Lexus’ 2004 LS430 — in pursuit of perfection and getting close

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Drive them all. Go ahead - take a long good look at the Mercedes S-Class, the Audi A8, the Volkswagen Phaeton, the BMW 7-Series, the Jaguar XJ, the Infiniti Q45.

Then drive the Lexus LS430.
Exciting performance, an interior as quiet as a church on Monday, the epitome of luxury appointments, easy-to-use switchgear that doesn’t take a degree in computer science to use and a ride that will remind you of floating on the calm waters of a clear-blue lake characterize the Lexus experience. It just doesn’t get any better than this in a basic full-sized luxury sedan.

That opinion resurfaced for us during a week behind the wheel of a 2004 LS430, our first acquaintance with the Lexus flagship sedan since the 2002 model year.

Granted, the big Lexus is not as athletic as some of its German counterparts and you can’t outfit it with a monster engine, which is possible in several of its competitors including the Jaguar XJ.

But the Lexus has an on-road prowess that belies its size and sophistication, and its 4.3-liter V8 is capable of taking the sedan from a standing start to 60 miles per hour in a breath-taking 5.9 seconds.

The Lexus has received a facelift and some impressive upgrades in mid-cycle (the LS was last completely made over in 2001) for the 2004 model year. Some of the new features for 2004 include: 6-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift-gate; Adaptive headlights that swivel during turning maneuvers; Knee airbags for the driver and front passengers; A Pre-Collision System that recognizes through vehicle speed, steering angle and yaw rate whether a collision is inevitable and retracts the front seatbelts and prepares Brake Assist; A new tire pressure monitor that can detect if a tire is under-inflated and alerts the driver with an indicator light; Power adjustable brake and accelerator pedals with memory; SmartAccess, which allows the driver to enter the car and start the  engine without inserting a key; A rear backup camera that displays the area behind the car on the navigation screen.

A few exterior tweaks add some new style to the sedan, but you will be hard pressed to distinguish a 2004 from a 2003 unless they are parked side-by-side. The front end has been revised slightly and the rear gets a new trunk-lid, bumper and light design, which include LCD taillights. Newly exposed dual exhaust tailpipes convey the available performance from the husky V8.

Although the silky smooth 290-horsepower engine with 320 pound-feet of torque is unchanged, the new transmission with a shorter final drive ratio makes the LS a tick or two quicker than before. The power comes on with a silent rush right up to its 6,350-rpm redline. There’s no announcement that this sedan can outrun 90 percent of the vehicles on the planet. The power is silently smooth and the shifts from the 6-speed transmission are virtually seamless.

People who purchase an LS430 are probably not overly concerned with gas mileage but the 18 city, 25 highway fuel economy rating is exemplary in a car of this size and power.

We’ve had this discussion before with our passengers - is the ride a float or a glide? One of our riding companions is of the opinion that a “floaty” ride more depicts the old Lincoln and Cadillac boats. This Lexus, she says, just glides as if on a solid cushion of air. At any rate, the ride is first class, especially with the optional air suspension.

Our test sedan did not have this feature and, frankly, it’s not needed. You might eventually feel the soft side of the ride if you press the LS430 in high-speed cornering maneuvers. But even then, knowing full well that this is not a sport sedan, the LS acquits itself quite well.

Steering, while on the light side, is accurate and secure.

Inside, the driver will not be overwhelmed with a dashboard full of computer-age gadgets that demand hours of book learning to master.  Controls are handy and intuitive. Opt for the optional navigation, and several things including audio and climate controls, are embedded in the navigation screen. But even so, reaching them is simply a matter of pushing a button that reads audio or climate. Some of the German manufacturers could use a lesson from the Lexus folks in engineering a user-friendly cockpit.

With the navigation system also comes a voice command in which most of the controls can be operated simply by giving verbal commands. It works fairly well in the LS, especially for simple tasks such as raising or lowering the temperature or changing a radio station.

Buyers expect a spacious interior when purchasing a full-sized luxury sedan, and the LS does not disappoint. Rear-seat passengers are afforded stretch-out room. And the options list includes such amenities for rear seat passengers as heated seats with reclining capability and back massagers and swiveling reading lights.

Although a list of options can run the price of a 2004 LS430 toward the $70,000 range, a standard-equipment model now offers a full array of features including power moonroof, leather interior, stability and traction control with brake assist, air curtain and knee  airbags and 17-inch alloy wheels for a bargain-basement price of  only $55,750.

Options on our test car included the Modern Luxury Package for $4,980, Smart Access keyless entry for $1,000, a sport-tuned suspension with 18-inch wheels for $220 and trunk mat and wheel locks for $150. That brought the bottom line to $62,100.

The Modern Luxury Package includes navigation, the Mark Levinson audio system, rear backup camera, voice command, front heated and cooled seats, rear-seat heaters and Intuitive Parking Assist.

We object to some of the “bundling” that Lexus has chosen for the LS, particularly making the outstanding Mark Levinson sound system (perhaps the best in the business) part of the navigation package. It should be offered as a stand-alone option.

As for the car itself, it’s a struggle to find a criticism. The LS430 is about as close to perfect as a sedan can get in the fourth year of the new century.