Lexus Taste of Luxury
Lexus: Taste of Luxury is an elaborate presentation of the complete Lexus line-up against their competitor's vehicles. Comparative test-drives of SUVs, luxury cars, and luxury performance cars between Lexus vehicles and at least two competitors (per Lexus vehicle) each are the prominent feature. Free catered meal, gourmet cooking demonstration (quite good), and ESPN Golf lessons (also quite good) are all provided. Very nice!
It's not on par with the Saab event I was at in 2000, but nothing I have done has ever matched that one. This Lexus one was pretty close or slightly better than recent Mercedes ones, although I missed the latest Mercedes C-spot event (I did the E-class one in 2002). The Mazda and Car and Driver events are not nearly as luxurious or costly, so they're fun in different ways.
Viet, Alex and Bryce, and I showed up on Saturday morning, right at the start of the event. Quick introduction and then to the tent on Lexus technology (well done, just not interesting to us, since we were familiar with it already). The tent with Mark Levinson audio was more interesting, we wasted easily 15 minutes inside the LX470 futzing with the navigation and DVD. They had a backseat from an LS430 Ultra-Luxury package mounted outside of the car too, that was pretty nifty.
Three test drive courses were setup.
Performance Luxury, with the Lexus SC430, GS430, and Lexus IS300. Competition was the Cadilliac XLR and Jaguar XK8 for the SC430, Mercedes E500 and BMW 545i for the GS430, and the BMW 330i and Infiniti G35 for the IS300. The course was setup with an inital two-turn slalom, then a left turn, a right turn, and a short straight into another right turn. This fed into another straightaway with a radar gun (highest speed I saw displayed was 37mph, but you could accelerate well past the radar gun) ending in a sharp left. Go right, then into an "accident avoidance" zone of foam boulders randomly ejected into the field, then a slow right and slow left to the end of the course. Total course time was probably 40-45 seconds on average. Naturally they didn't actually time it, but the BMW 545i had a stopwatch built into the trip computer. Every run I tried timing (either in the 545i or with my camera) I could not get a clean run due to traffic. =(
The event was very well run. They had at least two of each vehicle, so while on-course traffic was high, you never felt as though you were waiting forever for a car. I disabled stability control and set the suspension to sport mode whenever possible.
GS430 felt pretty good for a big boat, much better than the E500. The 545ia felt the best, but the variable-ratio steering was very odd. The Mercedes felt the nicest, but by far the slowest and most ponderous on course. Overall responsiveness was best in the 545, but the GS430 wasn't too bad. Throttle response in the GS430 was surprisingly good, considering how much better the BMW was supposed to be.
SC430 felt pretty good, but very ponderous. All of the big convertibles (XLR and XK8) felt like boats, much more so than their high-end sedan competition. The SC430 probably felt the best of the three, but the most entertaining was the XLR, with the Northstar V8. The low-end torque enabled me to get the back end out quite nicely and steering feedback was still decent-- nothing does torque like a big V8, and the XLR was the biggest there. The Jaguar XK8 felt very cramped inside and the transmission was very indecisive initially, I thought I was going to break it!
IS300 was pretty crude inside. Too many cuts and mold lines in the dash, combined with the weakest engine of the lot (G35 and 330i). Transmission was responsive, but hitting the gas did nothing after driving the bigger engined cars. Suspension setup felt good, better than the G35 (but probably slower in reality) but not as good as the 330i. G35 felt like other G35's I've driven, easily overloaded the front tires, but the suspension setup was very capable at the limit and the added power helped a lot. Touchy brakes at low speed were actually very good on course. 330i was definitely the driver's car of the lot, very responsive and well balanced. Felt more capable than the IS300 and felt better (not necessarily more capable) than the G35. The biggest problem is, it felt underpowered next to everything but the IS300.
After spending over 2 hours at the performance luxury tent, we went inside to eat breakfast. Minature omelets, smoked salmon and bagels, cereal, sausage patties, minature muffins, minature quiche, potatos, and a nice fruit platter were very yummy. Coffee, juice, tea, sodas, and bottled water were all provided. The gourmet cooking demonstration started then too, and that was very good. We didn't follow the show too closely, but the kid's crafts zone did distract us for a bit. =) Viet tried the golf lessons, which were quite good. The putting course (sink 1 to 3 putts, win various cool prizes) was fun, too.
The SUV course was a huge surprise. They had actual rough terrain for SUVs to go over. The smaller ones (RX330, XC90, BMW X3) had small mounds of dirt to simulate very rough roads and stuff plus a slalom, and one slight hill climb. The bigger SUVs had a full-sized 10 foot tall dirt hill to climb, which was unique. I'd never seen anyone drag in a few dump trucks worth of dirt, then pack it down into a hill. They did rough-road portions and slaloms too. Very, very nice. We didn't spend as much time here-- although I think Alex and Bryce did. I did the Mercedes ML500 and Lexus GX470 (BMW X5 4.4i was also a competitor) and wasn't too impressed by either, although the ML500 was pretty nice to drive. The GX470 was nicer inside, but I was too distracted by hill climbing to notice.
I skipped out on the Lexus LX470, Range Rover HSE, and Cadilliac Escalade. Just didn't have time, and I didn't care enough. Maybe I did do the LX470 in there somewhere, but I don't remember it standing out.
Of the small SUVs, I only did the Volvo XC90 and BMW X3. The X3 sucked-- stiff and a cheap interior, not at all what you'd expect from a BMW. The XC90 interior was nicer, but the turbo engine was completely unsuitable for the car. Uneven power delivery due to the turbo made control difficult, even if you are familiar with turbo cars.
Luxury cars again got short-shifted. No time, getting tired after 5 hours, etc.
Lexus LS430, BMW 745i, and Mercedes S430 represented the high-end segment. The S430 was very nice inside, but feeling dated. I skipped the others, I think. If I did do them, again, they didn't stand out. The course was simple, slalom, some ropes laid out to be a rough road, a few turns and some hanging deer to simulate something-- simulate what, I'm not sure.
Lexus GS330, BMW 530ia, and Mercedes E320 were the middle segment. GS330 felt similar to the GS430, very good, well damped, a nice compromise of luxury and performance. Skipped the 530ia and E320, although the E320 probably would have been a nice luxury ride. Feature-wise and interior-wise, the GS330/430's "nice" interiors were good and fairly well layed out, but they didn't feel as advanced as BMW or Mercedes. Both Mercedes and BMW had cluttered dashboards (MB) or utterly unusable controls (BMW iDrive), so the GS's bland controls were almost welcome.
Lexus ES330, Acura TL, and Mercedes C320 were the entry part of the segment. ES330 felt like a nice Camry, which is to say, very good, but boring. The Acura TL was surprisingly nice and very responsive, by far the most sporting car there. Switchgear felt like a Honda, but that's not too bad of a thing. I skipped the C-class, as those are pretty blah, even if they are nice.
The free gift was a photo album/travel book, which looked to be pretty good (I haven't read it yet) and was very well presented. Michelin was also there with a small booth, although aside from a contest to win free tires, they didn't do much.
The whole event was very comfortable and not overwhelming at all in terms of feeling. The sheer number of cars to drive was great, although it makes remembering individual impressions pretty difficult. The fact that we spent the most time in the segment of interest to us (Performance Luxury), repeatedly driving most of the vehicles, took up a lot of time as well. Food was pretty good, too.
The rest of the day was out with Barry, then later out to Venice and C&O's with Dave and Alan. Nice day to visit the beach and play some frisbee, topped off with yummy dinner.