Lexus turned the luxury car market on its head with the original LS limousine. Three decades later, it's made another potential world-beater.
Lexus’s flagship LS limousine is pivotal to its image. Any car that counts the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7 Series as competitors needs to be something special.
Thankfully, Japan’s luxury brand is carving a new path. The new LS is precisely what its forgettable predecessor was not: bold on the outside, meticulous on the inside, and almost as happy tackling twisty roads as gliding down boulevards.
Car buffs know the tale of the original Lexus LS400, which upon launch in 1989 scared the German competitors so much that it shook them out of complacency. While this yarn has grown more exaggerated over time, a kernel of truth remains at its heart.
Let's start with design, which breaks the shackles of conservatism. It starts at that massive 'spindle' grille inset with mesh flanked by S-shaped LED lights, with the surrounding creased sheetmetal giving way to a curvaceous and tapered side profile.
There are supplementary details that grab you from here: the 'Lexus' logo embedded in the light covers, side mirrors with slim mount-points, and tail-lights that resemble upside-down company badges. More importantly, it has real presence.
It’s lower and wider thanks to Lexus's modular GA-L platform, which in a modified form underpins the drop-dead LC coupe, and looooong – 106mm longer than a Mercedes-Benz S350d, and nearly the same nose-to-tail as the stretched S400d L.
We’re looking at the LS500 F Sport here, which as the name might suggest is the performance-focused version with some dynamic tweaks, as opposed to the cushier limo-ready LS500 Sports Luxury with its reclining and massaging back seats.
While price is clearly not the priority in this segment – unless you’re a hire-car operator – the LS F Sport is priced at $190,500 before on-road costs, or about $204K drive-away on the Lexus Australia website. That’s actually reasonable enough in this elite class.
The interior is outstanding. The flawless build quality is par for the course for Lexus, but the surface treatments are sumptuous. Everywhere you find soft leather, brushed metal, or deep carpet. Every button and dial is damped, every stitch consistent.
It may sound a little pretentious, but touches such as the ambient cabin lights designed to resemble Andon lanterns, or the ‘floating’ armrests and draped Alcantara door inlays, are what a luxury experience is all about.
You can even option glass inserts designed by a ‘Kiriko’ master craftsman, wood inlays that resemble traditional Japanese instruments, and pleated upholstery in the doors folded like origami. All of this is created by the hands of ‘Takumi’ craftspeople.
I love this approach. It has the ring of authenticity about it, and shows a company that’s realised the secret to its success is being proud of its roots, and the heritage of its parent company.
A list of features is a numbers game, including 28-way adjustable front seats with heating/ventilation, 23-speaker Mark Levinson surround-sound with 16-channel amp, triple LED headlights with adaptive high beam, and a 360-degree camera view.
Of course, it’s not perfect. While the LFA-esque instruments and colourised head-up display are excellent, the main 12.3-inch infotainment screen is controlled by the perennially fussy Remote Touch interface, like a laptop trackpad with haptic feedback.
We appreciate Lexus wants to be different, but it’s still a pain to adapt to. Selecting various menus requires greater dexterity than you need for the rotary dial set-ups found on most rivals (the touchscreen-infused Audi A8 excluded).
The back seats offer acres of leg room and shoulder room as you’d expect, with the same sublime detailing, heated leather, and blinds, though the low-and-sporty design meant the top of my head (I’m 193cm) came into contact with the suede-lined roof.
If the back seats are the priority, we’d gesture you towards the LS Sports Luxury specification, which adds 22-way powered rear seats with a passenger side ‘ottoman’ setting, passenger-side shiatsu massage mode, and two 11.6-inch rear screens.
Another practicality let-down is the boot space – 440L with the rear cooler box fitted between the back seats. That is smaller than many sedans positioned a few segments below, and 14 per cent smaller than the S-Class’s.
Dynamically, the F Sport is, as the name suggests, designed to be driven rather than ridden in. The lower seating position gives you a sportier vibe, while the wraparound dash and legs-out seating position amplify it.
Lexus says that it paid ‘special attention’ to achieving a flat cornering stance, with minimal roll and pitching. Key are the 52:48 (front:rear) weight distribution, stiffened and heavily braced chassis, and higher use of weight-saving materials.
But there’s also adaptive variable air suspension (the system can alter the damping depending on how you’re driving, and what surface you’re on, with 650 different parameters in play) and active stabiliser bars.
For instance: in an urban setting over a rough surface, the system can increase ride comfort, but when the steering wheel is turned, the damping force increases to keep the handling more controlled.
The air suspension also includes a Lexus-first access mode, which raises the vehicle by 30mm before you hop in.
The Lexus Dynamic Handling System packages variable-ratio steering and ‘dynamic’ rear steering, where the back wheels turn with, or against, the fronts depending on speed, improving the urban turning circle and higher-speed stability alike. This system, while not unheard of, is new for Lexus’s primo limousine.
The F Sport as tested also has 400mm front brake discs with six-piston opposed calipers, 359mm by 30mm rear discs with four-piston opposed calipers and high-friction brake pads, which are necessary given the LS500 weighs more than 2.2 tonnes.
What all this tech talk means is that the LS is generally smooth, as quiet and cosseting as you’d expect, and yet shrinks around you and handles corners better than any of its predecessors.
All that said, there was the odd occasion over rapidly changing road surfaces when we felt a little brittleness through the seats, which we're chalking up to the small tyre sidewalls as well as the variable dampers not quite keeping up.
The other side of the dynamic coin is active safety, which is covered by the Lexus Safety System+ suite, comprising 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.
As we flagged at the launch, it's not quite the Level 3 Autonomy-enabled Audi A8, and this suite also trails the BMW/’Benz set-ups, let alone Tesla's Auto Pilot.
While there’s the option of a hybrid engine, the car we drove came with a brand new twin-turbo V6 engine, developed in tandem with the car, and matched to a new 10-speed automatic transmission.
The unit makes 310kW of power at 6000rpm and 600Nm of torque from 1600–4800rpm, up 25kW/107Nm over the old car’s 4.6-litre naturally aspirated V8, while being 11 per cent better on fuel.
Cool features include its F1-sourced combustion chamber design, variable valve timing controlled by an electric motor that allows the engine to operate on the fuel-saving Atkinson, or Otto, cycles according to driving conditions, and electric turbo wastegates that help cut dreaded turbo lag.
The upsides are a 0–100km/h time of five seconds flat, instant response, a surging wave of torque, and the adoption of various driving modes that change the throttle calibration, shift points and exhaust note. It’s also as smooth and vibration-free as the old V8, perhaps more so.
On the other side of the coin, though, it lacks the burble and aural dexterity of the LC coupe’s 5.0-litre atmo V8, which barks as it winds out towards its 7100rpm peak-power point. It may have ‘only’ 540Nm, but it’s more characterful.
One traditional 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.
There’s also a four-year warranty, and at service time you can expect a loan car, an exterior wash and vacuum for your car, and the de rigueur invites to special Lexus corporate events. Customer care is one area where Lexus tries to make its name.
So, the 2018 Lexus LS500 F Sport. A $200K limousine should be an event, when you approach it, when you climb in either the front or rear, and when you push the throttle.
Now more than ever, the LS lives up to this. It combines all the brand’s best attributes and adds a veneer of desirability that its predecessor models lacked, and proudly stands apart from its rivals. It’s outstanding.