The Lexus LS has always been the "value alternative" to pricey mid-sized (and even full-sized) German luxury sedans. For thousands -- sometimes, tens of thousands -- less than BMW and Mercedes were charging for minimally equipped, sometimes six-cylinder versions of their E-Class and 5-Series sedans, you'd get things like a standard V-8 engine -- along with equivalent amenities, better reliability -- and Blue Chip re-sale value. A two or three-year-old Lexus LS400 or LS430 would still be worth 80 percent of what you paid for it new -- while Benzes and Beemers had (and still have have) an unfortunate tendency to depreciate faster than an overpriced McMansion in a flat-lined real estate market.

But as good a value -- and a car -- as the original LS has always been, it couldn't compete on equal terms with the next-step-up BMWs and Benzes, the 7-Series and S-Class.

Hence the 2007 LS460.

It's new from the lug nuts up -- and BMW and Benz (and Jaguar and Audi, too) have a new competitor to fret. In fact, the LS is pretty much the first uber-premium Japanese luxury sedan to hit the market. And unlike VW (and the belly-flopped Phaeton), Lexus is already an estblished player in the segment. Getting people to look at this new LS won't be problem. Convincing them to buy won't be a tough sell, either.

The standard-length LS460 starts out at $61,000 -- a price jump of about $5k over the outgoing '06 LS430. But that's still well under the $85,750 base price of the Mercedes-Benz S550 and the $75,800 ticket on a new BMW 750i.

All three cars are roughly equal, engine-wise -- with a 380 horsepower 4.6 liter V-8 powering the Lexus, a 382 horsepower 5.5 liter V-8 in the Benz and a 360 horsepower 4.8 liter V-8 in the BMW. But the Lexus ups the ante with an industry-first eight-speed automatic transmission (the S550 has a 7-speed; the BMW a six-speed), and offers some technologically astounding gadgetry, including a "self-park" system that eases the car into tight spots for you, automatically and precisely.

Admittedly, the S550 is still slightly larger than the LS460 -- if size is an issue for you. But you can always upgrade to the long-wheelbase LS460L, which gets you to within an inch or two of the big Benz, length-wise and otherwise -- for $71,000. That still leaves you with nearly $15,000 for gas money -- or a new Honda Civic for your kid. True, a long-wheelbase BMW 750Li is a bit more reasonable at $78,900 -- but that's still almost eight grand more than the long-wheelbase Lexus. And though the 750Li's a bit longer overall (203.9 inches vs. 202.8 inches for the LS460L) both cars have about the same leg room for both front and rear seat occupants.

And more importantly: The Lexus has 20 more horses under the hood. It's also the "newer" car -- even if both are '07 models. The current 7-Series is the same car as last year's and has been on the market for about three years now in the same basic form. So it's basically a carryover. And getting dated. Its age shows in several areas, from its no-longer-special six-speed automatic (some SUVs and trucks now have them) to its still-clumsy iDrive mouse-style interface -- which BMW has Band-Aided to an extent, but which is still a fundamentally flawed design that's both awkward and difficult to use.

As for the Benz, it's almost as "new" as the Lexus, design-wise -- and it's also a technological marvel -- in addition to being an impressive machine that clearly identifies its owner as extremely well-padded. But as much as you might feel like Ben Affleck (or a successful orthodontist) it's hard to overlook that $15k price gap -- unless you simply have money to burn. And despite the stereotype, affluent people are usually smart with money.

It's one thing to buy something expensive. Quite another to buy something that's needlessly expensive.

To put a finer point on it, you could order an LS460 equipped with almost every major option on the menu -- 19-speaker Mark Levinson ultra-premium audio system with hard drive music storage (holds up to 2,000 songs) voice activated GPS with real-time traffic updates, DVD player, the Advanced Parking system that parallel parks the car for you, rearview back-up camera, heated and cooled seats for both front and rear occupants, heated steering wheel, power rear sunshade, Lexus Pre-collision system with Dynamic Radar Cruise Control -- and (take a breath) still be out the door for not much over $70,000. My LS460 test car came optioned out with, literally, just about everything there is -- including all the stuff listed above plus Intuitive Parking Assist, power trunk and door closers and Lexus Link digital transmitter. The sticker still didn't quite crest $73k.

Add similar equipment to the S550 or BMW 7 -- if it's even available -- and you will leave the store a whole lot lighter.

Even if you upgrade to the long-wheelbase LS460l -- fitted out with reclining power rear seats with built in massagers (in addition to bun warmers and coolers), plus a beverage cooler -- you're still going to come out ahead.

Yes, it's more expensive than the old LS430. But the deal's still pretty damn good.

Every LS comes with auto climate control, 18-inch wheels, auto-leveling headlamps HID headlights, rain-sensing wipers, folding (and heated) outside mirrors, automatic/electronic parking brake, electroluminescent gauges, keyless entry and remote start, sunroof, perforated leather seats and wood-trimmed interior -- everything you'd expect to find in a car of this stature. The standard safety/electronics package is impressive, too -- and includes knee driver and front seat passenger knee air bags, curtain air bags, Electronic Controlled Braking and an integrated traction/stability control system that renders wrecking this car almost an act of willful defiance.

The 4.6 liter V8 offers almost 100 horsepower more than the 4.3 liter V-8 used in the previous LS430 -- and amazingly, returns slightly better gas mileage (19 city/27 highway). Part of the credit for that has to be given to the new eight-speed automatic transmission, which improves efficiency by cutting down engine revs -- while still allowing for impressively fierce 0-60 runs in the 5.5 second range. That's quick enough to smoke most sports cars. And because there is less drop in engine RPM between upshifts due to the tighter gear spacing, even all-out, pedal to the metal takeoff rolls are deceptively non-violent. But all of a sudden you're doing 80-plus -- and it doesn't even feel like 60. Such a shame that a car born to cruise effortless at 130 for hours is so over-built for U.S. highways, where even 85 mph can land you in the clink with a "reckless driving" beef around your neck.

The styling of the car is another high point -- at least, from the point-of-view of good taste. It's clearly an expensive car -- but it's not a garish or flashy one in the way the current S-Class is. Calvin Klein vs. P. Diddy. Nice touches include twin exhaust cutouts molded into the lower part of the rear bumper, fastback rear glass and door cutouts that look hewn by laser from a solid 4,000 lb. ingot of metal.

Inside, beyond the generous head and leg room, you'll find thoughtful touches such as heater/AC vents for the back-seat passengers built into the B-pillars, in addition to the back of the center console -- plus dual vanity mirrors with lights and (if the car is so equipped) those power-recliners for the back seats, providing Business Class snoozing accommodations.

Also -- and unlike the over-teched BMW and hyper-complex Benz, the controls for the LS460's audio, GPS and other main systems are straightforward -- no manual (or degree in Microsoft CE) required. You can literally sit down, start the engine -- and go. You won't spend hours with the owner's manual trying to figure out how things work -- or fighting the urge to put your fist through the dashboard because the blankety-blank car won't let you change radio stations or adjust the climate control the way you want to.

This is a super nice car -- as the Lexus LS series has always been. Just better. And even more of a threat to the established Old Boys.

Lexus plays for keeps. This time's no exception.

END