Commentary: More Career-Making Moments, or How Two Big Cars Put a Big Smile on My Face

2013 Lexus LS 460 AWD
All Photos by Randy Stern

There is no such thing as a break from this work.

V&R HQ may be empty, but not without a bit of work to manage. With Vehicle of The Year season looming, I also have to feed my other publications, ready for my debut at a new outlet and swirl some ideas around in my head for this site. Plus, I am getting ready for a media event in a week or so.

You might say that I keep busy somehow…that is just my writing work. I will not bother discussing La Day Job…

One of the things that popped in my mind recalls that last few vehicles that came in for review. I ended up truly liking two out of the last three – both products of Toyota.

This is sort of a multi-fold discussion. For one, the Lexus LS 460 AWD and Toyota Avalon Limited represented well-executed examples of big luxury cars – albeit a huge price difference between the two. The other is how it took these two to truly see how much Toyota can weather controversy and challenges against its leadership and position in the automotive industry. Moreover, these two vehicles speak to my own path in this field and the continuing enjoyment through the privilege of driving and evaluating these cars, trucks and so forth.

But, where should I start?

My own vehicle history is always a good place, since my first car – albeit my mother’s – was a big sedan from a medium-priced brand. That tan-and-brown 1972 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight would become the genesis of the work you are viewing on this site. Without it, I would not understand the ups and downs of this industry and the point-of-view of the vehicles being presented to experience and disseminate.

Memories of the big Olds were recalled in both the Lexus LS and Toyota Avalon. The fact of its size and levels of luxury often made for some comparison and contrast between my 18-year-old self and my more advanced age persona. There were links to the many instances between these three vehicles that recalled some random thoughts about each one – in particular the LS and the Avalon.

The Avalon is often derided as the "Japanese Buick." The past couple of generations point to a stereotypical demographic not unlike Buick's "traditional" consumers. One look, feel and drive in the current Avalon will yield two more paeans to our automotive past. In one way, the Avalon may have taken a step apart from even Buick's current design and product content levels. I would even consider the Avalon to the closest thing to an Oldsmobile than anything. The drive and the technology alone would think this is more of a modern Delta 88 Royale or Ninety-Eight…even an Aurora or Intrigue.

For the record, the Avalon is built in Kentucky with nearly 100 percent North American build content.

Where does the Lexus LS fit into this picture of the past meeting the present? My old 1972 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight had a big V8 under the hood. It was never a fast car nor quick, but it had oodles of performance on tap, if available. The LS is equipped with a V8 that is actually fast and quick. It reacted, as a V8 should. My foot was duly rewarded on occasion when the V8 had to be used to max power.

The luxury part of the LS would have been fulfilled, only if history had changed in the Stern household. While working for a battery remanufacturer in Canoga Park, my mother was approached by her boss to swap the Olds for a black 1974 Cadillac sedan. I do not recall whether it was a Sedan de Ville or a Fleetwood Brougham, but it was black-on-black-on-black velour. This was probably much for mom, who soldiered on with the Oldsmobile through the hands of her sons.

What if my mother got the Cadillac? How much would that affect my view of this industry and the vehicles I evaluate for my three outlets? Would I have emphasized the Lexus above the Toyota’s big sedan, if the Cadillac became my first car? I believe that was answered when I received my first vehicle to evaluate for V&R over two years ago – a Lexus.

As for the brands and how they fared through some serious storms – a look at the sales figures indicates that Toyota and Lexus are indeed on the upswing. As a whole, Toyota sales rose by 18.4% in August compared to last year at the same time. Both the LS and the Avalon saw nice jumps – the big Toyota's increase was more dramatic.

2013 Toyota Avalon

One concern about the Avalon would be monthly volume through a smaller number of retail locations than its main rival – the 2014 Chevrolet Impala. Based on August's numbers, the Impala sold two-to-one over the Avalon. Not just factoring the sales-per-dealer ratio on each vehicle, but rather the percentage of retail-wholesale/fleet deliveries to truly gauge whether this is a fair comparison between the two or not. One thing the Impala might have going for it is the average price per delivery. It just seems that comparable Impalas are selling for than less than an equivalent Avalon model.

In the case of the Lexus LS, the increase to over 900 units in August is significant on two fronts. That figure represents double of that of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, which saw its own freefall ahead of the new W222 model. Beneath the LS is the Hyundai Equus, the lowest priced model amongst the luxury flagships. Again, the LS sold more than a two-to-one ratio than the Equus.

It is no surprise that both the Avalon and the Lexus LS arrived at a pivotal time in my life as a member of the automotive media corps. In their own way, these two vehicles were experiences that inform the current path I am on.

When the Lexus arrived, I never had a vehicle in for review with a sticker price of above $65,000. It was partly by choice considering that I am not entirely trusting of where I live. Then again, car prices have skyrocketed in the past few years to levels never thought of even five or six years ago. To welcome the LS at almost $80,000 on the Maroney was risky – but a good risk that worked out wonderfully. It passed the test in trusting the neighborhood and the neighbors with such machinery around.

Would I welcome a new S-Class or a Bentley to my home? Probably not. Though another LS 460 AWD – short wheelbase, please – would be suitable and reasonable. To welcome anything more expensive would mean winning the lottery and buying a condo or townhome near Lake Minnetonka or somewhere out that way…

On another interesting level, the Avalon that you seen on this site was the exact same one driven previously at the Midwest Automotive Media Association's Spring Rally at Road America. At first, I was unimpressed because of its driving dynamics and some quibbles. It certainly did not help that I drove its main rival the same day as the Avalon.

However, I was glad they brought the same Avalon Limited out here for a full review. Rarely do my initial impressions get challenged. I ended up truly liking the Avalon because of its feel and drive. More exposure to my environment certainly helped in getting acclimated with the big Toyota to comprehend the car fully and changing my perspective of it.

Since rebranding to V&R, I worked with many vehicles over the past two years. I lost count somewhere over 70, but I figured it is probably more than that. These breaks are a chance to take stock in the accomplishments I made in this field and the vehicles I worked with that helped in achieving them. It is a privilege I take very seriously, as I work with each vehicle in the evaluation process out in the real world.

Every vehicle gets to experience the daily routine of this environment – my own. As extraordinary as the Lexus LS 460 AWD and Toyota Avalon Limited were in this environment, I am proud they passed my "living with it" tests with flying colors. They both took this work onto another level.

These two vehicles provided a segue onto the next two months of this work. You already know that the Vehicle of The Year award is coming, but there is more. I do not know the details on "more" to share at present, but the excitement level is growing in anticipation on its outcome.

Leave it to a couple of big cars to make things better in this realm.

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