The Goldilocks Car

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Not too flashy, too technical or too expensive — the Lexus LS 430 is just right.

So you've got it made. You kept your money in bonds and real estate. The youngest just finished college. It's time for a top-of-the-line sedan to reward your achievements.

The world's prestige auto brands have the goods for the fortunate as never before. Within the past two years, BMW has launched a new version of its imposing flagship 7-series sedan. Lexus has redone and beefed up its top sedan, transforming the car formerly known as the Lexus LS 400 into the more potent LS 430. Mercedes-Benz has just freshened up its flagship S-class sedan. Nissan's Infiniti brand, struggling to break into the big leagues, has the 340-horsepower Q45. With an imaginary $60,000 to $80,000 car budget in mind, I test-drove these four cars, evaluating such factors as comfort, power, cargo space, value, ride and handling to assign overall ratings and select a SmartMoney Award winner in this class.

BMW 7-Series
There's nothing quite like the new BMW 7-series on the road, from its low, wide hood to its dolphin's-smile rear end.

The funny stuff starts at the ignition switch. You don't turn a key. You insert a plastic fob into a slot, then hit a button on the dashboard. The 325-hp, 4.4-liter V-8 starts purring. Around you is a striking, architectural interior, with broad bands of real wood, leather and chrome accents. On the center armrest is a large knob. In the dashboard is a screen.

Welcome to iDrive. Using that knob and the screen, you are supposed to be able to control the heating, cooling, sound system and navigation system. BMW hails iDrive as a revolution. I used various Anglo-Saxon expletives while trying to navigate through iDrive's multilayered menus. At its worst, using iDrive to change radio stations is like playing a Nintendo game at 70 mph.

If you can ignore iDrive, the 7-series is a remarkable vehicle. It's large and heavy but rides and handles like a sports car, thanks to high-tech systems designed to keep the car stable at autobahn speeds. If it weren't for the annoying technology, the 7-series could be the best car available for under $100,000. I'd give BMW another year or two to fix this car's most irksome attributes.

Starting list price for a short-wheelbase version is $69,195 (all prices include destination charge). The long-wheelbase version I drove, with such added goodies as the 19-inch alloy wheels with high-performance tires ($1,300) and premium sound ($1,800), totaled $79,645.

Mercedes-Benz S430
Driving the Mercedes S-class is like commuting in a bank vault. My silver S430 test car slid along freeways and town streets with barely a murmur from the 4.3-liter V-8. Bumps vanished in the air suspension. A patch of ice ahead of an intersection caused no trouble at all. And Mercedes now offers its 4Matic all-wheel-drive system on the S-class to get you through suburban snows. True to tradition, there are no edgy styling statements here. With retouched front and rear ends and an upgraded interior, the redesigned 2003 S-class is an elegant car.

In case you're unlucky enough to be on a collision course with a more plebeian car, the new S-class is the first Mercedes to come with the "Pre-Safe" system. This uses sensors to detect when the S-class is headed for a crash and automatically tightens up the seat belts, moves the seats to the best position relative to the airbags and even closes the sunroof.

Compared with the BMW, the redesigned S-class is a cinch to operate. But it still has too many awkward buttons with runic symbols. The old-style navigation system requires you to load CD-ROMs to get maps of different regions of the country. Japanese competitors use DVD systems that contain the entire U.S. on one disk.

The biggest drawbacks of the S-class are its power and its price. The 275-hp S430 4Matic starts at $76,165, making it both the least powerful and most expensive car in this group. My test car bore a $79,250 sticker, including $2,085 in options (parking assist, heated seats and steering wheel) and the $1,000 gas-guzzler tax. Trading up to the 302-hp S500 pushes the base price over $80,000. Unfortunately for Mercedes, Japanese rivals offer more for less.

Infiniti Q45
The infiniti q45 has a lot going for it. It boasts a 340-hp, 4.5-liter engine that zooms through traffic with more oomph than any other car tested here. The Q45 comes with a "Vehicle Information System," which includes a navigation display that projects the map as if you were flying 500 feet above the road. When you back up, a camera feeds into the dashboard screen a real-time color video image of what's behind you.

My test car had side-curtain airbags, a 10-way power driver's seat, heated and cooled front seats, traction control, 18-inch wheels and maple wood trim for a grand total of $62,145. Base price for the Q45 is $52,545, which puts it more in league with the Mercedes E-class than the S-class.

Despite its value, however, Infiniti struggles to find a place in elite luxury circles. The Q's bland styling doesn't help. The Q45 is a bargain in terms of horsepower per dollar. But it doesn't say, "I made it," the way premium German cars or the Lexus LS 430 do.

Lexus LS 430
"wow, spiffy!" That was the reaction of my 14-year-old daughter and a friend to the Lexus LS 430, specifically the comfy rear seats and the auxiliary radio controls that allow backseat drivers to point the 240-watt Mark Levinson sound system to alternative thrash rock stations.

I was feeling spiffy too. The LS 430 is a remarkably relaxing place to be. There's plenty of gadgetry, an optional navigation system and a screen that displays radio stations, heater settings and such. Lexus has managed the interface with its screen in a less intimidating way than BMW.

The LS 430's 4.3-liter V-8 engine makes 290 hp, a drawback in a class that is heading toward a 300-hp minimum. But power isn't what the Lexus is about. The car wafts you from place to place on gas-pressurized shocks with barely a flutter of wind noise and rare trips to the service shop. Sticker price for my loaded test Lexus was $69,607, bulked up from the $55,500 base. That's still a bargain compared with the Germans. The LS 430 is the Goldilocks car: not too flashy, not too technical, not outrageously expensive. The LS 430 wins in this pack because it understands that for many of us, technological challenge is work. Its absence is true luxury.