The Lexus LS is the car that started it all for the Japanese luxury brand. Now, with the fifth-generation, Lexus is banking that it has designed another game-changer.
Lexus is hoping the new, fifth-generation LS will be regarded as a game changer in the mould of the original model, which was launched in the U.S. in 1989.
While the company has returned to California to launch the new model, it’s probably fair to say any new LS will never quite match the revolutionary nature of the first.
With its mix of obsessive engineering, bulletproof reliability, library-levels of hush, and heretofore unheard of levels of customer service, the first LS not only caught the entrenched German luxury brands sleeping at the wheel, but also managed to successfully launch a new luxury brand and set another high water mark for the Japanese auto industry.
The automotive landscape has changed a lot since then. Not only have the Germans awoken and turned themselves into volume selling behemoths, but the age of the sedan has given way to the era of the SUV.
Even if the new LS was declared by all and sundry to be the best sedan ever, it would struggle to match the original car's impact.
The latest LS is based on the company’s new GA-L platform for rear- and all-wheel drive cars, which made its debut underneath the LC coupe. Thanks to the GA-L platform, the new LS has a lower centre of gravity, a lower bonnet line, and 20-inch alloy wheels.
There’s also aluminium exterior body panels for lower body mass, and an improved 52/48 front-to-rear weight distribution.
This LS is the most radical re-imagining of what Lexus’ top-tier sedan is, with the company hoping to snare those who would normally ride around in the back seat of an S-Class/7 Series/A8, but also lure away drivers more inclined towards the sportier CLS/6 Series Gran Coupe/A7/Panamera models.
Gone are the 'me too' lines, replaced by more coupe-like silhouette, complete with flush fitting side windows that almost look frameless.
While the pretty LF-LC concept turned into the production LC with barely a detail changed, the transition from the LF-FC show car to the new LS has seen the former lose its simple elegance in favour of more complex surfacing and an extra side window.
According to chief designer Koichi Suga, these changes were made to ensure rear seat passengers had the necessary levels of headroom and comfort.
While the roads around the launch location, in the valleys north of San Francisco, did feature a nice selection of tight, twisty roads, our ability to truly hustle the car along for an extended period was crimped by the local constabulary already well aware of our presence.
During the times we were able to punt the cars around in an un-LS-like fashion, it handled better than we expected a 5.2-metre-long Lexus should. It certainly felt more lithe than its dimensions and lineage would suggest, with minimal amounts of body roll and steering that’s acceptably sharp if not terribly communicative.
The grunt from the LS500’s 310kW/600Nm 3.5-litre twin-turbo V6 is undeniable. The twin-turbo’s 10-speed automatic shifts quickly, but the engine's bark is very much that of a bent-six engine, which may disappoint some longer-term LS fans.
Although less powerful and brisk with a total output of 264kW, the hybrid variant, confusingly named the LS500h, is impressive for what it is.
While the LS500 is definitely the enthusiasts’ choice, the LS500h is much more engaging than previous Lexus and Toyota hybrids. The new model’s Multi-Stage Hybrid drivetrain is shared with the LC500h, and features a 220kW 3.5-litre Atkinson-cycle V6, an electric motor, a power splitter and a four-speed automatic.
In practice, the drivetrain shifts through 10 forward gears. This means the traditional hybrid complaint about unremitting engine drone whenever you’re accelerating at anything more than a hypermiling crawl is gone.
Perhaps more importantly for the LS’s traditional customer base, the new model rides comfortably without floating and bouncing around like a land yacht. The latest LS is fitted exclusively with run-flat tyres. Said to be developed specifically for the LS by Bridgestone, the new rubber handled California’s relatively smooth city streets, motorways and highways with ease. Naturally, we’ll reserve final judgement about ride quality, and interior noise levels until we get to sample the LS on Australia’s less forgiving coarse-chip pavement.
In Australia, the 23-speaker, 16-channel, 2400W Mark Levinson sound system is standard, and the setup delivers the expected levels of sublime sound.
Naturally this is paired with Lexus’s renowned levels of hush, although the pre-production models we drove suffered from wind rustle around the wing mirrors at freeway speeds.
Like the exterior, the interior has been also been extensively rethought. Conservative lines have been cast away, and replaced with something a little more striking, individual and organic.
At launch, there was a lot of talk about traditional Japanese craftsmanship with hand-folded origami-style leather inserts, laser-cut wood and Kiriko glass trim options available.
This time around, the LS is offered with just one 3125mm wheelbase option. Measuring 5235mm long overall, the new sedan is on par with the long-wheelbase offerings elsewhere in the class.
With deeply bolstered lounge-style seating, comfort out the back is good. This is especially true in Sports Luxury models, which feature reclining Ottoman seats with a Shiatsu-style massage function.
While the IS, RC, GS and ES are afflicted with hectares of woeful silver-painted plastic masquerading as metal, the new LS’ interior features real magnesium alloy strips across the dashboard. And, praise be, most of the satin chrome touch points throughout the cabin live in the same post code as real metal.
While the the four-zone climate control system is a breeze to control (sorry), it’s often impossible to read the temperature settings as natural light reflects off the upward facing screens.
The biggest blot on the copy book, though, is the Remote Touch system. On the plus side, the infotainment system now features a touchpad with haptic feedback and character scribbling recognition instead of the clunky old mouseball-like device, making it easier to use whenever the car is parked.
Compared to touchscreen and dial-operated systems from other premium and non-premium brands, though, this latest Remote Touch unit is still too fiddly to use when driving.
Even when stopped at the lights, it’s hard to operate as the free-ranging on-screen cursor needs a jiggle to reawaken and demands your entire attention when being operated.
The 12.3-inch main screen is perfectly pleasant to look at, and the jarring serif fonts have been toned down significantly, but thanks to the dashboard’s curves and placement of the obligatory analogue clock, the far end of the screen can seem awfully distant when pertinent information is being displayed over there.
Seat-back mounted entertainment screens are available for the rear seat passengers, as is an armrest-mounted touchscreen for controlling the climate control, seat and infotainment systems.
As is the case with other Toyota and Lexus vehicles, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are conspicuous by their absence, and it seems unlikely that either standard will be showing any time in the near future.
Ahead of the driver is a new high resolution instrumentation display, with the Sports Luxury’s unit flanked by analogue fuel and engine temperature gauges, and F-Sport’s featuring a physical tachometer ring.
Relatively compact in design, it functions fine as place to check one’s speed, but cycling through, viewing and controlling the various car, infotainment and navigation functions via the steering wheel buttons is severely compromised, especially when driving, by a lack of clear delineation between various elements on the screen.
While the new Audi A8 is dipping its toes into the waters of level three autonomous driving, the LS reflects Toyota’s more conservative approach to self-driving technology.
Standard safety features include radar-guided cruise control that works at all speeds, lane keeping assistance, automated braking with pedestrian detection, and adaptive high beam operation.
Interestingly, the company has decided not to include automated parking assistance, as its customers just weren’t using the feature.
As an analogue experience, the new LS has a lot to recommend it, and the styling certainly grows with time, although it’s not in the same league as the LC.
It’s in the digital realm where the LS makes a less compelling case for itself. That’s a shame, really, because this LS is the first to make a convincing appeal to the heart, as well as to the head.
The new LS arrives in Australia from April 2018 in both Sports Luxury and F-Sport trims. Pricing has and final specifications have yet to be announced, but we do have preliminary details about local trim and specs.
Click on the Gallery tab for more images by Derek Fung and Lexus.