Lexus once again takes aim at the top end of town with its new LS500 flagship sedan, with a new platform, new engine, and incredibly detailed handcrafted interior that puts its German competitors on notice.
Not since the first LS of the late 1980s has Lexus’s flagship sedan posed such a threat to its European rivals.
That’s a big statement, sure, and the new 2018 Lexus LS500 can carry it. Much like the original LS400 that arrived in 1989, the 2018 LS range shows meticulous attention to detail with a broad view to conquering vital markets for the large limousine category.
Of course, in the nearly 30 years since the LS debuted, much has changed from a global perspective, including Lexus’s laser-sharp focus on the US market that has lessened slightly, with China now seen as a vital market for cars like this.
Meanwhile, Australia isn’t the natural hunting ground of grand prestige saloons designed to pamper rear-seat occupants. Of course, they sell here, albeit in small numbers and often to chauffeur drive services rather than wealthy individuals.
Starting with the platform underneath the LS, Lexus has used the technological advancement made possible by the premium rear-wheel-drive GA-L chassis first seen under the much more dramatic-looking LC coupe.
The technical specifications offered by GA-L (one of three Toyota New Global Architecture, or TNGA, platforms) mean the new LS could be penned with a lower, sleeker look, including a reduced bonnet height owing to crucial suspension components under the front guards requiring less vertical space.
Lexus also elected to remove the traditional short- and long-wheelbase variants offered in the upper-crust limo segment. Instead, the new LS features a longer wheelbase than even the long-wheelbase model that came before it as its standard length.
If cars like this are all about rear-seat accommodation, the LS already starts to look promising against rivals from Mercedes-Benz and BMW. All the more so when you take into consideration the LS500 Sports Luxury’s $195,500 price (before on-road costs).
That also happens to buy a twin-turbo V6 engine with rather prodigious 310kW and 600Nm outputs. The previous V8 has been retired, but with outputs that trail the new TTV6 by 25kW and 107Nm, it’s unlikely to be missed.
In a case of technological one-upmanship, the big Lexus also touts a 10-speed automatic transmission, leading the current crop of luxo brands by at least one if not two gears. Though that may be a fact that impresses your friends over dinner more than one that makes any difference in the real world.
If it’s not too vulgar to mention, that powertrain specification allows the LS500 to dash from 0–100km/h in 5.0 seconds, though that’s not what this car is all about.
Where the LS500 Sports Luxury mounts its most compelling case is in the value stakes. A sub-$200K price tag sees it undercut the petrol-powered short-wheelbase 7 Series by over $34,000, and sneaks under the long-wheelbase S450L by $20,000.
At the same time, the Lexus chips in 40kW and 80Nm more than the Benz and a substantial 70kW and 150Nm over the 740i. Powertrain differences alone cast the LS500 Sports Luxury in a favourable light, but standard equipment pushes it even further forward.
While the more sportily styled LS500 F Sport is the entry-level model, the upscale Sports Luxury incurs only a relatively small $5000 premium, and includes standard equipment like four-zone climate control, heated, cooled and massaging seats in all outboard positions, including reclining rear seats with ottoman on the passenger-side rear, a rear drinks cooler, powered side and rear sunshades, dual 11.6-inch screen with central touchpad controller, and semi-aniline leather trim.
Nearly that entire list features as optional equipment for Euro competitors, and even then there’s no way $5000 would net you even half of that list.
All LS models also arrive with 23-speaker premium audio, a 12.3-inch infotainment display, 8.0-inch digital instrument cluster, 28-way power adjustable front seats, soft-close doors, 20-inch wheels, keyless entry and start, sunroof, and adjustable air suspension.
In fact, the only option Lexus provides is a choice of seven interior trim combinations, four of which (including the Chestnut leather, fabric door trims, and laser-cut wood fitted to this test car) command a $9880 premium with premium interior finishes in wood or glass and upgraded L-aniline leather.
The interior itself is breathtaking in its execution. While the design may be an acquired taste, there’s no missing Lexus’s painstaking attention to detail, with high-grade glove-soft leather wrapping almost every touchpoint, cleverly integrated LED spotlighting, and crafted wood and metal inlays unmatched in the automotive realm short of bespoke-built projects from the likes of Rolls-Royce or Bentley.
Even the cushy deep-pile floor mats are plusher than those usually found in rivals. The whole interior ethos revolves around the idea of being warm and inviting, taking aim at the sometimes clinical approach favoured by Teutonic brands.
Not all news is good, though. The interior may be lovely to look at and a delight to the touch, but working though Lexus’s Remote Touch interface for the infotainment system is a true test of patience.
Even on its dullest sensitivity setting, the jumpy cursor movements relayed from the console-mounted touchpad make modifying simple settings, like seat and steering wheel temp settings, an exercise in frustration.
Drivers who delve deep into the menus on the move will find themselves distracted much like mobile phone users. The system is simply unsafe and poorly executed. It might be time for Lexus to abandon the concept and try something less fussy.
There are also quirks to accessing rear-seat functions. While most competitors allow rear blinds to be raised via a second tug of the power wind switch, Lexus insists the curtains be raised via the central touchscreen, yet the driver can do the same from two pulls of the switch. Baffling and needlessly complex.
The same applies to the rear-seat adjustments, again navigated via the central touchscreen, with deeply layered menus for even fairly simple adjustments when, heaven forbid, a simple set of buttons on the door or fold-down console would be more user-friendly.
