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Safety as a luxury item

Marketplace Staff Apr 23, 2007

Safety as a luxury item

Marketplace Staff Apr 23, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: You know how you always hear retailers blame the weather for poor sales? Here’s Detroit’s variation on that theme Today General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz said car sales have been hurt this month by the subprime mortgage crisis. Lutz said he doesn’t know exactly how bad the numbers will be. Carmakers report April sales a week from tomorrow.

Lexus, meanwhile, unveiled its new flagship luxury sedan today. It’s not a car for everyone. Not with a six-figure sticker price. But there’s a reason all drivers should be interested in what it’s got under the hood. Marketplace’s Brett Neely reports.

BRETT NEELY: The car is called the LS 600 hL. Fortunately, that’s not the sexiest thing about it. Inside, there’s luxury to spare.

BRIAN BOLAINE: We’ve covered the entire dashboard in this car with a hand-stitched leather so that basically the occupants are really surrounded in luxury.

Brian Bolaine is a marketing manager for Lexus. He points out the car has an automatic parallel parking system.

Impressive. So is the price: $104,000. That’s before taxes, fees and a pair of fuzzy dice on the rearview mirror.

If you’ve got more cash to burn, try the executive option. It’s got a reclining seat with footrest in the back. And, as Brian Bolaine explains, a built-in Shiatsu massager.

BOLAINE: It’s almost like the level of a private jet, or maybe even better than a private jet in some cases.

Feeling guilty about all that pampering? Then wrap yourself in a virtuous cloak of green. The 600 is a gas-electric hybrid vehicle. Hello carpool lane. It may also be one of the safest cars on the road.

CAR ENGINEER: Hey Jeff, are we clear to come through?

Some friendly engineers from Lexus took me out for a spin to demonstrate.

[SOUND: Beeping, airbag]

Just before we crashed into that wall of cardboard boxes, an alarm went off.

The on-board radar and a bevy of cameras lets you know if you’re getting too close to obstacles. The seatbelts automatically tighten, to put you in a crash-ready position. The brakes and steering get supercharged, so the driver can turn harder and brake faster.

This Lexus is part of a growing fleet of luxury cars with highly advanced safety features on-board.

Paul Eisenstein’s a longtime car critic and publisher of TheCarConnection.com

PAUL EISENSTEIN: All the systems on the car, from your brakes to your engine to your transmission, even your shock absorbers, are all talking together and responding collectively in the event of an accident, or a possible accident.

There’s a high-tech arms race in the luxury car world to build the safest vehicle on the road — for those with big bucks to spend.

Some new Mercedes models have systems that close windows and sunroofs before an accident. If your new Infiniti drifts out of its lane, the system gives you an audible warning. Future models will steer you back into your lane.

So why did safety suddenly get so big for luxury car makers?

Dave Alexander is a senior analyst for ABI Research.

DAVE ALEXANDER: There’s not a lot that distinguishes performance. Safety is something else they can use to differentiate themselves.

But competition amongst carmakers for well-heeled drivers has a trickle down effect on the rest of us. For example, features like antilock brakes were an expensive option 20 years ago. Now, they’re practically standard.

Don’t be surprised if history repeats itself, says car critic Paul Eisenstein.

EISENSTEIN: The rate of migration, from top-end products down to the bottom is happening quicker and quicker. So even Hyundai and Kia, the companies you generally think of as sort of the bottom of the automotive spectrum, are now heavily pitching all their safety hardware.

No one really knows when crash detection and other advanced safety technologies might become standard on mere midrange vehicles.

So for now, your choice is this: Buy a regular car — and most of ’em are pretty safe these days . . .

[SOUND: A car skidding]

. . . or if you’re the cautious type, put off by high speed and hairpin turns, and you’re rich enough, you could always spend $100,000 on something luxurious and safe. Like the Lexus LS 600 hL.

I’m Brett Neely for Marketplace.
The backseat of the Lexus LS 600h, showing footrest and TV. (Photos courtesy of Lexus)

A cooler for keeping drinks chilled.

A camera and electronic device to make parallel parking automatic.

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