WITTMAN, Ariz. -- On a banked oval test track cut into the pancake flats of Arizona's Sonoran Desert west of Phoenix, we're rocketing around the three-lane ring in a triple-digit blur of speed.
Our test vehicle, a high-tech gas-electric hybrid variation of the stretched LS 460 L super-luxury sedan from Lexus, elite upshot line off Toyota of Japan, wears a nameplate as the Lexus LS 600h L.
The design of this particular car represents a monumental achievement of historic significance.
It's the first super-luxury sedan (meaning lavish over-the-top comforts and space) that's also a hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) equipped with a gas-electric powertrain.
But it also has to be the most complex and sophisticated automotive machine ever devised since 1885 when Karl Benz mounted an internal-combustion engine on a three-wheeled buggy and drove into history.
First, there's the complexity of the powertrain.
The Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD) system developed by Lexus/Toyota controls all energy produced by on-board gas/electric engines and applies it directly to all of the wheels in infinitely variable measures through an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (ECVT).
For LS 600h L, however, the HSD system is more extensive -- and far more powerful -- than any previous hybrid.
It teams a 389-hp 5.0-liter V8 gasoline-powered engine with a pair of high-voltage and high-torque electric motors -- one to turn the front wheels and the other to work so many power accessories as well as crank up the V8 and recharge a load of on-board batteries.
And to achieve the all-wheel-drive (AWD) feature, there's a third electric motor aboard to drive the rear wheels.
Sum of engine and motors is a peak combined output rating of 438 hp.
Technology clouds the performance numbers, as the LS 600h L employs in the ECVT a dual-stage torque multiplication gear set that functions sort of like an electric supercharging system.
Net effect: This thing is faster than you the driver expect, and it's also so quiet -- but what's absent here is the varoom-varoom sound effects common in conventional gas-fired performance cars. Supplying electrical juice to all of the motors in the Lexus hybrid system is a 288-volt direct-current nickel metal hydride (Ni-MH) battery tucked beneath the cabin's back seat.
And in the trunk a 12-volt auxiliary battery powers the audio, navigation, and other on-board electronic equipment. New LS also gets electric power steering (EPS) to produce a responsive feel on the wheel when guiding the vehicle into a set of curves. And the high-tech gear culminates with a VDIM -- Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management -- system.
Tapping into a host of sensors -- tracking such vehicle functions as the angle of the steering wheel, the turn rate of each wheel, lateral motion of the car body, and pressure on brake and accelerator pedals -- VDIM constantly analyzes all collected data and uses it to deploy various traction controllers and maintain stability.
The LS acronyms in car safety include variable gear ratio steering (VGRS) and EPS, electronically controlled brakes (ECB), anti-lock brake system (ABS), vehicle stability control (VSC), electronic traction control (ETC), and electronically controlled throttle system with intelligence (ECTS-i).
For preventive safety the vehicle adds the Advanced Pre-Collision System (APCS) packaged with Dynamic Radar Cruise Control (DRCC). The equipment can detect pedestrians in the path of the car and warn the driver or even apply the brakes, if necessary.
And a small camera on the steering column monitors the driver's face through infrared rays and can figure out if you're not watching the road or nodding off. It's as if Big Brother as co-pilot is watching and if you don't pay attention then Bro will take over.
Lexus engineers even devised a way to eliminate the driver, at least when it's time to execute a tricky parallel parking maneuver, as the optional Advanced Parking Guidance System (APGS) aboard this car enables it to park itself.
All the driver has to do is pull beside an intended parking space, tap a couple of dashboard tabs which prompt the guidance gizmo to measure the size and position of the parking space, then touch one more button and the LS moves slowly in reverse direction, steers itself into the parking space, and stops in the perfect spot.
Standard equipment includes semi-analine leather upholstery and memory controls for seats with seat heaters, a keyless Smart Access system with push-button starter, xenon high intensity discharge (HID) headlights plus an Adaptive Front lighting System (AFS), Intuitive Park Assist (IPA), a host of air bags like side curtains and front-seat knee shields, and a hard disk drive (HDD) Lexus Navigation system operating with a backup camera. Also standard is a 19-speaker and 450-watt Mark Levinson Reference Surround Sound audio system -- the ultimate in car audio gear.
The Premium Package brings power controls for rear seats with memory, rear climate-controlled seats, and rear side-impact air bags plus the APGS. The kit adds a special left-side rear seat that reclines up to 38 degrees and slides fore to aft by about three inches.
The Premium Package II goes further for backseat comfort with four-zone climate controls, rear audio controls, rear air purifier, rear cool box, rear headliner and side air ducts, power rear-door sunshades, and a rear seat entertainment system with a ceiling-mounted nine-inch VGA screen for DVD viewing.
Then the Executive Class Seating Package II installs a right-rear seat recliner with ottoman plus a multi-function massage feature, and a rear console and foldout table.
The sleek aerodynamic shape of the LS 600h L features a sloping hood crowned by the projector-beam xenon headlamp clusters and a trapezoidal grille. A raked windshield leads to an arching canopy over the cabin with low-slung windows and side pillars muted to create the image of a coupe.
Overall impression: The LS 600h L looks streamlined and stylish -- and oh-so-expensive.
And it is, as the MSRP begins at $104,000.