Finally, while the rear seat is generously proportioned in most directions, toe room under the front seats has been neglected, rear-seat occupants can’t enjoy a panoramic roof (only the front seats have access to the moonroof), and even with a clear span overhead, rear head room isn’t ideal for very tall passengers.
As a shuttle limo, the LS’s boot can pack in just enough luggage for a pair of rear-seat travellers (440L when fitted with the rear-seat cooler box), but given the overall size of the car, boot space doesn’t match the 500’s long-range touring potential with four on board.
Lexus does claw back some ground with its incredible refinement. Since launching, Lexus (and countless owners) has balanced everything from water glasses to champagne coupes to coins stood on edge atop running engines to demonstrate how civil its V8 engines are.
The new twin-turbo V6 changes none of this. Nudge the starter button and the engine gracefully springs to life and settles into a typically hushed idle free from vibration. For the first few starts you’ll find yourself double-checking the tacho to ensure the engine is running before putting it into gear.
At almost 2.3 tonnes, the LS is certainly no lightweight, but squeeze the accelerator and it’ll roll up to speed like a much lighter and smaller car. The silence inside is outstanding, and the 10-speed automatic will blur through ratios without a hint of what’s going on underneath.
It can take some time to get used to the delay from standstill and the sometimes tardy kickdown, both in an attempt to prioritise refinement, but once you know what to expect, the transmission programming works well.
It would all be world-beating stuff were it not for the air suspension balancing the ledger. Over fidgety high-amplitude bumps, the suspension firms up mid-travel in its Normal setting ditching its gracefulness. Dialling up Comfort mode fixed that, but creates looser body control that bobs and rocks as it recovers from big hits.
Every so often the suspension jars (albeit slightly) over small imperfections, likely a side effect of firm-walled run-flat tyres, however getting a perfect ride and handling balance on air suspension is something that eludes most manufacturers.
It may be turbocharged, which in the modern era usually means almost-flat torque delivery, but the V6 in the Lexus proved to have more than one dimension if you pushed past its relaxed mid-range, despite claims of 600Nm from 1600 to 4800rpm.
Even with that under-bonnet muscle, the LS500 doesn’t relish being driven enthusiastically, although the more honed F Sport and its nimble rear-wheel steer would be a better choice for an enthusiastic run. The sheer length, weight and generally plush set-up make the Sports Luxury a consummate cruiser.
Passengers who spent time fully reclined in the rear of this particular car, heated shiatsu-style massage on and crisp Mark Levinson audio system covering the barest hint of road noise, wholeheartedly agree. In fact, after an all too short run in the backseat myself, the LS500 is just about the only car I’d relinquish driving duties in. That’s really saying something for a wheel-hog like me!
Ultimately, the decision as an owner will come down to how you’d most like to use the car. It’s not a keen driver’s dream, but make no mistake it’s hardly any kind of nightmare either. Instead, the Sports Luxury is dedicated to the carriage of passengers, and does an exceptional job of it.
Drivers that like to keep a close watch on their pocketbooks will also note that an official 9.5L/100km is at least a litre off the pace of German competitors, with a 12.1L/100km figure on test stepping further away from the factory claim.
Lexus doesn’t provide a full fixed price or pre-paid pricing service schedule for the LS either, but provides owners with a complimentary 12-month/15,000km service before charges start: $756.02 at 24 months/30,000km, $778.16 for the 36-month/45,000km visit, and $1058.12 for the more major 48-month/60,000km service, though it pays to confirm final charges with your dealer of choice.
Notice anything missing, though? As prestige brands race to create the ultimate driver-assistance package to the point of making drivers almost redundant, Lexus has for the moment almost stepped out of the game.
The new Audi A8 touts self-driving capabilities so advanced that much of its capability lies ahead of what current laws allow in terms of driver control. The new LS, however, is almost bare in comparison.
You do get features like autonomous emergency braking, fatigue monitoring, lane-departure warning and lane-keep assist, and of course radar cruise control with full stop capability, but you don’t get the option to take your hands off the wheel or divert your attention from the task of driving. Even automated parking functions, fast making their way into much more affordable machinery, aren’t included on this generation of the LS.
For drivers that protest the addition of artificial assistance, the move will come as a welcome change against flagship luxury cars that use their technological superiority rather than their cosseting luxury as modern status symbols.
Consider that part of the trade-off for the value pricing. Although there’s lots more touchy-feely stuff, the cutting-edge tech feels more like a carry-over from past models than the bold step forward it should be amongst competitors.
That’s hardly likely to sound the death knell for Lexus, though. Private buyers of cars like these are often at or near retirement age, and while they may not fear change, the idea of a ‘traditional’ car rather than a new-age learning curve is sure to be appreciated.
With Lexus stuffing the LS500 Sports Luxury to the gills with standard luxury the likes of which Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi and Jaguar ought to be ashamed charging extra for, the LS makes a clear case for itself.
It’s impossible to shrug off a more powerful engine and higher level of standard features in this class, particularly with such a small pool of buyers to lure in Australia. No-one wants to be made to look foolish by missing out on the very best.
While no Lexus is ever likely to have the impact of the first-generation LS again, it’s good to see that Japan’s idea of luxury motoring continues to keep the inflated egos of Euro luxury brands in check.