Flagship vehicles are vital to any luxury car maker, but of real significance to Lexus. It’s a touch clichéd to mention it, but Toyota's premium division launched the bulletproof and brilliantly resolved LS400 in 1989, to establish its brand.
This here is the fifth generation of the Lexus LS, and while the luxury market is today dominated by crossover SUVs, the big sedan remains an image-leader. Even if its sales are a fraction of what they were at its peak. But context matters.
Many contend that the ‘89 LS400 caught its German rivals napping, distended by market dominance. Archives tell us that a V8-powered Mercedes-Benz 420SE in 1991 cost $166,700, whereas the LS400 was ‘just’ $109,200.
As our New York correspondent Derek wrote on the international launch: "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".
As you can read in detail, Lexus LS500 and 500h in F Sport guise cost $190,500 before on-road costs, and $195,500 in Sports Luxury form. That latter figure is $400 cheaper than an entry Mercedes-Benz S350d.
One tactic Lexus has been employing for a few years now is bolder design language. The outgoing LS was as conservative as a bowls club's bulletin board, but few would accuse the new styling of being that.
The contoured body sits lower and wider, and that ‘spindle’ grille has gone full maw. Apparently it has 5000 surfaces and took one stylist 14 weeks to design. It’s not quite as nutty as Rolls-Royce’s hand-pinned roof-lining with back-lighting, but it’s something.
Lexus also seems to have realised that embracing its Japanese roots, instead of hiding them beneath a nouveau European or North American veneer, is the smarter tactic. If you read any LS review not mentioning 'Omotenashi hospitality', let us know…
The company has 12 ‘Takumi’ (artisan) crafts-people making optional door inlays using Kiriko glassware, and cloth hand-folded like origami. There are also cabin lights designed to recreate the glow of Andon lanterns.
Consider the welcoming sequence, too. The air suspension raises the body by 30mm as you approach the car, the seat belts are electrically deployed towards your hand, and the seat’s pneumatic bolsters squeeze you slightly once you’re in. Touching.
The interior craftsmanship is remarkable. Hand-stitched leather adorns the dash, doors and transmission tunnel, and even surrounds the gorgeous digital instruments. The headlining and pillars are swathed in Alcantara, and the carpets are very, very deep-pile.
Headline equipment includes nanoe air purification, 28-way power/pneumatic adjustable front seats, enormous and brilliant head-up display, bespoke 23-speaker Mark Levinson surround sound system, and tri-LED headlights with adaptive high-beam.
There's also a 12.3-inch infotainment system with excellent clarity, though the fonts and graphics aren't exactly cutting edge in appearance. The laptop trackpad-like Remote Touch interface remains a little fiddly to operate, though it's improving.
The $5000 pricier Sports Luxury loses a few features from the F-Sport such as its rear-wheel steering (detailed a little, below) but gains four-zone climate control, faintly garish 20-inch wheels with “noise-dissipating technology” and semi-aniline leather seats that massage you.
But it’s the latter’s 22-way adjustable heated rear seats that steal the show. They recline by 48 degrees, offer you a Shiatsu massage with spot-heating, entertain you with two 11.6-inch screens, and chill your drinks with a little fridge mounted between the outer pews.
That said, while the left-side seat becomes an ottoman by pushing the front passenger seat right forward and downwards, there’s not a surplus of headroom or toe-room for such a large car. Nor is the 480 boot particularly commodious (440L with the fridge).
Sitting underneath the bolder new body is a stretched version of the GA-L rear-drive platform that underpins the breathtakingly beautiful LC coupe. It's much stiffer yet lighter than before, gives a lower centre-of-gravity, and allows a weight distribution near to 50:50.
It's a mammoth 5235mm long and sits on a 3125m wheelbase (up 35mm over old LWB), and weighs a similarly gargantuan 2.3 tonnes, give or take. All that sound-deadening...
There are two engine options, costing the same. The naturally aspirated 285kW/493Nm V8 is gone, replaced by a 3.5 twin-turbo V6 that cuts fuel use to 9.5L/100km on the combined cycle (though we averaged 15L/100km on our quick drive!) while making 310kW/600Nm, the later from just 1600rpm.
The engine is matched to a new 10-speed automatic gearbox, making for an exceedingly smooth drivetrain with little lag and sufficient punch to get the car from standstill to 100km/h in 5.0 seconds. It's also got a nice note under heavy throttle.
Tantalisingly, Lexus' chief engineer for the LS program told us that this new engine fits under the bonnet of the smaller IS. Just saying...
The other option is the hybrid LS500h, which is about $25k cheaper than the old AWD LS600h.
This is a new system as seen in the LC, and sports two electric motor/generators using lithium-ion storage, matched with an atmo 3.5 V6 on the Atkinson cycle, cutting fuel use 23 per cent to 6.6L/100km (we averaged 8.7L/100km) but making a system output of 264kW.
That's not much when you consider the kerb weight, even if Lexus does indeed use "laser-cladding technology pioneered in Formula One, world rallying and world endurance racing".
The 'transmission' is complex, combining a hybrid CVT with a four-speed gear set at the output stage (it doesn't drive or feel like a normal CVT, we assure you) that combine to offer 10 stepped ratios in paddle mode.
It claims a 0-100km/h of 5.4 seconds, three-tenths faster than the LS600h, but while it's commendably hushed and has natural brake pedal feel, performance is relatively sedate. It lacks the low-end torque of a diesel S-Class or 7 Series, with few economy or NVH benefits.
The batteries are also too small to allow much zero-emission driving, and are slow to recharge internally. We commend Lexus for being an early adopter of petrol-electric drivetrains, but a PHEV would be a more suitable tech leader than a 'self-charging' mild hybrid.
Dynamically, you get air suspension that constantly adjusts damping in response to driving operations and road conditions. There are 650 settings the onboard computer can choose from. Over every manner of road surface we could find, the big Lexus glided.
A quieter and more supple driving experience you'll battle to find, which is just as well.
The F Sport has a bit of handling nous, thanks to the variable ratio steering and a rear-wheel steering system that improves urban turning (the radius is reduced 200mm), and high-speed stability/directional changes. There are also active stabiliser bars.
The fundamentals of the stiff, low platform are good, and this tech just adds to the effect. While no 7 Series, you can have a crack and be rewarded, to some degree. And stop quickly despite that mass, thanks to 400mm/359mm diameter brakes.
Active safety is covered by the Lexus Safety System+ suite, which includes all-speed adaptive cruise control, autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, and lane-keep assist. All variants also feature blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, tyre pressure monitoring, and a pop-up bonnet.
It's not quite the Level 3 Autonomy-enabled Audi A8, and this suite also trails the BMW/Benz setups, let alone Tesla's Auto Pilot. Yes, Lexus has a different focus, but the LS is supposed to be a tech leader.
The other major reason to buy a Lexus is the ownership experience, which remains second to none. The company now offers a new 10-year complimentary roadside assistance program for LS owners, with zero conditions. Reassuring.
The big question is, would you have a Lexus LS over any of the big Germans? At a technical level you could argue that Lexus isn't quite in the same echelon.
However, if you want an imposing machine that wafts you along in sublime comfort, while you admire the best in Japanese craftsmanship and hold no fears of any sort of glitches or issues, then potentially yes.
Lexus hasn't moved the goalposts like it did in '89, but this iteration re-affirms what Lexus is best at, while adding an appreciable level of desirability into the fold.
The LS and its LC coupe sibling do indeed make a fine pair.