Posts Tagged ‘Lexus’

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Cruising in a Luxury Liner: The Lexus GS 350

December 9, 2012

13 Lexus GS-350 - side

By Roger Witherspoon

 

 

Peel me a grape, crush me some ice

Skin me a peach, save the fuzz for my pillow

Talk to me nice, talk to me nice

You’ve got to wine me, and dine me

Don’t try to fool me, bejewel me.

Either amuse me, or lose me

I’m getting hungry,

Peel me a grape.

The highway was empty, the road was hard and dry, and the New England sun was setting in a warm, orange cloudscape that seemed out of season on a cold winter night.

My wife leaned forward in the passenger seat, her head cocked at an angle, listening intently. She glanced periodically at the back seat through eyes that were at half mast as she nodded to the beat of the music. She had heard Diana Krall croon “Peel Me a Grape” before. But not like this.

Pop me a cork, French me a fry

Crack me a nut bring a bowl full of bon-bons

Chill me some wine. Keep standing by

Just entertain me. Champagne me

Show me you love me. Kid glove me

Best way to cheer me. Cashmere me

I’m getting hungry.

Peeeeel me.

“I don’t understand,” said Marilyn in a voice barely above a whisper, as if trying not to interrupt a performance. “It sounds like we’re in a live cabaret, and she’s in the back seat. How is that possible?”

“Well,” I whispered back, so as not to break the mood. “It’s an 845-watt sound system, and there are 17 speakers and a sound leveler to balance the music coming to each seat.”

“Aaaah,” she sighed. “That explains it. We don’t have 17 speakers in our whole house.”

At that point,  (  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bfJ_c2tyfQ0    ) the pianist and bassist took off in a tight, syncopated dance of their own – each note, crisp, clear, soft, and the vibrations from the bass could be felt through the thick leather padding in the Lexus’ arm rests. She was so engrossed in the private concert that she didn’t notice the speedometer had crept to 110 – an occupational hazard when driving a musically enhanced living room.  Instead of admonishing me to slow down or commenting on the absence of wind noise inside the sedan, she closed her eyes, sighed and said “play it again.”

And the voice-activated audio system did just that.

Send out for scotch, boil me a crab

Cut me a rose make my tea with the petals

Just hang around, pick up the tab and

Never out think me. Just mink me,

Polar bear rug me. Don’t bug me

New Thunderbird me. You heard me

I’m getting hungry.

Peel me a grape.

Slooooowly

One doesn’t buy a car for the amenities.

But if you are going to shell out more than $60,000 for a sedan, you have a right to expect a lot more than basic, comfortable transportation.   The Lexus GS-350 is a sport sedan aimed squarely at the upscale, market regularly patrolled by the BMW 535i, Mercedes E-350, Cadillac CTS, and Audi A6. It’s a tough crowd with cars justly known for performance and very high levels of comfort. In this case, the high quality sound system is just one of many items Lexus hopes will let the GS stand out in a demanding marketplace.

So far, Lexus’ designers seem to be doing something right. According to surveys of owner satisfaction conducted by J.D. Powers and Associates, Lexus is the highest ranking, high end nameplate in 2012, followed by Jaguar, Porsche, Cadillac and Honda, in that order. That’s a tough crowd to lead, and aside from the price, they have nothing in common.

13 Lexus GS-350 - red front

The look of the GS starts with its split, black, angular grill featuring sharp edges pointing towards the center and flaring widely towards the bottom. It’s an image vaguely reminiscent of ancient Samurai headgear, which flares towards the neck and shoulders. From that aggressive face follows a sleek, flowing silhouette, with soft lines along the sides resembling the tracery of water droplets across a fast-moving plane. The lines aren’t all for subliminal design – they serve to channel the airflow past the car and are part of the reason the interior is a silent theater.

Under that sloping hood is a 3.5-liter V-6 engine capable of cranking out 306 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque. That places the Lexus about in the middle of t the V-6 power plants of the BMW 535i, Mercedes E350, Cadillac CTS, and Audi A6, which put out between 300 and 310 horsepower. And with a top speed of 142 miles per hour, the Lexus is likely to run with, rather than ahead of its competitors.

