Zen on Wheels, and Don't Forget the Back Massage

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Zen on Wheels, and Don't Forget the Back Massage

The road from Seoul to Pusan is not the friendliest stretch of road in the land. In fact, it is a highway of horrors with an endless convoy of trucks and buses that make this a white knuckle, roller coaster ride all the way. And here I was enveloped in a Lexus LS430, the ultimate luxury cocoon, sealed off from the noise and frenzy of the world. Whatever you ask this mile muncher to do, it does effortlessly and nearly perfectly. The miles just rolled by in an almost monastic silence. A Zen moment punctuated along the way by some Billy Idol rants on the Nakamichi sound system.

A little bit more than a decade ago when Toyota announced the launch of the Lexus, its new flagship brand, the boys in Stuttgart and Detroit must have enjoyed some private chuckles about Toyota's aspirations to take on the luxury leaders, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Cadillac and Lincoln. But look who's laughing now. Lexus consistently scores the highest marks in J.D. Power's consumer satisfaction surveys. Lexus owners are as happy as clams and among the most loyal in the business.

Lexus is a newcomer to the Korean marketplace, having launched just this year. Korean customer recognition of the Lexus brand remains low but you get the feeling that is about to change. The Toyota machine appears almost invincible, unstoppable.

For the longest time, I too sniffed and sneered at Lexus. I had formed opinions without having driven one. For me, Mercedes and BMW defined consummate luxury performance. But with all those unbearably happy owners out there I conceded that I owed it to myself to discover what the Lexus phenomenon was all about. So a couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to drive the GS400, the sports version of the second generation LS400, on a 3000 km round trip between Toronto and Washington, D.C. It was a revelation. I understood.

The LS430 is the third generation Lexus and, as expected, advances luxury and performance to even greater heights. Like all luxury cars, this one abounds in wows. The keyless ignition system is truly original and has to be everyone's favorite. Briefly, you can unlock and start the car without removing the key from your pocket. No more fumbling for keys. The key sends a coded signal that unlocks the security system and enables you to start the car.

There is a lot more to this car than leather and burled walnut trim, such as the razor sharp handling and an incredibly smooth powertrain. Turn the ignition switch and unless you're looking at the gauges stirring to life, it is hard to tell whether the engine is on or off. Gear shifts in the five-speed automatic whether up or down are virtually undetectable. Hit the throttle and the car pulls magically ahead as if pulled by a silent, invisible force.

This car is jam packed with electronic wizardry, including variable valve timing that breathes extra fire and power into the combustion chambers. The engine produces a 290 hp at 5600 rpm for a zero to 100 km/h time of about 6.5 seconds so just about any highway passing maneuvers are a piece of cake. Vehicle Stability Control embedded within the anti-locking brake system uses a sophisticated network of sensors, throttle intervention and selective braking of the wheels to reduce the risk of skidding out of control in a curve or along a slippery stretch of road.

The kids will love the vibrating "magic fingers" in the backs of the rear seats and the rear audio controls. Alas, not chauffeured, I missed my back rub appointment with the mechanical masseur.

Solid and conservative styling should appeal to older buyers in this segment and it's undoubtedly one of the finest examples of a luxury car and equal to Germany's best - but it is hardly the wake-up call the first Lexus was for the automotive world.

Price of the Lexus LS430 as tested: 110 million won ($84,615).

Next Week: Hyundai Lavita

by Oles Gadacz

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