DRIVE TIME CAR REVIEW


Best Value in Luxury Cars

Mark Solheim

The Lexus LS 460 created a buzz because it parks itself. But high style and top quality are the real reasons it is winning buyers' hearts.



Ever since Lexus introduced the LS 400 as an affordable alternative to the German luxury cars 18 years ago, it's been the top choice of car buyers who prefer value and reliability over Teutonic driving dynamics and prestige. But in the super-premium category, prestige matters, and even when Lexus began to outsell the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7 series a few years ago, it couldn't shake its stodgy, utilitarian image.

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The torch passes

That is, until now. The new-for-2007 Lexus LS 460 isn't just outselling the German luxe-mobiles, it's outclassing them. The new LS has a contemporary new profile, stunning fit and finish, and high-quality materials inside the cabin, where even back-seat passengers will feel as if they never left their living room. The latest LS has a bigger engine -- a 4.6-liter, 380-horsepower V8 -- as well as a first-ever eight-speed transmission. The combination propels the car from zero to 60 miles per hour in 5.4 seconds. But fuel economy is a respectable 19 miles per gallon in the city, 27 mpg highway.

State-of-the-art technology, including the easiest-to-use voice-command system I've ever encountered, appeals to multitasking executive types. Advanced safety features -- such as knee airbags for the driver and front-seat passenger, and sophisticated anti-skid stability control -- put even the most skittish passenger at ease. And with a base price of $61,715, the LS costs nearly 25 grand less than the Mercedes S550.

But I suspect one reason sales are even stronger this year is that the Lexus LS 460 created a buzz because it's the first car sold in the U.S. that parks itself. Yes, it really works. Just pull the car up to the correct starting position, adjust the virtual parking spot outlined on the rearview screen, and push the appropriate buttons (you can choose between parallel and back-in parking). Then you let the car steer itself into the spot while you control the speed. Pretty amazing.

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The gee-whiz features aren't cheap -- you have to order the $3,115 navigation system, then shell out another $1,200 for the parking-guidance feature. The nav system includes Bluetooth technology, so you can yak on your cell phone hands-free.

You must also order the navigation option before you can get the pre-collision system. This $2,850 option is another glimpse into the future of automotive technology. When radar senses that a front collision is unavoidable, the seat belts tighten automatically while extra braking pressure is applied.

The pre-collision system also includes dynamic cruise control: It keeps you at a constant speed until you get close to another vehicle, then it adjusts your speed to keep a safe following distance. That could drive you crazy in Sunday-afternoon traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike, but it's nice to have for long stretches on less-chaotic interstates.

Meet the LS family

The LS 460 also comes in a long-wheelbase model, which adds 5 inches to the length and $10,000 to the sticker price. For another $12,675, you can special-order the executive-class seating package, which, among other things, buys you a power right-rear seat that reclines (with a leg rest) and massages.

The hybrid version, called the LS 600h L, is just arriving in showrooms. It's an all-wheel-drive car that features a massive 5-liter V8 engine along with an electric motor to help clean up emissions and save gas. Even so, fuel economy on the $104,715 sedan is expected to be only 20 to 25 mpg.

So Honda has taken a gamble with its eighth-generation Accord. The company figures it can win more buyers with a larger, more "refined" Accord. The car essentially has grown to suit baby-boomers' expanding torsos and evolving tastes. Now that the 2008 Accord is in dealer showrooms, the question is, will the gamble pay off?

Baby got back

The sedan's redesigned exterior reflects the Accord's more mature, more sedate feel. The back end is higher and looks thicker and wider. The hood is elongated and taller. The car has grown by 3 inches in length and 1 inch in width. That translates into more interior space, edging the model into the large-sedan class.

Honda's press office spins this growth much the way you'd tell a man he hasn't grown heavy, he's now "husky." The Accord, it says, has "grown larger to meet the needs of an audience that values hospitality, with 'equal' front and rear seating comfort for four adults."

By Honda's measurements, rear-occupant "knee space" has increased by 3 inches, putting the Accord within striking distance of the Lexus LS 460 and other large luxury sedans. Passengers get 1.5 inches more width, and the front seats are farther apart, allowing for a wider center console. For the young at heart, there's still the coupe. Unlike earlier-generation Accord coupes, which modified the sedan's lines only slightly, the 2008 coupe has unique sheet metal. The raked roofline extends to the rear end for a fresh, sporty look.

Under the skin

Despite the sedan's AARP-ready appearance, it is still a fine performer on the road. The 3.5-liter V6 engine adds 24 horsepower for a total of 268 (equal to Camry's), and acceleration is as quick and smooth as ever. Increased rigidity and a new double-wishbone front suspension keep the handling responsive and the ride refined.

Fuel economy is superb, thanks to Honda's Variable Cylinder Management technology. The latest version allows the V6 engine to operate on three or four cylinders instead of six, resulting in fuel economy of 19 miles per gallon in the city and 29 mpg on the highway. The 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine produces up to 190 hp and gets 22 mpg city, 31 highway with the standard five-speed manual.

Safety gets a boost, too. Electronic stability control, which helps avoid skids, is standard across the Accord lineup. Six airbags are also standard, including front side airbags that protect your torso and pelvis individually. Inside, the navigation system no longer uses a touch screen; it is controlled either by voice command or with a dial. A Bluetooth hands-free phone connection is available only with navigation.

The 2008 Accord's sticker is firmly in midprice territory. The sedan starts at $20,995 for the four-cylinder manual LX and $26,595 for the EX V6 (automatic transmission only). The V6 model with navigation and leather costs $30,895. The coupe starts at $22,495 for the four-cylinder version and $28,945 for the V6.

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