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My buddy and I spent the afternoon at the Lexus Taste of Luxury driving event held at Reliant Park. A very nicely put together event, I must say. The event consisted of three test tracks for the various Lexus cars and several of their direct competitors. As one would expect in this sort of 'come in off the street' event, the track was fairly short and the lanes were narrow (though the tracks were longer than those at the Mercedes C-Spot event last year), but the curves were tight enough to be able to get the cars to dance a bit. The SUV track had an off-road course with concrete mounds and a dirt mountain (~40 deg angle incline). Here are my impressions of the cars I drove:

Mid-range cars

Acura TL: Pretty nice car. Decent oomph from the engine and direct steering. Steering lacked feel and was too light, though. Auto box was sluggish to respond to throttle inputs, but tore through the rev range pretty well. Despite being FWD, understeer wasn't too bad.

Lexus GS300: Good power off the line. Auto box was pretty responsive (more so than the Acura), but didn't rip through the revs as aggressivly. Steering felt a bit syrupy, but the reponse was quick. The traction control kept beeping at me as I was able to get the rear end to step out a bit. Nice car, but not that exciting. Overall build quality and solid feel was tops in this group.

BMW 530ia: Exterior styling is tolerable, but not as good looking as the E34 or E39 5-series. Interior was actually pretty nice. Not as 'out there' as the 7-series and quality was top notch. As expected, the steering response was the best of the mid-range bunch. Good weighting and quick acting. However, you could still feel a layer of sauce between you and the road. Not sure if this car had Active Steering or not, but that could explain it. Seats were great with excellent lateral and thigh suport. I didn't mess with the i-Drive much, but it was still a pain as I couldn't simply change the radio station or turn off the A/C. Too many menus to navigate. This is the best driving car of the mid-range group.

Luxo-barges

Lexus LS430: Big and blustery acceleration from the silky smooth V8. This car had the sports pkg. which comes with a slightly lowered/stiffened suspension and phatty wheels. For a luxo-barge, it handled pretty well. The steering was tighter than I recall in the old LS400s, but still overboosted. Comfortable driver's seat, but not much lateral support. Best build quality and most solid feel of the luxo-barges.

Mercedes S430: For a car of this eschelon, it was pretty 'meh.' The power was there, but the chassis didn't feel up to the challenge. Steering was just heavy without the feel of the BMW, but it was accurate and responded pretty well. Seats were hard with passable lateral support. Bottom of the list in this group.

BMW 740i: Don't like the styling inside or out. Seat controls are too complex. The lumbar support was jutting way out and I couldn't figure out how to deflate it. Then there's the funky gear shift stalk. Press it down to engage 'D,' then you need to push in the button on the outer edge of the stalk to engage 'P' when you stop. The guy who drove it after me couldn't figure out how to put it in 'P.' He kept putting it in reverse. We were all LOL at him. There are buttons on the steering wheel which I presume are for shifting gears, but neither was marked. From what I remember reading, you can only shift up with these buttons; no downshifting. The acceleration was fantastic and the steering response and feel was predictably the best of the barges. But what surprised me the most was how well the car handles. No car this big and heavy has any business carving tight corners the way this one does. The verdict on this car is a mixed bag: I don't like the styling (fcuk you, Bangle!) and I don't like i-Drive, but **** does this car handle and boy is it fast.

Convertibles

Lexus SC430: PiMP. That's the best way to describe it. The exterior styling is smooth and pretty, if a bit feminine (especially the lipstick red car I drove). The interior is sweet, with soft leather and fine wood accents. Seats were the best of any car I drove today. This was also the best put together car of this group. The auto-fold wood panel over the Nav screen was cool and the Mark Levinson sound system was bad-***. Even with the top down and tuned to a radio station, the system sounded fantastic. Enough so to make me do a double-take and crank the volume. The V8 delivered smooth, but thunderous power. Acceleration was good for such a heavy car, but the handling was great. With the traction control off, I could easily step the tail out and snap it back into place just as easily. There was very little understeer and jabbing the throttle mid-corner would readily kick the tail out. The steering feel was expectedly muted, but the weighting and response were excellent. I could totally see my mom rockin' one of these.