On the road the Lexus, with all wheel drive, yields nothing to its competitors in terms of performance.  It has a six-speed automatic transmission which shifts without any noticeable or audible lag. And for an extra boost in passing, particularly uphill, there is a sport manual mode and paddle shifts on the steering column providing the type of instant response one finds in a quality sports car.

Where Lexus hopes to make its mark is inside, where the people are. And they gave more than a little thought to that experience, punctuated by a real, analog clock in the 13 Lexus GS-350 - clockcenter of the dash.

The décor is leather and dark, polished wood, accented by brushed aluminum trim and, at night, set off by soft traceries of light. While the exterior design is aggressive, the interior is all soft surfaces and rounded edges.  The armrests, for example, curve outward and resemble padded leather shelves rather than the standard door appendage. This is an all-weather car, and the seats in the front and rear can be heated if it’s cold or the passenger is just sore and seeks a soothing, hot compress. In the summer, the ventilated leather front seats can also be air cooled.  A push of a button also heats the steering wheel. The front seats and the wide sunroof are all power adjustable.

The rear seats have enough legroom for a pair of women basketball players and enough headroom to accommodate any variety of hair styles. There is a push-button sunscreen for the rear windshield, and manually operated screens for each of the rear windows. There are also separate climate controls for the occupants in the back seat.

The centerpiece of the rolling dashboard is a 12.3-inch color screen, which is split into a seven-inch navigation screen and a five-inch section for the active systems in the car, such as the climate and audio. It’s a thoughtful adaptation which is appreciated on trips through strange cities since you do not have to drop the on-screen map in order to adjust the music or temperature. And, for old eyes, it’s extremely easy to see.

There is a backup camera, but the placement is a bit awkward. The camera is near the dual exhaust, and the view is cloudy at night when the exhaust fumes are more pronounced. During the day, however, the view is crystal clear.

13 Lexus GS-350 - interior front

The GS also comes with a number of safety features. The Lexus’ heads-up display, an amenity normally found in GM’s Cadillac and Corvette, provides a hologram that appears on the hood in front of the driver, displaying the speedometer and changes in music or temperature. There is a dynamic cruise control, which adjusts to the speed of the car in front of the Lexus. In addition, there is an infrared camera focused on the driver’s eyes. If the distance between the Lexus and another car is closing too fast, and the driver is not looking forward, the car sounds an alert. If the driver does not respond the Lexus will automatically begin braking, tightening seat belts, and readying air bags 1.2 seconds before the actual collision to lessen its impact.

Lexus’ redesign of the GS sedan was necessary if it is to keep up with an innovative, high performing pack. The GS has a lot going for it. To what extent it can outmuscle the competition remains to be seen.

2013 Lexus GS 350

 

MSRP:                                                                        $63,232

EPA Mileage:                        19 MPG City                          26 MPG Highway

 

Performance / Safety:

 

            0 – 60 MPH                                                    5.8 Seconds

            Top Speed                                                      142 MPH

 

3.5-Liter,  DOHC, direct injection, V-6 aluminum engine producing 306 horsepower and  274 pound-feet of torque; all-wheel drive;  6- speed automatic transmission; electronic manual mode with paddle shifters; independent double wishbone front suspension;  independent multi-link rear suspension; 4-wheel, ventilated disc brakes; stability and traction control; b-xenon headlights with automatic leveling; fog lamps; heads-up display; blind spot monitor; lane departure monitor; 18-inch alloy wheels; driver and front passenger knee bags;  dual front airbags;  side impact  and curtain airbags.

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/XM satellite radio; 17-speaker, 835-watt, Mark Levinson Premium Surround Sound, Bluetooth; iPod, MP3, and USB ports; CD player; voice activated navigation system with 12.3-inch split color screen; backup camera;  heated front and rear seats; leather and wood, heated, tilt and telescoping steering wheel with fingertip audio, Bluetooth and cruise controls;  powered sunroof.

13 Lexus GS-350 - rear

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Irene and the Hybrid Lexus CT

September 10, 2011

By Roger Witherspoon

 

            It was the gray calm after the storm.

The torrential rains from Hurricane Irene’s slamming northern side passed through theLower Hudson Rivervalley in the early morning light, leaving an uneasy calm, a roiling river, and an unpredictable string of roads blocked by downed trees and rampaging streams. The Hudson River swallowed the wide expanse ofPeekskill’sRiversideParkand splashed against the empty Metro North station as if waiting for a train that was never going to come.

