2006 Lexus LS430

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If you want to know why the Lexus LS sedan has routinely cleaned the clocks of its German competition, consider this:

For $56,525 you can buy a fully-equipped brand-new ’06 LS430 — or pay about two grand more for a smaller (shorter wheelbase, not as long, smaller trunk) Benz E500. To get a bigger Benz (or at any rate, a Benz bigger than the Lexus) you’ll need to step up to the S-Class — and a choke-your-accountant base price of $64,900. That’ll only get you a V-6, though. If you want a bigger Benz — and a V-8 engine (standard in the LS) — you’ll need to dig deeper. A hefty $77,250 deeper, to be exact. And you still won’t get a bigger trunk (the LS430’s huge “three body” 20.2 cubic footer dwarfs the embarrassingly puny 15.4 cubic foot trunk of the supposedly “full-size” S-Class).

Toss in the better warranty (six years, 70,000 miles for the LS430’s powertrain vs. a “less than your loan term” four years/50,000 miles for the Benz), a well-deserved reputation for engineering excellence and an established reputation for the industry’s best dealership service/treatment of its customers — not to mention some of the lowest depreciation rates in the business — and it’s not hard to understand why Lexus (and the LS430) enjoys such a loyal following.

And why so many onetime Mercedes (and BMW) owners are now Lexus owners.

The ’06 LS430 continues the tradition of no-compromises luxury at a price point the Germans can’t seem to match — along with the understated style that has long been among the LS sedan’s major selling points.

All models come standard with a 4.3 liter DOHC V-8 that’s been lauded for its quiet operation, smooth power delivery and Swiss clock reliability. This engine is a carryover from the ’05 model and identical in every respect — but buyers may notice a change in the horsepower rating, which is down to 278 from 290 last year. The change arises from new SAE standards for rating an engine’s output, however — and don’t reflect any real-world change in the LS430’s power or performance. A six speed automatic is the standard transmission — with “sport” and “normal” modes as well as a dual-gate shifter for semi-automatic control of up and downshifts.

One nice feature of this transmission is that it will upshift for you to the next highest gear if you tickle the redline, but will then drop back to the next-lower selected gear and hold it there — so you don’t get stuck with an engine that’s gone mushy in a high-speed corner entry. Most drivers won’t ever treat their LS this way, of course. But the big Lexus can move out with surprising agility if you ever feel need to play the role of “The Transporter” — and mess with the head of that guy in the next lane in his 750Li. A 5.9 second to 60 mph clocking is certainly quick enough to thrill, too — and about half a second quicker than the V-6 powered Benz E350 (and exactly as quick as the V-8 powered, two grand more expensive E500).

But this is a luxury car — not a sport sedan (though it can keep pace with most of them if it needs to). And when it comes to the things that define a luxury car, the LS430’s picture should be right there next to the dictionary entry. Objectively, it is at the top of its class in terms of interior space, quiet ride and power/performance. It boasts features such as adaptive headlights that turn with you in a corner for superior illumination, dual zone climate control with oscillating air outlets, a power rear sunshade and 14-way driver’s seat — and offers available reclining rear seats (with heaters and built-in massagers), power door closers, sonar-guided Park Assist, an air-adjustable suspension, voice-activated GPS with closed-circuit back-up camera — and either radar or laser-guided “smart” cruise control that automatically maintains the proper following distance between you and the cars ahead. It has –or can be fitted with — any luxury/convenience gadget you can think of. Or at least, any that are offered or available in competitor models (and many that are not, such as those reclining back seats with built-in heaters and massagers).

There are also dual front, side, knee and head/curtain air bags — with an available Pre-Collision system that uses radar and accelerometers to detect an impending crash (violent deceleration/braking, etc.) and prepares the car (and its occupants) for the impact by cinching tight the seat belts, lowering the suspension and boosting the brakes for maximum emergency stopping power. VSC stability control, traction control and a tire pressure monitoring system are standard.

Audiophiles can order the symphonic Mark Levinson premium audio upgrade; this is an extremely high-end system custom-tailored to the acoustics of the LS430’s interior — with speakers positioned to deliver a surround sound experience and the power (240 watts) to do justice to a Caruso aria — or a (pre-Hagar) Eddie Van Halen guitar solo.

But these are just the dry facts. To appreciate this car, you must sample it yourself. Close the door and the din of the outside world disappears; the coarse unpleasantness of public spaces replaced by the custom-crafted elegance of a private suite just for you — and perhaps a few well-chosen and fortunate travel companions. Leather and wood trim are par for the course in a car such as this, so it’s the quality and fit of these materials and the way they complement one another — the tactile and visual sense experience — that makes the acceptable transcend to the exceptional.

Everything about the LS has a metronome-like calming quality. Driving this car after a stressful day at the office is as relaxing as a shiatsu massage and a foot rub — with a box of Godiva chocolates by your hand. And those gentle ruminations about all the money you saved both at purchase and in the years ahead — since the value of your new LS won’t depreciate like the currency of a Third World people’s republic — are a constant psychological salve.

Buyer’s note: Lexus will bring a revised/updated LS sedan to market in mid-2006 as a 2007 model, so now is a great time to get an even better deal on a new ’06.

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