step in the right direction.

The 2008 Lexus LS 600h L Sedan at a Glance

Engine: 5-liter V-8 and two electric motors/generators, with a combined horsepower of 438.

Transmission: Electronically controlled, continuously variable transmission.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph 5.5 seconds.

Price (as tested): $115,412.

Best features: Comfort, luxury and power.

Worst feature: It’s hard to be green when you weigh over 5,000 pounds.

Target buyer: The driver who wants it all — including a claim to being green.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)