Jaguar XK8 Cab: This car is just old and it's really begining to look it. The seat motor in the car I drove was broken, so I couldn't get an ideal driving position. The accelerator pedal was mushy and the interior, while nicely appointed with wood and leather, felt old and musty complimented by the laughably small Nav screen. This car suffered from bad cowl shake and the allignment must have been off since the steering wheel shook when going straight. I need to have a few words with Jeremy Clarkson on the merits of the XK. On the plus side, the V8 felt smooth and delivered good punch, despite being the least powerful of the 'verts. The exhaust note was nice too. The suspension couldn't keep up, though. I was squeeling the tires so badly that one of the coordinators asked me to back off a bit as I was "exceeding the limits of the car." LOL! In the end, this car is just behind the times and way overpriced at $73k.

Cadillac XLR: Lets start with the positives - great muscle-car exhaust note and ample power from the lusty Northstar V8. I also think the front-end styling is very attractive. Now the negatives - everything else. This car was a piece of crap. The drab-slab side and rear styling is terrible. The interior looks and feels cheap, there was a disturbing amount of judder from the brake pedal, way too much cowl shake and vague steering. This car also had the worst understeer of any car I drove today. After sitting in the cockpit, I can't believe that Caddy won an award for interior design for this car. The ergonomics are terrible and the slot for the CD player cut into the center console looks like an afterthought. The fit and finish of the interior trim was acceptable for a $30k car, but Caddy wants you to shell out $75k for the XLR. ROFLMAO! The Lexus is easily twice the car for $10k less. What a joke!

Luxury Performance

Lexus GS430: Big power from the big V8. Steering had good weight, but not much feel. The car handles well, but feels bulky. Again, Lexus has the best build quality around. Very solid car. Just not that exciting.

BMW 545ia: Thunderous power and fierce acceleration. This car has m4d torque, y0! Again, the steering and handling were tops. The V8 made a wonderful snarl and piled on the revs with no fuss. Hit the go-pedal mid-corner and the rear end steps out easily (with DSC off, of course), but the chassis is so composed that I managed to take two consecutive corners countersteering all the way without breaking a sweat. The interior quality was top notch as well, feeling naturally more upscale than the 530ia, but not quite as solid as the Lexus. Great seats too - firm and very supportive. These seats had very aggresive side bolsters that held you snuggly in place. i-Drive is still teh suck, but otherwise this is a fantastic car.

Small Cars

IS300: I drove one of these at a Mercedes event several years ago and was sorely disappointed. It looks like Lexus has done their homework. The current car looks the same on the outside, but the interior has been given a thorough overhall. Power is a bit on the low side, but the engine loves to rev. The auto box was kinda' strange as it wouldn't let you select 1st gear in manual mode while stopped (it kept beeping at me when I pressed the down button in 2nd gear). The steering is the best of the Lexus cars, but still not on par w/ BMW. Handling was pretty good, but not spectacular. The car did feel light on it's feet and responded well to quick steering inputs. For the price, this is a good car.

BMW 330ia: Loads of power, great steering and peerless handling. The steering still feels like it has a layer of sauce between you and the road (especially when compared to my M3) and it's weighted perhaps a bit too heavy, but it's still got the best feedback of any car in it's class.

SUV

BMW X5 4.4i: Powerful engine and angry exhaust note. However, this car doesn't have enough ground clearance to tackle the off-roads. The 4WD system was making grinding/groaning noises as the unloaded wheels left the ground. However, on the road, this SUV is great. Best handling one of the bunch, but the steering was too heavy. The seats were also pretty hard. Feels well put together.

Range Rover HSE: The off-road warrior. Tackled the dirt mountain with ease, but felt almost out of it's element on the road. Ponderous handling and mediocre power. Quality is questionable and, at $72k, way too expensive.

Lexus LX470: A rebadged Toyota Land Cruiser, so the off-road capibilities are a known quantity. This thing is huge and built like a tank. A tank with wood and leather everywhere.

Mercedes ML500: A let down. Good power, but mushy brake pedal and wallowy handling. Traction control light was blinking furiously on the dirt mountain, and the hill descent control was overly aggressive. Don't like it.

BMW X3: Decent road car. Good acceleration, but only average power. Steering felt artificially heavy. Definitely wouldn't take it off-road on anything harsher than loose gravel. Interior was not up to snuff for a BMW, but then the X3 isn't built by BMW. Kind of 'meh' overall.

Lexus RX330: Not a bad piece for what it is. Typical Lexus build quality and solid feel. Interior is nicely appointed, but the center console-mounted shifter is odd. As with the X3, I wouldn't take it off-road. Stick to the highways and Home Depot parking lots with this car.

Cadillac Escalade: I didn't bother driving this POS. It got stuck going up the dirt mountain. What a joke! It looked totally out of it's element without chrome Dub spinners.

All in all, a great event. The food was good and the selection of cars was excellent.
 
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