Which made it an interesting day for a drive. Normally, in an unpredictable landscape like this, one would like to be behind the wheel of a Jeep orToyota’s go-anywhere FJ Cruiser. But the car of the day was a hybrid hatchback, the Lexus CT200h, which is billed as a luxury compact for all purpose family driving.

     The beginning of the trip was auspicious enough. The Bear Mountain Extension’s narrow causeway across Annsville Creek – one  of the Hudson River’s many, small, nondescript inlets – was half flooded, with the road west towards the Bear Mountain Bridge completely under water. Eastbound, however, on Route 9 looked like a promising trip, since there were only a few meandering streams winding under the road towards theHudson.  But not today.  A mile past Annsville the eastbound lane hosted a large, horizontal, elm, and the westbound roadway had become an uninterrupted set of fast-moving rapids undermining the eastbound roadway. If there had been a shoulder, it was long gone.

I was glad the Lexus hybrid was a compact, and not a big SUV, since there was not a lot of room to turn around on what was left of the two-lane roadway. And it helped that in reverse the sharp, color cameras in the bumper take over and the map in the seven-inch, pop-up, navigation screen on the dash is replaced by a crystal clear view of the road behind the car. In a shopping center, the camera serves the safety function of helping the driver avoid backing over small children. In this case, it let me see where the road ended and the rushing water began.

The compact was not designed to bound over downed tree trunks or large branches, or ford deep, fast moving streams. But its traction and stability controls were sufficient to keep the Lexus moving straight down Route 9, even though the swollen streams were now flowing across the road, covering it with an inch or so of rushing water.

            As a go-anywhere family car, theLexus CT200h is an interesting blend, and the company seems intent on developing a new genre of vehicle – the luxury compact. As a compact car, the CT 200h has a lot to offer in terms of comfort, convenience, and performance and clearly stands out in the tiny car field. But with a price just south of $40,000, it’s going to have to compete with much larger, sportier, more comfortable, cars like the Chrysler 200 or Lexus’ corporate cousin, the Toyota Camry, as well as small, sporty, SUVs like the turbo-charged Nissan Juke.

In terms of styling, the CT 200h is low and sleek, with subtle ridges and lines giving it more character than the typical, low budget compact.  It is about the size of a Honda Civic, but has a stubby hatchback instead of a long sloping one. And though the rear window on both cars contain windshield wipers, the window on the Lexus can’t open. That can be a drawback if you try to haul long cargo which, on the Civic and some other compact vehicles, would stick out the rear window.  But with the rear seats folded down, the Lexus CT is long enough to hold a half dozen, eight-foot stakes that lay across on the arm rest and nestled against the passenger side of the center console.

There isn’t much under the hood, either. The primary power plant is a 1.8-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine and an electric motor which, combined, provide 134 horsepower.  While compact cars are not generally known for power plants, one might expect more of a compact costing nearly $40,000 – which is about what you’d pay for a Lincoln MKZ. That hybrid power plant will take about 10 seconds to propel the CT200 from 0 to 60 miles per hour, which means you need to have a lot of space before trying to cut into traffic. It does offer a shift between a more responsive sport mode, or a more ecologically friendly normal driving mode. The most notable change in sport mode is that the instrument panel lighting changes from blue to red, and  the hybrid power indicator changes into a tachometer.

On the other hand, the Lexus can drive on just the battery power at up to 28 miles an hour, and the hybrid combination gets an EPA estimated 40 miles per gallon of gasoline on the highway, and 43 miles per gallon in city driving. And one doesn’t usually buy a compact if you are looking for a performance car.

    Inside, the Lexus luxury compact has a lot going for it. To begin with, despite being a compact, it is extremely comfortable and roomy, with enough leg room in the rear for the average six-footer. The seats are soft leather, and the front set can be heated. Only the driver’s seat is power operated, however – the front passenger has the limited manual seats.

Its navigation system is especially easy to use, featuring the company’s new “Lexus Enform.”  This is an interactive program which lets you sit at home at your computer, input up to 200 addresses or destinations you want to use, and upload them all to the car’s navigation system. The addresses can be placed into a maximum of 20 individualized folders with titles such as “Favorite Restaurants” or “relatives” or camp sites. The navigation system also ties with the satellite radio to offer XM updated traffic and weather.

