For those who can afford it, car offers a parallel world

December 07, 2006|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,Sun Columnist

Let's say you're one of these people who freak out whenever they have to parallel park.

You were lucky to pass your driver's test and never got that whole business about how close to get to the other car, angling back, when to cut the wheel, etc.

Then you saw that commercial for the 2007 Lexus LS 460, where the driver hits a button and the car parks itself between two teetering displays of champagne glasses, while that annoying voice-over guy with the if-God-went-to-Harvard accent intones: "The new LS. Unprecedented."

(Have you heard that voice-over guy in the spot for Lexus pre-owned vehicles? Where he goes on and on about the cars being put through "a complete reconditioning PRO-cess?" Don't you just want to smack him? What normal human being talks like that?)

Anyway, you saw the Lexus commercial and thought: This is it, I'm saved! Modern technology has rescued me from the eternal hell of parallel parking!

To which I would say: Um, not so fast.

In the first place, you need to blow upward of 61 grand to climb behind the wheel of a new LS 460. That's a lot of cash to burn just so you can fit in that parking space in front of the dry cleaner's once a week.

And there are a few other things to consider about the car, which I discovered when I tested its Advanced Parking Guidance System the other day.

Giving me a tutorial was Stan Lynch of A&M Specialists in Essex, a company that delivers new cars to journalists so we can take them out and wreck them.

OK, technically we're not supposed to wreck them.

But when we tested the LS 460's parallel parking on busy Pennsylvania Avenue in the middle of Towson just before noon, we had a few overly caffeinated motorists swerve around us and come so close to our car you could see their ugly little gray teeth when they snarled.

Not that I was worried.

Lynch told me he'd spent 30 years in the Army. So if there was any trouble, I was sure he'd step out and take care of it while I locked the doors and listened to the terrific sound system.

Anyway, here's how the parallel-parking feature works:

Slowly pull past the open parking space until your seat position is even with the rear bumper of the car in front of the parking space. Sensors transmit data about the space to the LS 460's computer.

Then pull forward until your seats are even with the front bumper of the car in front of the parking space.

Then put the car in reverse, which activates a navigation screen so you can see what's behind you.

Then hit the parallel-parking button on the screen and the OK button, and let go of the steering wheel.

Then hunch into a fetal position, close your eyes and start screaming: "Ohmigod, ohmigod ... !"

OK, you don't really need to do that.

All you have to do is gently control the speed with the brakes as the wheel turns and the car angles and backs in by itself.

It really is amazing.

Once the car is backed in far enough, a disembodied voice - think of Hal, the renegade super-computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, only now he's a woman - announces: "Guidance system finished."

Then you have to straighten the car out by yourself.

I know, I know ... where does Lexus get off making you straighten the car out by yourself?!

Don't they know this is the great US-of-A?

Where we could hire people to do that for us?

But the self-parking feature worked really well.

I tried it on both sides of the street, and both times we ended up less than a foot from the curb.

But here's the bottom line: If you can afford the car I test-drove - nearly 74 grand, including $4,315 for the parking guidance system plus other options - and you're any good at parallel parking, you'll never use this feature because it takes too long to operate and you have a life to get on with.

By the time you go through all the rigmarole lining up bumpers and looking at navigation screens and touching this button and that button, you could be parked and on your second latte at Starbucks, hands shaking from all the caffeine.

On the other hand, if you can't parallel park by yourself, the LS 460 might be the answer to your prayers - providing this is the sort of thing you pray for.

You may have to rob a bank to get it, though.

Maybe one with a nice roomy parking lot.

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