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Best in Class

By Hannah Wallace June 30, 2005

When people learn I've tested vehicles weekly since 1989, the first question they always ask is, "What's the best car?"

I tell them it depends on your needs. Maybe the best car is a truck, maybe a minivan. Is performance and handling your top priority? Safety and reliability? Do you value comfort and convenience over speed or fuel efficiency?

No single best car fills all needs and satisfies all wants. But I can name the best compromise car currently in mass production: the Lexus LS430.

This Lexus has topped the J.D. Power list of dependable automobiles every single year since its introduction. It is the top-selling luxury car in the world. And it matches or exceeds anything offered by any competitor.

The Lexus LS430 I tested included about the most expensive option I've ever encountered, the "ultra luxury selection," which adds $13,570 to the base price of $55,675-and which makes it the top pick among all cars.

The LS430 comes with a 4.3-liter V8 that produces a healthy 290 horsepower. It scoots the four-door sedan from zero to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds, making merging with traffic an effortless task. It also yields 18 mpg city and 25 mpg highway fuel economy. That's more than acceptable for a large luxury car. On the green side, the big V8 was one of the first to qualify this Lexus as an Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle.

The engine is so quiet and vibration-free that it's often difficult to know if it has fired up, or even if it's running. At highway speed, it's among the quietest cars sold.

Most drivers would be thrilled to have a car with the standard equipment of the Lexus LS430. But as mentioned, it's the ultra luxury option that moves it to the head of the class. Among its plusses is a pre-collision system that, combined with the radar cruise control option, takes an already very safe vehicle and ratchets it up a notch. And I got to experience this feature firsthand.

Set the cruise control speed and the LS430 maintains a chosen distance from any vehicle ahead of it. In practice, it worked great, right up to the moment a truck pulled into a left-turn lane on a high-speed rural road.

The Lexus sensed I was in trouble. Alarms went off and before I could blink, my seat belt snapped sharply, pinning me against the seat. The brakes were boosted and I slowed quicker. I passed the truck on the right and the entire car seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. The car was so shaken by the experience that it was reluctant to accelerate until I goosed the accelerator a bit.

I didn't think an accident was imminent, but the preparations the Lexus performed in a flash would have been immensely helpful had I collided with that truck. Aside from being startled, I was unhurt. I simply grinned at what the Lexus had done for me.

The LS430 also has an in-dash navigation and information system with a rear camera that displays the view behind it when the gear shifter is placed in reverse. It displays maps and uses a voice to guide you to your destination. It even has Bluetooth communication.

A powered rear sunshade can be lowered manually, but normally is up until a driver selects reverse gear. With that selection, the sunshade lowers, both exterior rear view mirrors tilt down and the navigation screen switches to a camera view to the rear. There is no excuse to back into anything while driving a Lexus LS430.

Ultrasonic parking front and rear includes both a camera and little dimples on front and rear bumpers that emit ultrasonic sound waves, measure their return speed from an object and warn drivers when they're approaching something at slow speed. This system even warns of adjacent objects. Again, no excuse ever to bump anything.

It's as great an experience riding in a Lexus LS430 as it is driving one. Fully adjustable rear seating slides and tilts and can have a position preset as most front seats can. Rear passengers also have separate controls for air conditioning, heating and audio. Every seat is ventilated. Believe it or not, the rear seats also massage passengers.

The car has a Mark Levinson audio system that matches the best home theater units, a keyless access and ignition system, and a power trunk closer. Our tester also had superb leather seats, adding $2,100.

Beyond the options, every Lexus LS430 has dual front air bags, dual side air bags, a head curtain the length of the car, and knee air bags up front. All head restraints are height adjustable, including the center rear.

The headlights are phenomenal. The car self-levels to assure the high-intensity discharge lights don't blind oncoming cars. During test week, passengers commented that these were the best headlights they'd ever experienced. I agree.

So much is automated that the car almost seems to drive on autopilot. Windshield wipers come on if needed; same for headlights. The air conditioner dash vents oscillate, so an irritating draft is never created. Photochromic mirrors are standard, so headlights from a monster truck approaching from the rear won't blind a driver. The air conditioner even has a smog sensor and shuts off outside ventilation if pollutants are present. It filters all air entering the interior at all times.

Add all of the features together and you have a top car choice. Factor in the best-in-the-world reliability and you have the top car choice.

You asked. I answered.

Robert Bowden produces The Car Place, a Forbes Best of the Web selection, and can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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