The sound system utilizes 10 speakers – more than enough to envelop the small cabin in a blanket of sound. There is a six-disc CD changer, AM/FM and XM satellite radio, as well as connections for flash drives, iPods, and MP3 devices.  The car has a traditional slot in the console to hold a cell phone, or you can use a plug-in, adjustable holder to contain your cell phone or iPod.  The gadget sticks up on the console and takes some getting used to. But it does make the device convenient to see and use, and holds it firmly in place.

Whether Lexus can succeed in creating the luxury compact market, particularly in this economy, will be an interesting experiment. But Lexus put a lot of thought into the CT 200h and, if there is a market for such a category, it will set the standard for competitors.

 

2011 Lexus CT 200h

 

MSRP:                                                                                                 $38,725

EPA Mileage:                        43 MPG City                          40 MPG Highway

 

Performance / Safety:

            0 – 60 MPH                                                    9.8 Seconds

            Top Speed                                                      113 MPH

 

1.8-Liter, in-line, 4-cylinder, DOHC gasoline engine and electric motor, producing 134 horsepower and 105 pound/feet of torque; 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels; 4-wheel independent suspension; 4-wheel, power assisted, front & rear disc brakes; anti-lock brakes; stability and traction controls; front driver and passenger knee airbags; front side impact airbags, side curtain airbags; fog lamps, backup camera; rear windshield wiper.

Interior / Comfort:

AM/FM/XM satellite radio; tilt & telescope leather steering wheel with audio and cruise controls; heated front seats; 7-inch navigation screen; Lexus Enform navigation destination system; Bluetooth; 6-disc CD player; MP3, iPod, and USB connections; Lexus audio with 10 speakers.

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Running on Empty: Toyota and the Disappearing Credibility

February 22, 2010

 

By Roger Witherspoon

            As Jerry Meyers sees it, the senior management of Toyota would love to do the right things for the company, for their customers, and for the regulatory agencies – if only they had a clue as what the right course of action was.

            “What they should do is easy,” said Meyers, the former CEO of American Motors, the Detroit auto company which produced Jeeps and small Rambler sedans, and openly mocked the “gas guzzlers” of the Big Three until it was bought by Chrysler in 1987. “Every crisis management expert will tell you to be transparent. You have to be quick, get the bad news out, get it all out, bury it and move ahead. That’s what every crisis management expert will tell you.

            “But back at the ranch, it’s a lot more difficult than that. It assumes perfect knowledge. It assumes you know what is wrong – or very close to it – and you know what to do about it and you can, in fact, get it done.  None of that is ever assured or, in the real world, are clear and crisp and easy for management to get their arms around. But they have evidently run into something that is so puzzling that they don’t quite know what is wrong, and they don’t know quite what to do, and they don’t know if they can do it even if they did know what needed to be done.”

            Finding the right path will be difficult for Toyota which is being tugged in several directions. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) yesterday launched its fifth, separate, simultaneous investigation into possible procedural, technical, and criminal violations by the giant car company in its handling of four different problems throughout the Toyota fleet.  The latest investigation is into the manner in which Toyota handled complaints that the power steering failed in some 2009 – 2010 Matrix and Corolla models.

            The investigation launched Thursday came two days after NHTSA announced it is seeking documents from Toyota to determine when the company learned of problems with accelerator pedals that either stuck in one position, preventing the car from slowing down, or inexplicably increased accelerated. Under federal law, companies selling cars in this country have to notify NHTSA within five days of discovering a safety defect, and then launch a recall. Failure to do so could result in fines of up to $16.4 million, the maximum permitted under the statute. The probe looks into the timelines involved in three Toyota recalls of some 8 million vehicles and the production line shut down of several models affected by accelerator, steering, and brake problems.

            The defect investigation, said a NHTSA spokeswoman, is conducted in two parts: a preliminary evaluation and an engineering analysis. The four month evaluation determines if Toyota properly looked into and categorized consumer complaints. If the evaluation finds there may be a safety issue, the inquiry moves into the engineering phase in which NHTSA conducts its own engineering tests to determine the scope of the problem and its danger to the motoring public.

            This is a departure from the agency’s past relations with the Japanese automaker. Previous investigations have relied on Toyota’s assertion that acceleration problems result from mechanical issues, primarily sticking pedals and shifting floor mats.

