New Lexus LS sets the standard for refinement, but can it topple the Kaiser?
Hand-crafting meets Japanese engineering prowess in the new LS500h, for those who drive and those who are driven
Date Reviewed: December 9, 2017
It’s not often we opt for the back seat in a test drive but in this case it was mandatory. There are two types of buyers for luxury cars: those who drive and those who are driven. For the latter cohort, it begins before you even your bum gets near the leather seat. On the new Lexus LS, when fitted with air suspension, the car rises by 40mm when it is unlocked, to make entry easier. God forfend you’d have to bend. Once the engine starts it lowers again to the regular ride height.
There’s an optional two-seat format for the rear that offers veritable armchairs that would be the envy of any business class airline cabin. Here you get over 1 metre of legroom and a 22-way adjustable seat that can recline up to 48 degrees - apparently the optimum position for watching the entertainment screen fitted to the rear of the front seat. Who knew?
It doesn’t end there, for the seats also come with in-built climate control that monitors your body temperature. It means one passenger can be snuggled up at 24 degrees while an elbow away, the other passenger can enjoy life at a cool 16 degrees.
Then there are the massage functions, developed by Lexus in conjunction with experts in Shiatsu Japanese massage. Five separate 15 minute massage courses are available, including a “full body refresh”. All these are performed while you enjoy the 23-speaker Mark Levinson audio system featuring Active Noise Control, which detects when engine noise enters the cabin and cancels out certain frequencies using antiphase sound from the speakers.
For those who drive, there are the same luxury touches, with a dash that’s largely taken from the firm’s recently launched luxury LC sports coupe. That means a smart digital screen but also Lexus’s silly touchpad control that’s far too fiddly to be functional. The car also shares much of its underpinnings with that car. Thanks to advances in hybrid technology, the LS also comes in either rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive.
Diesel is dead
From the brand that recently announced “diesel is dead”, it’s hardly surprising the powertrain option for Ireland is hybrid. This matches a 3.5-litre V6 with tow electric motors and a lithium-ion battery pack, all is married to the firm’s new 10-speed automatic transmission. The end result is a combined output of 354bhp, delivering a 0-100km/h time of 5.4 seconds for the front-wheel drive versions. For a car of this size that’s very impressive.
Lexus claim a fuel economy as low as 6.2 l/100km (45.6mpg) for the rear-wheel drive version and 7 l/100km (40.3mpg) for the all-wheel drive. However, during our testing we did see our average climb as high as 12.1 l/100km (23.3mpg), which is hardly a clarion call for hybrid technology.
And yet ultimately the LS is not quite as impressive in the front seat as it is in the back. Even in so-called “Sport S” mode, the LS is best driven with a gentle touch on the throttle. Put your foot the floor and the same issues that arise with all hybrid systems start to show. There’s a momentary lag in response and then a noticeable whine - despite the Active Noise Control system. According to Lexus engineers, it’s largely down to the way we drive. It’s something that doesn’t arise in Japan, as motorists are more gradual on the accelerator pedal. Europeans, however, are more inclined to stomp on the throttle. It’s something Lexus - and others - are continuing to address.
The ride quality is admirable, just what you expect on a €110,000-plus luxury liner. It’s also pretty sharp in terms of steering, though the German rivals still retain a lead in this regard. And in tight and testing bends, you do start to notice the car’s length.
There’s still no plug-in option for the hybrid, which is a shame given the market trends and consumer interest in all things electric. There’s an F Sport variant, but it’s little more than window dressing and is not a supped-up rival to the likes of the BMW M760 or Mercedes S63 AMG.
It takes time to establish an identity. Five generations in and suddenly Lexus has a flagship that doesn’t look like a carbon copy of its German rivals.
When Toyota began its Lexus project back in 1983, the cynics were out in force, even within the firm. Six years of work by 1,400 engineers, and out rolled the first LS in 1989, the dawn of a new premium brand. Yet they might as well have offered a car with self-driving technology with maritime capabilities which ran on recycled urine. It was always going to be judged second best to the Germans.
The Lexus look
Not any more. The LS has, for the first time a look all its own. And it’s a metal tribute to the merits of attention to detail. Lexus has built this around what it refers to as Takumi craftsmanship. It basically marries engineering with handcrafts.
To become a Takumi-level engineer at Lexus requires a minimum of 25 years of experience and a fundamentalist attention to detail. For example, in the paint shop, Takumis are tested four times a year for their skill set and eyesight. One of the tests is ordering 20 samples of the same shade of colour in the correct sequence. Then there’s the Origami cat challenge. To maintain dexterity, they must perfectly complete a folded cat design in less than 90 seconds using their non-dominant hand. Silly perhaps, but it demonstrates an almost obsessive fixation on detail.
In the latest LS it is showcased in a few examples in the interior. Take the pleated leather on the door panels. The process of creating the three-dimensional pattern took four years to develop and can only be carried out by the human hand, requiring individual sheets of fabric to be expertly folded, like a sheet of paper. Origami cats seem relatively simple after this. These panels are surrounded by traditional Japanese Kiriko glass ornamentation.
Then there is the spindle grille. When it first feat