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Lexus LS 430 blends luxury, high tech

It rivals Mercedes S-Class in gadgetry but keeps it simple

I remember a conversation a few years back with a Lexus executive. I asked him why, when competitors were filling their cars with all manner of gadgets, did Lexus cars remain so unadorned?

His answer was that Lexus buyers liked the simple goodness of their cars and didn't need all that complicated gimmickry to convince themselves of the rightness of their purchase.

Ah, that was then, and this is now.

The just-arriving 2001 Lexus LS 430 is a technological tour de force. It rivals other cars — the Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan comes to mind — in offering such a mind-numbing array of gadgets that it almost overwhelms the car itself.

Here's a short list: an adjustable air-suspension system, a DVD-based navigation system, a satellite-linked safety-and-security system, a parking-assist system, a cruise-control system that keeps you from hitting the car ahead of you, windshield wipers that spring to life whenever they sense that it's raining and eight air bags.

And this, of course, neglects the usual array of acronyms like ABS, VSC, HID, TCS and DRL that populate all of today's luxury cars. (For those of you taking notes, that would be the anti-lock braking system, the vehicle-skid control system, the high-intensity discharge head lights, the traction-control system and the daytime running lights.)

I must say that Lexus does a better job of keeping all this technology subtle. When I drive an S-Class, I feel motivated to investigate all those buttons, knobs and switches that tempt me to push, turn and flip. Inside the new LS 430, I don't feel as bad when I ignore everything and just drive.

It has been more than a decade since Lexus first introduced its LS 400 flagship sedan to the public. Back in September 1989, there was some question about whether the public was ready to accept a luxury-brand Toyota-made car. That doubt quickly evaporated, thanks in great measure to the wonderful first-generation LS 400 that people quickly saw as one of the great automotive bargains of the century. It was priced at around $35,000 and rivaled cars sold by BMW and Mercedes for tens of thousands more.

That was then, and this is now.

The LS — now called the 430 thanks to its new 290-horsepower, 4.3-liter V-8 — remains a smooth yet exhilarating car to drive. It's comparable to what's sold by BMW and Mercedes, both in terms of performance and in terms of prestige.

It's also not quite such a good deal anymore. The new LS 430 has a base price of about $54,000. Add in options, including an ultra-luxury selection package found on our test car that goes for more than $12,000, and the out-the-door price of the sedan leaps to nearly $69,000. That's in the broad middle ground between 5- and 7-Series and E- and S-Classes, and it's pricey territory indeed.

For that, you'll get a roomy, comfortable sedan that's full of indulgences and state-of-the-art safety systems.

The wheelbase of the LS 430 grows three inches vs. the previous-generation LS 400. It's a bit taller (about two inches) and a bit heavier car (about 65 pounds), too. The passenger cabin is larger, as both front and rear head, leg and hip room all expand either significantly or fractionally. The trunk is much bigger.

The car's interior remains the most inviting in the industry, thanks to oceans of leather and acres of wood. The wood-and-leather steering wheel is an elegant touch. The illuminated instrument panel still thrills me after all these years, but the new center stack, complete with a seven-inch monitor, detracts from the classy environment.

On the road, the car's performance is faultless. The higher torque of the new V-8 gives the LS 430 a more aggressive feel. Lexus says zero to 60 mph time is reduced by three-tenths of a second, and now measures at 6.3 seconds.

Of all the gadgets, I liked the climate-control seats best. For those familiar with heated seats, now found on many models, these take the next step by offering both hot and cold settings. The Mark Levinson stereo system — a famed home-stereo builder — sounded great, too, but no better to my unqualified ears than the optional Nakamichi system found on the old LS 400 and still sold on other Lexus products.

The Lexus Link system is the first non-General Motors application of OnStar, which links a vehicle to around-the-clock advisers through satellites and a cellular phone line.

The new LS 430 isn't so much a bar-raiser as it is a statement of how much the worlds of technology and transportation have now merged.