            It is also an unusual microscope for a company which has the fourth least number of complaints – after the Smart ForTwo, Mercedes, and Audi –out of the 40,000 filed monthly with the federal transportation agency

            In addition, at least three congressional committees have announced they will hold hearings into Toyota’s actions in handling the various technical problems, and the oversight provided by NHTSA. The regulatory agency has come under the Congressional microscope because during the Bush administration, safety complaints about Toyotas were essentially left to the company to resolve.

            But a company can only resolve issues if it really knows what it is doing and is open to the possibility that its core engineering expertise might be flawed.

            “They built a public perception of a firm that paid great attention to detail, very high quality, and very customer conscious,” said Meyers, now a professor of management and organization in the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. “That’s all crumbling down now.

            “They are fast building a reputation over the last 90 days of being slow, inept, opaque, and insensitive. That’s a reputation they built in 90 days, which is overcoming, for the moment, the reputation of the last 30 years.”

          Meyers, as a former auto industry CEO, has more than a little sympathy with his counterpart at Toyota since the company, in his view, makes great cars.  “I drive a Lexus ES 350,” said Meyres, a lanky six footer. “It’s the finest car ever made.”

            From Toyota’s perspective, the current spate of problems are not systemic – they just happen to be coming to a head all at once. John Hanson, Toyota’s national manager for environmental safety and quality communications, the pedal problems forcing the first two recalls were separate matters.

            “We are in a climate where the term unwanted acceleration is very broad, with the media reports about all manner of situations where vehicles are out of control,” Hanson stated.

            The pedal entrapment by the loose floor mats “did involve high speed injuries and death,” he said. That was different from the sticking pedals, he said, “though they are often, unfortunately melded together. Both recalls involve the accelerator pedal, but for different reasons and with different results.”

            Toyota is even more frustrated with its latest recall of Prius models with brakes that appear to temporarily fail when the car hits a pothole or goes over a rough stretch of road.

            In reality, said Hanson, the anti-lock braking system and its accompanying, electronic stability and traction control system “is functioning as it was designed, but appears it is more aggressive than previous generations with regards to predicting the pending loss of traction.”

            In essence, Toyota has designed a braking system whose computer brain can decide to overrule the driver and refuse to apply brakes as ordered when the driver hits the brake pedal. That does not, he said, mean the car has a loss of brake control. But the control is in the silicon network of the computer chip, not the foot of the motorist.

            “The new 2010 has the ability to look further ahead when it compares what your foot is telling the pedal to do and what it senses between the road and the tires,” Hanson explained. “The computer makes a decision early in the cycle as to what is best when the tire goes over a bumpy road or pot hole and is unweighted.

            “The computer compares that with what the driver would do – such as tap the brakes – and is saying ‘I don’t think I want to give it that much brake pressure because if I do I will lose traction’. So it ignores the brake instruction and maintains control as it deems best. That scares people because they don’t know what it is doing.”

            The electronic brain in the car, which can overrule the living one behind the wheel, is part of an ongoing effort to develop smart cars approaching the nearly-human Audi ferrying Will Smith in the science fiction movie “I Robot.” Toyota already has systems with dashboard cameras trained on the driver’s pupils that sound alarms if the computer feels the driver is drifting off to sleep. Its high end Lexus sedan will already park itself, and the cars warn drivers when they are veering out of their lane – a useful feature during rainstorms at night when dotted lines are difficult to see.

            To the company, then, engineered safety systems are not a threat, even if they can make motorists uncomfortable.

            But confidence in its engineering prowess hurts Toyota when changes are made and motorists are not alerted. The latest recall, involving the steering in the Matrix and popular Corolla compact sedan, was deemed significant enough that Toyota altered the system on new cars being produced – but did not alert existing owners to a potential problem. But that is part of the insular atmosphere at Toyota and over confidence in their technological ability.

            “From their point of view,” said Jeff Liker, Professor of industrial and operations engineering at the University of Michigan, “if they determine that a problem is not a safety issue, but it’s a drivability or customer satisfaction issue, then they are not under any obligation to tell the public.

            “Part of the disagreement between people on the outside who are now critics of Toyota, and people on the inside who are engineers is that the people on the outside think there are safety issues and the people inside Toyota do not.”

