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2008 Lexus LS600hL

Even when the New York International Auto Show isn’t in town, the streets of Manhattan often resemble the world’s largest car showroom.

This is despite the fact that it is one of the worst places to actually own a car.

From the requisite Mini Cooper parked on every block, to the Maserati and Bentley sedans that often outnumber taxis on Fifth Avenue, every automobile you ever wanted to see is on display in numbers so great that it’s hard to believe not all of them are best-sellers.

It’s very odd, then, that the one car that appears to be designed specifically for this city is the one that I had never seen until Lexus dropped one off for me to test.

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Currently the only ultra-luxury hybrid sedan in the world, the $104,000 LS600hL seems to be the perfect vehicle for chauffeur-driven hedge fund managers and advertising executives who want to burnish their environmental image without giving up any of the comfort and power they’ve grown accustomed to on a steady diet of German sedans.

It also does something that could make those drivers obsolete, or at least make their jobs a little easier.

It can park itself.

With a little help.

Sometimes a lot of help.

But let’s take it once around the park first, shall we?

Motivated by a 5.0 liter V8 engine that works in concert with an electric motor to produce a combined 438 horsepower, the LS600hL in no way aspires to be a Toyota Prius. Instead, Lexus decided to build a luxury car that had the performance of a V12-powered German supersedan, but the fuel economy of one with an engine of more respectable proportions.

Score one for progress on both counts.

Although it’s not quite at the top of the heap in the speed department, the LS600hL can certainly hold its head high when an Audi A8L or BMW 750Li pulls up next to it. The hybrid powertrain has no trouble getting the Lexus out of its own way on Broadway or the highway, though the suspension and tires are a little on the soft and slippery side for tearing up back roads the way the sportiest of the German cars do. Over the long run, however, it’s the other guys who may be the ones playing catch-up, thanks to more frequent stops at the gas station.

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The LS600hL averages 21 mpg, over 30 percent higher than any of the V12s on the market, and better even than the six-cylinder Mercedes-Benz E350, which only manages an EPA combined 19 mpg. This feat is even more impressive when you consider that the 5,049-pound LS600hL is heavier than competition. You won’t save the world while driving the Lexus, but at least you can pull your punches a little while you are beating up on it.

Of course, being a hybrid, the LS600hL does all the nifty things that hybrids do, and can dawdle around town at low speeds in electric mode only. Even for someone familiar to how hybrids drive, it’s a strange experience in such a large vehicle. Pulling away from the curb reminded me of shoving off from a dock in a motorboat, so quiet and smooth the operation is.

Step hard on the gas and the engine sounds a little like the one in a yacht, too. The muffled putt-putt of the heavily soundproofed V8 working in concert with a shiftless continuously variable transmission plays a tune not unlike that from a marine motor. At cruising speed you might as well have the sails up, because the car is so hushed that you can hardly tell if it’s running at all.

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With a sleek yet imposing exterior design that splits the difference between a 7-Series and an S-Class, the LS600hL fits right in with the big-money crowd and wouldn't look out of place in front of the corporate offices of your local Fortune 500 company. In fact UK-Based The Chauffer magazine named it one of its 2008 cars of the year. The honor owes as much to its interior appointments as to the way it drives.

From front seats that can be adjusted in more ways than a credit card interest rate, to a rear cabin that is closer to the inside of a private jet than something without wings, the LS600hL leaves its owners wanting for very little.

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Our test car was equipped with a premium luxury package that includes a remote controlled 9-inch flat screen TV for the back seats and wireless headphones, in case the 19 speakers the Mark Levinson sound system uses are too much for the other passengers to handle. A refrigerated compartment resides between the outboard positions of the three-person bench that can also recline business-class style. For those who must, two-across first-class seating complete with retractable footrests is also available.

Drivers aren’t ignored, and will find everything from a hard-drive based navigation system offering live traffic information to radar-controlled cruise control and a heated steering wheel at their beck and call. Of course thanks to the LS600hL’s showstopper feature, they won’t need to put their hands on it as much as they used to.

At least that was the plan.

Pull in front of what looks like a promising parking space, shift the transmission into reverse, and the screen on the center console transforms into a control panel for the Advanced Parking Guidance System . On it, a number of boxes and arrows are superimposed onto the video feed from the backup camera, showing you where the car thinks you want to park and advising you whether or not you will fit. The LS600hL allows you to make a few adjustments to the computer’s initial estimates and then, after you commit to a space, it instructs you to take your hands off the steering wheel and starts backing itself in, spinning the wheel left and right while you control the speed of the car with the brake pedal.

The first time I tried it, the LS600hL hit the mark perfectly, resulting in an ear-to-ear grin and the urge to show it to everyone I know.

“It’s amazing,” I’d tell them, “you’ve gotta see this. Get out here now!”

Sadly, like the guy in the cartoon with the singing frog, it never did it for me again.

It tried, as did I, but just couldn’t manage to get into another spot in one shot. I suppose this was partially my fault, not positioning it perfectly before initiating the sequence, but every time I made an attempt over the course of several days the LS600hL either ended up too far from the curb or tried to jump it.

Even when it does work, the time spent setting it up doesn’t really seem to be worth it, but I did appreciate the part that tells you if you’ll fit in the space before you embarrass yourself trying to. Lexus should offer this feature without the automated steering, I’d check that option box for sure.

I’d also opt for a bigger trunk if one were available. At 11.45 cubic feet, the lengthy cruiser has less cargo space than a microscopic Smart Fortwo stuffed full to the roof. The culprit is the battery for the hybrid system, which lives behind the back seats. Its near twin in the Lexus family, the much more affordable, non-hybrid LS460L, has 18 cubic feet back there, which may be the reason why I see them cruising the streets of New York City nearly every moment of the day, while the LS600hL has managed to elude me.

The LS600hL can handle shuttling fat cats around town from one meeting to the next just fine, but driving a family of them and their luggage to the airport will require some very judicious packing. They might get there easier, and save a few dead presidents and dinosaurs as they do, but it looks like they will have to settle for Speedos in St. Tropez this year instead of skiing in Switzerland.

Life at the top has its downsides.

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2008 LEXUS LS600hL

Base Price: $104,000

As Tested: $115,412

Type: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, 5/4-passenger, 4-door sedan

Engine: 5.0L V8 w/650 volt electric motor

Power: 438 hp combined

Transmission: E-CVT (Electronically controlled Continuously Variable Transmission)

MPG: 20city/22hwy

0-60mph: 5.5 sec

What do you think of the LS600hL?

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