Right off the bat, let me admit that there are occasionally review opportunities that I’m predisposed to be a fan of. As a food, drink, travel and tech writer, I often receive invitations to sample items and experiences that I know going in will probably be pretty bad-ass, or pretty bad.
The chance to visit Blackberry Farm in Walland, TN and drive a bunch of Lexus LUVs (Luxury Utility Vehicles) definitely fell into the former category when I heard about it.
My eagerness to participate came from the fact that I am already a big supporter of both entities involved. I was fortunate enough to visit Blackberry Farm a few of years back to write a profile on their chef at the time, Joseph Lenn. Even though I was just a hired hand sent by a magazine to take up a big chunk of their major culinary employee’s time for the interviews and photo shoots, the staff at Blackberry treated me with the same sort of commitment to complete customer satisfaction that they have been known for since coming under current family ownership in 1976.
And it made sense to link Blackberry Farm with Lexus, an automotive brand associated with luxury, performance, and service. Add to that the fact that my girlfriend is now on her second Lexus hybrid SUV in a row, and you can see why I was looking forward to the trip. However, despite my curiosity over what the main selling point of the media event would be or what the focus of the resort visit would revolve around, our small group of journalists was confronted with something that is sometimes rare in these kinds of events, total honesty, and hospitality.
When I inquired about “why here?” and “why now?” for the junket, a helpful and amiable Lexus representative responded, “We just think that this is how people should take vacations,” as he tossed me the keys to and $80K car and handed me a map of a scenic driving route that would allow me to test out some of the performance capabilities of the vehicle. Don’t mind if I do…
Ostensibly, part of our agenda was to experience Lexus’ Enform vehicle information system. In addition to providing peace of mind through features like Stolen Vehicle Location, Emergency Assistance Button, Enhanced Roadside Assistance and Automatic Collision Notification, Enform has been expanded to include some app-based features such as Remote Engine Start/Stop, Key Lock, Vehicle Finder, Guest Driver Monitor, Vehicle Status and Alerts. Unfortunately, the system relies on the driver’s internet connectivity through a paired device to take advantage of most of the features, and Walland, TN is (delightfully) in the middle of nowhere, so service was spotty at best.
On the good side, as a Lexus driver IRL, I already had experience using the system, I was surprised by a few new apps available as part of the Lexus Enform App Suite. Now you can access apps like Pandora, Yelp, Slacker, iHeart Radio, Movie Tickets.com, Open Table and Facebook Places without having to look down at your phone. I guess I can see the value in being able to easily check in on Facebook if you’re into that sort of thing, and the chance to plan dinner and a movie (hopefully) from the passenger seat could be appealing. It is a pretty pricey optional service at almost $350/year for access to all the services, but you can’t put a price on safety. Or maybe you can; right around $350. (Plus the first year is free courtesy of Lexus!)
Rather than take you through all of the tech of all six vehicles I tested, I’ll concentrate on two aspects: the sound and the user experience. First, the sound system. Lexus has partnered with Mark Levinson Audio, a manufacturer of the highest of high-end home audiophile sound gear that is known for being among the best in the business with home systems running more than a quarter million dollars for a complete package. Actor/musician Jamie Foxx reputedly purchased a Lexus specifically because it had the Levinson system and because he loved the sound from his home set up.
Indeed the sound in every vehicle we tested was outstanding, with true fidelity at volume levels from lowest to high. The huge LX 570 actually was equipped with two hi-definition screens for the back seats plus another wide-screen on the front dashboard that displayed driver data and the tech interface when the vehicle was in use, but which could mirror the other two screens to play DVDs when the vehicle is turned off. Combined with the 19 speaker Mark Levinson system, the concept of actually driving to a drive-in theater would be dead to me if I owned one of these. I’d just watch movies in my driveway.
The fidelity represents .1% total harmonic distortion, owing to the fact that each system is designed around the particular architecture of the individual model of vehicle. The use of 7.1 channel architecture provides a true surround sound experience in the cabin area, which I imagine could be pretty disconcerting if you were watching “Jurassic Park” and heard a raptor coming up from behind you in the third seat.