            Liker, who has studied Toyota for the past 25 years and is the author of “Toyota Culture: the Heart and Soul of the Toyota Way”, said once the firm’s engineers determine a problem is not a safety issue, the company will make a “running change” at the factory but see no need to go public and mention the complaints or the remedy. Toyota is not alone in that regard.

            “The Ford Fusion Hybrid had a brake hesitation problem,” said Liker, “and they did not recall the vehicle. They put out a technical service bulletin and told the dealers that if somebody comes in with a complaint, this is what you should do.

            “The only reason Toyota had a recall was because of all the political pressure. They are under a microscope and everything looks negative. And NHTSA is under pressure because they are accused of being too soft on Toyota.”

            With Toyota, the public perception is that their judgment is faulty when it comes to deciding what is or is not a safety issue. “In the case where somebody clearly crashed and clearly it is because of the vehicle, that is a clear cut safety issue,” said Liker. “But there was a GM study covering a 10 year period which found that in 98% of the cases where there is an accelerator accident it is because of driver error. People think they have a foot on the brake when they actually have it on the accelerator.”

            Still, Toyota could have avoided the crisis if it assumed the worst and acted on the possibility that its engineering systems were faulty, rather than insist that the accident victims were to blame. And that is where their public image crashed.

            Toyota was caught, said Liker, between insisting that the problems lay with mechanical systems or inattentive drivers, or stating that they sold unsafe cars. “At that point, it was a no-win situation for them.”

             Meyers, who headed American Motors when its flagship Ambassador sedans had runaway accelerators triggered by faulty cruise commands, said Toyota’s public image will continue to be battered until their multiple technical problems are solved.

            “They can’t figure it out,” said Meyers. “The only thing they should be doing is getting at the root cause of the sudden acceleration and nail it. Once it’s nailed, do a fix, then tell the world that you found it, we are going to fix it immediately and irrevocably, and resources are incidental. They are probably digging like crazy to find it.”

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Toyota and the Runaway Technology

February 1, 2010
 

 

 

Running Into Trouble?

By Roger Witherspoon

            The sun was high, the road was dry, and I was cruising at 75 miles per hour on I-94 and slowly gaining on the car ahead of me. I tapped on the brake pedal to cut off the cruise command and slow the car. But it did not slow down.

            Instead, the accelerator pedal suddenly went to the floor, as if jumped on by an invisible foot, and the sedan leaped forward.  Startled, I tapped the brake several times to turn off the cruise command, but to no avail. I then mashed the brake pedal to the floor. This slowed it only a little, as the two pedals and their electronic control systems dueled, the engine raced, the brakes smoked, and the car continued to accelerate.

            I shifted the car into neutral gear and then turned the ignition key to “off,” and the car began slowing down. It was a dead stick without power steering, but I was already in the left lane and the Interstate highway had a broad shoulder and grassy center median. I cruised off the highway and, after coming to a full stop on the grass, again turned on the ignition. The cruise command, at this point, was disengaged and I resumed the trip – using my own feet to control the pedals.

            That car wasn’t built by Toyota. It was an Ambassador, the top of the line of the sedans built in the 70s by American Motors, then the fourth Detroit auto company and now just another member of the automakers’ graveyard. The problem lay in the intricacies of the early days of the introduction of electronics to vehicular systems. Laptops hadn’t been invented then, and programmable systems were novelties, prone to failure. While advances in technology promised a lot for the future of the car industry, this early glitch showed the pitfalls of putting a computer chip in charge of a two ton, fast moving machine.

            American Motors eventually had to recall cars with what were then the advanced cruise command systems and modify them. The electronic comfort systems known as cruise command continued to improve and, over the decades, more and more technology was added to vehicles.

            Which brings us to the unprecedented recall of several models of Toyotas and Lexus vehicles and the halt in production of eight Toyota models world wide. Trouble has been reported when some models of Toyotas have suddenly accelerated, jumping out of control and running full speed into accidents – some of them fatal.

             But unlike American Motors, which immediately looked at the technology involved, Toyota, with a reputation for quality on the line, is blaming the problem with unprovoked acceleration on a “sticking” or “slow return” accelerator pedal produced by the Indiana firm of CTS Corp. When the driver’s foot rises off the accelerator pedal, the company says the pedal – in a few cases – either does not rise completely or does not rise at all. Toyota first recalled the floor mats in some models, and then issued the current recall, still focusing solely on the pedal.

