Highway 1 proves to be perfect road to test a pair of new luxury sedans
Recent opportunities to drive the 2001 Lexus LS430 and the Infiniti Q45, both updated for 2002, made a perfect excuse for my wife Genie and me to take two weekend trips down Highway 1 to Cambria and Hearst Castle.
Neither the drive nor the cars, flagships of their respective brands, disappointed us.
When they were introduced, these two models set standards for build quality and comfort that Mercedes and BMW, not to mention the Lincoln and Cadillac, had to work hard to meet. Since that time, Lexus has maintained its position among the top five luxury sedans. Infiniti has had its ups and downs, but with the new model, we think it is back in the game.
South of Carmel, Route 1 offers a few straight sections where the 290 horsepower of the 4.3 liter Lexus or 340 horsepower of the 4.5 liter Infiniti engines can be unleashed. Both cars offer seamless acceleration that can have you well over the speed limit without realizing it, unless you watch the speedometer carefully.
However, most of the route consists of tight curves offering cliff-side views of the Pacific Ocean that were breathtaking.
Or maybe it was just the sheer drop-offs that caused the intakes of breath from the passenger seat.
In spite of their bulk - both cars are more than 16 feet long and each weighs close to 4,000 pounds - we were impressed with their nimble handling. Both were equipped with optional sport suspension packages that offered confident control without sacrificing a smooth ride.
We were fortunate to have clear weather on both trips, but we've driven these cars on wet track conditions, which wouldn't have scared us. The Infiniti's Vehicle Dynamic Control and the Lexus Vehicle Skid Control systems are both designed to help the driver maintain control in slippery conditions.
The manual shift mode in the five-speed Infiniti automatic transmission made it possible to have sports-car control of engine speed and torque. The Lexus uses a driver-adaptive electronic throttle system, called "Intuitive Powertrain Control" to provide similar performance
We usually make a lunch break a feature of our Big Sur road trips. About 30 miles south of Carmel is an old favorite, Nepenthe, with spectacular ocean views, and a casual menu and atmosphere. Just a few miles closer, the Post Ranch Inn, a small luxury hotel hideaway, offers a peaceful and elegant glass-enclosed dining room with a slightly more expensive menu.
Stopping on the overlooks to take in the coastal views, we also admired the cars. Their styling is actually quite similar, in an understated, elegant way. However, there's nothing understated about the new "Gatling-gun" style high-intensity multilens head lamps on the Infiniti. But the lights worked well as the evening fog rolled in along the highway.
On the road, we relaxed in the cars' luxury interiors. Both cars are trimmed in soft-pleated leather, complimented by tasteful accents of butterscotch-toned wood. The Infiniti felt a little more open than the Lexus, with a narrower console and the dashboard tilted away from the driver and passenger.
Both cars include optional sound system upgrades - Bose in the Infiniti and Mark Levinson in the Lexus. With a nice range of CDs in the glove-compartment changer on the Infiniti or inserted into the super-convenient dashboard slot on the Lexus, the movie-quality scenery was accompanied by our own soundtrack.
Our Infiniti gave us the chance to try out a new feature now available as an option on some luxury cars. When we shifted into reverse, the navigation screen changed to a televised view of the rear from a camera mounted over the license plate. We were surprised at how easy it was to park in tight spaces with this gadget, included in the overall $8,000 luxury upgrade package.
Our destinations didn't disappoint us either.
The reservation-only tours of Hearst Castle are as entertaining as ever. A new IMAX movie at the visitor center showed us European scenery almost as spectacular as the California coast. Cambria, with its selection of restaurants and bed and breakfasts, plus an array of galleries and antique stores along its main street, can easily fill a weekend of its own.
Returning to the Bay Area via Highway 46 and Highway 101, we tried to decide which car we liked better. Prices and equipment are almost exactly the same, with the Lexus LS430 listing for $57,135 including dealer prep, and the Infiniti Q45 listing at $59,345. Performance and comfort were equally similar.
You'll just have to take your own trip along Big Sur to decide. Either way, we think you'll enjoy the ride.
Anderson is editor and publisher of British Car Magazine, published bimonthly and distributed internationally from offices in Los Altos (949-9680; www.britishcar.com).