While music at volume was certainly impressive and a great way to go rockin’ down the highway, I was more taken with the fidelity at low levels. It’s not like these Lexuses (Lexi?) have a ton of road noise that needs to be muffled by a subwoofer and concert hall-quality cones, but the Mark Levinson system is more than up to the task at any volume choice.
Now about those user interfaces. Perhaps I was more of a fan of the puck-like stubby joystick controller that was a feature in the larger models like the LX570, GX460, RX450h and RX350 because that’s what I was already used to, but I vastly preferred it over the touchpad option that is part of the center console of the crossover NX200t and NX300h models that we drove. I drive an old Camry hybrid, (which I surprised they even allowed me to park in the same lot with all these beautiful LUVs) so I have learned my way around the Toyota touchscreen system for a decade, but I find the combination of the joystick with trigger buttons on both sides to be quite easy to use, especially after a little practice. This makes keeping your eye on the road and off the screens much easier.
However, the trackpad in the smaller models pretty much baffled me. Even when I was testing it from the passenger seat as another journo took the wheel, I could never seem to get the cursor to go where I wanted, and after a while I just stopped trying. When I spoke to a Lexus rep about this he said that perhaps the haptic feedback was set a little too low. When I drove the vehicle again, I paid more attention to the bumps and buzzes that the pad was feeding back to me, and I got a little bit more comfortable with the setup. However, on the whole, it was frustrating enough to be a deal-killer for me with regard to the UI in those two particular models. Your mileage may vary.
But those other cars, lawdy I could get used to driving any of them. Despite the fact that it felt as big as a bread truck to drive on windy mountain roads, the LX570 took them like a champ, surprisingly nimble and helpfully chirping and vibrating the steering wheel whenever my driving companion might sneak a little bit across the lane divide since he was so uncomfortable driving such a big beast. He was from New York City, a place that terrifies me to even drive in, so I cut him some slack. I grew up driving a ‘69 Mercury Marquis, so big cars don’t scare me.
opinion, just right. Thanks to 301 hp provided by a 4.6 liter V8, it had plenty of zip off the line and still maintained the torque to perform at higher speeds. Even on the curvy mountain track, it held its line well and hugged the road through tight turns. It was a true delight to be behind the wheel of the GX460. I don’t need a vehicle that has three rows of seats and can transport seven passengers because I don’t have that many friends. Just kidding. I do have that many friends, but I don’t want to ferry their butts around everywhere.
So I guess it’s not that big of a surprise that the vehicle I liked best was the newest version of the LUV we already drive in my family, the RX450h. The hybrid drivetrain contributes extra acceleration and torque from the start, but once you reach cruising speed it all settles into a smooth a quiet ride. Plus it gets somewhere around 30 mpg according to Lexus’ claims, and my experience driving it over the weekend was closer to 33 mpg despite some pretty aggressive driving (sorry, Lexus) and the hilly terrain.
If I didn’t care quite as much about the environment I might opt for the 450h’s sister vehicle, the RX350. It was even punchier on the road with almost 300 hp, and the 8-speed Automatic Electronically Controlled Transmission ran through the gears at just the right pace to keep up the feeling of being kicked gently in the pants while driving.
therefore not inexpensive. But quality and performance come with those prices along with some extra little perks of ownership. Blackberry Farm is part of the Lexus Hotel Partnership Program, an offering where registered Lexus owners can receive extra benefits for booking stays at luxury properties across the country and arriving in their Lexus. At Blackberry, for example, Lexus owners receive a special little snack in their room each evening, a surprise I won’t reveal since I’m in that club of owners. OK, I’ll admit it’s my girlfriend’s car and we bought it used, but I’m still no spoiler. Lexus owners also receive a $100 credit toward their bill as part of their stay at Blackberry Farm.
Other notable properties that participate in the Lexus Hotel Partnership Program include Bardessono in Napa Valley, Pebble Beach Resorts, Lake Placid Lodge, Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas and the St. Regis Aspen Resort. Perks range from resort and spa credits to room upgrades to free private boat rides.
Now not everyone will be able to take advantage of these benefits since we can’t all afford to stay in expensive hotels on vacation or drive luxury vehicles, but it certainly is something to aspire to. I have to say that I now agree with the sentiment of the entire junket. I do wish everyone could vacation like that!