            Company spokesman Brian Lyons said “this is a mechanical wear issue internal to the accelerator pedal itself.  We never found anything wrong with the electronic system.”

            While that is reassuring, the company’s explanation is technologically implausible. People have died because the cars inexplicably accelerate. If the pedal stays put, or rises only part way, there is a change in the rate of deceleration – but the car does not speed up. Toyota, therefore, seems determined to pursue a solution to the wrong problem, substituting a target that may be a nuisance for a different target that may be demonstrably fatal.

            CTS Corp, in a statement posted on its website www.CTScorp.com , stated “the rare slow return pedal phenomenon, which may occur in extreme environmental conditions, should absolutely not be linked with any sudden unintended acceleration incidents.”

            The issue is more than one of dueling press releases.

            Cars today are increasingly two ton, mobile, electronic platforms with a plethora of items for both convenience and safety.  The cruise commands on today’s Toyota and Lexus vehicles can send out radar reads of cars in front and in adjacent lanes, maintaining a steady distance between the vehicles. Other technology can alert the driver when the car is drifting across lane lines – an especially useful tool on dark rainy nights when the lines are all but obscured – or sense a collision and begin slowing the car and tightening the seat belts. Command systems in the cars’ computers interact with each wheel and brake system thousands of times per minute, monitoring each revolution to detect skids or other road-induced problems and selectively applying either brakes or more power as needed to keep the car going forward.

            And all of these critical safety systems are working in a small metal environment replete with audio, broadcast, music, Bluetooth, lights, and other electronic systems. That is an intense electronic field: Consider the static that typically erupts from home radios whenever a blender or vacuum cleaner is turned on.

            With interlocking control systems like these it is not surprising that a system may, on a rare occasion, encounter a problem. The marvel is that with so much control vested in so many potentially interfering electronic systems that the safety-related systems rarely break down. It is a testament to modern engineering that cars containing more computerized systems than the Apollo moon landing craft work so smoothly that they are considered standard features in the average car or truck.

            And therein lies the danger for Toyota and Lexus. If the company rushes to defend its internal engineering and lay the blame for its problems on external mechanical systems, it runs the risk of prematurely declaring “mission accomplished” and ignoring a potentially fatal problem that will not go away.

            That would not bode well for either the company’s reputation for quality and responsiveness, or for the owners of future runaway Toyotas.

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Rolling With the Leisure Class

November 20, 2009

            By Roger Witherspoon

 

            It was late, storming, and the lightning produced an effect like hyperactive strobe lights on a disco dance floor, alternating between too bright to see and too dark for your eyes to adjust. The single lane road climbing in a series of S-curves some 400 feet from the floor of the Hudson River Valley was awash with overflowing streams and rain slashing down at two inches per hour.

            Not that it mattered. Inside the Lexus RX 350, there was little to disturb the soft sounds of Miles Davis flowing from the car’s dozen speakers. Even the intermittent cannonade of thunder could not penetrate the heavily insulated windows.

            If I could have avoided the storm, I would have preferred to. When I started the car, the soft voice form the navigation system said “storm warnings in your area,” and a Doppler map was superimposed on the street map, showing both my preferred route home and the areas encompassed by the storm. There was no way around it, since I needed to take the Bear Mountain Bridge just a few miles south of West Point. But if I had had time for a really wide detour, a simple voice command would have found a scenic, dry route home.

            It is not quite like the image portrayed in the Lexus commercials, where at the touch of a button, traffic, buildings, and bad weather magically lift off of the ground and move out of the way. But sometimes, in the RX, it feels that way.

            It is difficult to find a more complete or satisfying crossover SUV under $50,000 without jumping into the $60,000+ class of the Porsche Cayenne or Infiniti FX. There is little that you can imagine you would want in a car-based, mid-sized SUV or well appointed sedan which you can’t find in the RX 350. And the electronic system which makes it all work is intuitive, easy to use, and comprehensive. It does not break new ground in exterior design the way, for example, a Ford Flex does. But in the category of crossover SUVs, it is sleek, externally eye catching, and has an interior attention to detail which makes it spacious, comfortable, and appealing.

