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On The Road

Lap of luxury: Three sedans and one hybrid make the cruisin' easy

For people with the necessary assets, a luxury four-door sedan is one of the privileges to enjoy. At one time, these up-market cars would have carried an American nameplate, but judging from the parking lot at Draeger's market or the valet stand at Spago, today the choice seems to be limited to German, English or Japanese automobiles.

In the last month, we've sampled three luxury sedans - the Mercedes S550, BMW 760i and Jaguar XJR - and gotten a peek at a luxury car of the future with the Lexus GS450h hybrid.

BMW has corrected some of the shortcomings of its 7 series cars, and loyal BMW customers will be pleased with its new offering at this rarefied level. But Mercedes has raised the bar with the new S-Class offerings and is once again king of the hill.

Jaguar's current supercharged sedan is likely to appeal only to traditionalists who like the sleek lines and British heritage and disdain computer-bred controls.

Beyond those three, Lexus has again broken new ground in hybrid applications with its new midsize luxury hybrid. When its full-size 600 series is introduced this fall, it may create some new heights for other luxury marques to aspire to.

We first drove the BMW 760i, a 12-cylinder, 438-horsepower version of the 7 series. The price was a breathtaking $116,990. Even so, all the same amenities are available in a V8 version with a more-than-adequate 360 horsepower for a slightly more reasonable $87,100.

The styling of the 7 series has been refined in the last four years, especially around the rear end. The joystick-style interface with all vehicle systems also has been improved. In one week, we were able to learn to tune the radio, manage the air conditioning, pull up the navigation maps and adjust the seats, but there were many capabilities we couldn't master.

Nevertheless, we and our passengers reveled in the car's comfort and luxury. The vehicle offers every amenity ever conceived - from soft, comfortable, infinitely adjustable seats that heat and cool in both back and front to an audio-visual system that is comparable to the best home theaters in everything but the size of the video screen.

It's the driving experience that takes you beyond normal sedans. In spite of its weight and size, the car handles, accelerates and brakes like a sports car. For a person attuned to high-performance driving, the car offers all the satisfaction of a BMW track M3.

Given the BMW's handling and performance, we were prepared to anoint the 760i as the finest luxury sedan before trading the keys for the Mercedes. While Mercedes has always known how to cosset VIPs in luxury, its cars' driving performance was something more happily left to the chauffeur.

But with the new S-Class, Mercedes engineers have excelled. On paper and on the road, the new V8 is every bit the equivalent of the 12-cylinder BMW. Whether the challenge is accelerating to freeway speeds, braking aggressively for an emergency, or chasing kids in their road rockets up Highway 84 and down Skyline Drive, the Mercedes is equal to BMW's best.

We're sad to say, however, that computer engineers have taken over the cockpit. Following BMW's lead, the S-Class uses its own version of a single joystick to control audio, navigation, air-conditioning and vehicle systems, rather than traditional push-buttons and knobs.

Perhaps there's no turning back now, so we're happy to say that the Mercedes version is easier to learn than that of the BMW, though it's by no means intuitive to someone who hasn't grown up with computers and video games. You will have to spend several evenings with the heavyweight owner's manual before you discover such treats as how to select the proper speed and intensity of the front-seat massage machinery.

On balance, we doubt if the new Mercedes is going to peel BMW owners from behind their kidney-shaped grilles. But for people who are just graduating to this level of luxury, we'd give the nod to the Mercedes.

By contrast, the Jaguar XJR will have to be substantially upgraded in its next incarnation or it's going to be limited to customers who prefer tea to coffee for their afternoon break. While the car is every bit as much fun to drive as either of the two newer competitors, it lacks many of the amenities they've recently introduced, and the interior is so last-century that "quaint" seems to be the proper adjective.

At the other extreme, we experimented with Toyota's latest proof that, in hybrids, it is far, far ahead of the curve.

Make no mistake: A hybrid power train was not incorporated into a luxury car to save gasoline. Instead, what the Lexus proves with the GS450H is that a hybrid engine/motor can be the best way to squeeze V8 power and performance out of a V6, while avoiding the gas-guzzler tax by offering V6 mileage. In addition, because the car shuts down at stop lights and often runs only on its electric motors in city traffic, the Lexus contributes almost nothing to urban pollution.

The other major gain is in power and acceleration. With electric motors adding low-end torque, the Lexus rockets up the on-ramps like a scalded cat. We only wish the handling were as good. We expected a car this fast to corner as well, but it was just another midrange Lexus sedan. Comfortable, acceptable, but not exciting.

There are still some hybrid challenges to be overcome. The costs of the extra motors, extra batteries and sophisticated software must be driven down. The midsize luxury sedan we drove was listed at $65,794 - $10,000 more than a similarly equipped non-hybrid GS430 with a standard V8.

The second problem, and one that could limit the car to drivers who never leave town, is the trunk space - or more accurately, lack thereof. With a good portion of the battery pack mounted over the back axle, the Lexus has a smaller trunk than most sports cars: two carry-on suitcases, and you're done.

Perhaps when Lexus introduces its new LS600h, a hybrid version of its best luxury sedan, at the end of this year, it will include an adequate trunk. Regardless, with one full-size hybrid luxury sedan on the market, other manufacturers will be forced, by the market or legislation, to follow suit. With continuing pressure over environmental issues and growing issues of gasoline cost and availability, we predict that within 10 years - more likely five - most full-size vehicles in this country will have hybrid power trains.

Gary and Genie Anderson, Los Altos residents for more than 20 years, are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits MC Squared, the MINI magazine, and contributes articles and columns to a variety of other automobile magazines.

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