            Under the hood is a 275 horsepower V-6 engine which isn’t intended for drag racing, but can push the RX into triple digits – which is faster than most SUV drivers care to go. More importantly the RX, with traction and stability control, and all wheel drive, feels and handles like a sedan rather than a top heavy SUV. As a result, you don’t hold your breath on highway curves while praying the car won’t roll over.

            Inside, what’s not to like about the RX?

            Electronically, the innovations are small, but notable. The command center utilizes a thumb-operated joystick, a feature which can usually be cumbersome and annoying while driving. But this one sits at the end of an ergonomically designed hand rest – which, in itself, is a bonus on long or short trips – and the “Enter” buttons are on the sides, where the thumb and small fingers naturally drape. As a result, operating the command system – for setting the navigation, the phone, climate controls or audio – becomes virtually an automatic function instead of  a distraction to overcome.

            The 8-inch video screen is recessed deep into the dash, so it is more in line with the driver’s vision than one which is further forward, as is usually the case. This makes it easier to see without diverting your gaze from the front of the road.

            There is a drawback. The feature seen regularly in the commercial, in which the navigation system helps the driver avoid traffic and other problems, is only partially effective while the car is in motion. The pleasant woman robot will tell you that there are serious storm warnings in the area, and the map gives you an option of ignoring it or putting it up on the regional map so you can, perhaps, plot a route around it. But if you choose to view the Doppler radar, the system tells you it can’t show it while you are moving. That is more annoying than useful if you are on a highway or on a potentially disrupted commute and pulling off the road is not practical. There are some functions in the imposed safety system which the designers should let the driver override.

            But that is a minor complaint.

            For entertainment, the system allows a lot. The in-dash system music loads six CD’s into a 12-speaker surround sound system and, at the touch of a button, you can record the entire CD or preferred cuts from it. The center console’s arm rest, which can slide forward for comfort, hides a three level storage bin. The small top cup can hold not much more than a cell phone or electronic toll pass. But the main, removable storage box, which is about nine inches deep, is large enough to hold CDs, purses and other items.  But if you lift that box out, there are two 12-volt power outlets for electronic chargers, as well as USB and iPod ports. These are next to a discreet, built-in niche which allows external access to the wiring.

            There is also XM satellite radio, as well as the standard AM/FM. The seats are soft, ventilated leather, and can be either heated or air cooled, depending on the season. The front seats are powered and adjustable. The rear seats can manually recline or, with the push of a button, fold flat to expand the large cargo area. The rear seats have enough head and leg room for the average professional basketball player.

            The interior décor has two tone leather and real wood accents, something you don’t always find on vehicles with a price tag under $50,000.

            There are the two center cup holders in the console, but there is also one to the left of the steering wheel. The leather-wrapped steering wheel, which has fingertip controls for the phone, information center, entertainment center, and adaptive cruise command, tilts and telescopes, and automatically retracts when the engine is turned off.

            The RX won’t move mountains out of your way. But if you’re driving an RX on the long route around or through the mountains, you really don’t mind.

 

2010 Lexus RX 350

 

MSRP:                                                                       $48,061

EPA Mileage:                        18 MPG City                          24 MPG Highway

Towing Capacity:                                                       3,500 Pounds

Top Speed:                                                                 112 MPH

 

Performance/ Safety:

 

3.5-Liter aluminum DOHC V-6 engine producing 275 horsepower and 257 pound-feet of torque; 6-speed automatic transmission; all wheel drive; 4-wheel, power assisted, ventilated front & solid rear disc brakes; 4-wheel anti-lock brake system;  stability and traction controls; backup camera; 19-inch sport-finish alloy wheels; sport tuned suspension; bi-xenon adaptive headlights; intelligent high beams; dual front airbags; knee airbags; rear side curtain airbags.

Interior/ Comfort:

 

AM/FM XM satellite radio; 12-speak audio system; 6-disc, in-dash CD player; MP3, iPod, and USB port connections; navigation system with XM weather and traffic and 8-inch LCD screen; Bluetooth cell phone connection; voice activation for phone, navigation, and entertainment; tilt & telescope, leather steering wheel with fingertip entertainment, cruise, and phone controls; power moonroof; power, heated or cooled, front seats; folding or reclining rear seats; dual climate controls with rear vents; wood interior trim; roof rails.

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