Lexus has been a remarkable success story in Australia, especially when you consider the difficulties a brand like Infiniti has had in this market. The 2020 Lexus LS500h F Sport is a timely reminder that Japanese luxury sedans from the Lexus stable specifically are as good as, if not better than, any of the competition. And that includes competition that's been around a lot longer than the Lexus brand, too.
Our LS500h F Sport starts from $190,750 before on-road costs, which in isolation might seem like a hefty wedge, but at this end of the luxury sedan market, few if any competitors have as much value packed into the standard offering. Competition for the buying public in the luxury segment includes the S-Class, A8 and 7 Series – established luxury European sedans with equally impeccable credentials.
For reference, the Audi A8 starts from $194,300, S-Class from $207,200 and BMW 7 Series from $199,900, all before on-road costs. So, they are all in a similar ball park, but the Lexus is undoubtedly impressive value for money.
Step up to plusher Sports Luxury in the LS range and the starting price is $195,562 before on-road costs, while the limited-edition Inspiration – as tested recently by Kez Casey – starts from $199,505 before on-road costs. All models in the range come with either a powerful turbo V6 or more frugal V6 hybrid for just a circa $600 step up.
The Lexus story in Australia starts with the LS – itself an exceptional car – and for me it’s this model that still most embodies what Lexus stands for. SUVs have run off into the distance in a sales sense, but the LS still most symbolises what Lexus is about in terms of refined, understated Japanese luxury. And you only need to spend a few hours in an LS – either as driver or passenger – to realise that SUVs aren't the be-all and end-all in terms of comfort and practicality.
Under the sharply sloping bonnet, there’s a beautifully smooth 3.5-litre V6 Atkinson-cycle engine packed with technology and generating 220kW at 6600rpm and 350Nm at 5100rpm, while using a claimed 6.6L/100km on the combined cycle. Remember, though, that the LS asks for 95RON fuel as a minimum. The switch to a smaller-capacity petrol engine is par for the environmentally friendly course, and makes a departure from the V8s we've been familiar with for so long in this big sedan.
On test, we comfortably averaged below 10.0L/100km around town, thanks largely to the clever workings of the hybrid system, while on the freeway you will instantly drop into single-figure usage, down as low as 5.2L/100km (on test) on a longer flat stretch. For a sedan of this size and comfort level, those numbers are genuinely impressive.
Lexus quotes a total system output of 264kW above the petrol engine’s 220kW alone. Like the LC500h, the LS500h tested here runs a Multi-Stage Hybrid System (in Toyota-speak) that pairs the 3.5-litre V6 with two electric motors and a compact, lightweight lithium-ion battery. The combined fuel-use figure is a claimed 23 per cent improvement over the previous-generation LS600h and its V8 hybrid powertrain, while the combined power output will push the big sedan from 0–100km/h in just 5.4 seconds.
It feels pretty sharp off the mark, too, especially when you consider how big and heavy (2290kg) it is, and interestingly the gearbox system that Lexus has employed is smooth. According to Lexus, the new system is "based on an electronically controlled all-gear CVT of Lexus Hybrid Synergy Drive, coupled to an all-new four-speed automatic gear set at the output stage".
Yes, it’s complex, but it works. It’s possibly too complex to adequately explain here, but… In M mode, the two gear sets are controlled together to provide the effect of 10 ratios, while the Multi Stage Hybrid System allows for more electric assistance at lower vehicle speeds. The system means the LS500h can operate on electric-only propulsion for short distances, up to 140km/h – in the right environment, of course.
While there's plenty of continued focus on electric vehicles and electric powertrains specifically, I still think the closed-loop hybrid makes the most sense for the most Australian buyers right now in 2020. The fact that you can drive it as you would any normal vehicle, but access fuel efficiency so far beyond a standard internal combustion engine alone, makes a real difference to owners.
All LS model grades now get more effective occupant protection at low speeds with the addition of a parking support brake system, which uses intelligent clearance sonar and rear cross-traffic (RCTA) sensors to detect static objects ahead or behind the vehicle, as well as crossing vehicles when reversing as part of the standard RCTA system.
When you’re moving the LS either forward or rearward – below 15km/h – the system can warn the driver, then apply braking force to reduce the possibility of contact with a static object ahead of the vehicle, or a moving or static object and moving vehicle when reversing.
Also, as part of the LS update, all variants feature revised adaptive variable suspension. The "air suspension system now incorporates a redesigned independent extension and compression design, and altered damping force switching to achieve flatter and smoother body motion behaviour". So, there is no doubt that the LS is packed with a lengthy rundown of standard equipment. That's why the price gets more impressive, the more you think about it.
The interior is sensational. You get quality audio – 23 speakers, in fact – Apple CarPlay and Android Auto that is easier to use than any previous Lexus infotainment system, a big 12.3-inch infotainment display and 8.0-inch driver's gauge display, beautifully trimmed 28-way adjustable front seats, and the overall fit, finish, insulation and quality is as good as it gets.
Close the soft-touch door – no slamming, thank you very much – and you're cocooned in near silence. That remains the case even up to highway speed, such is the beautiful insulation of the LS cabin. It's one of those cars that is as enjoyable for a passenger as it is for a driver. If you've got the opportunity to go on longer drives, you're going to want to be doing it often in an LS.
As Kez noted in his review of the Inspiration, the Lexus infotainment system still isn't as good as the competition, and not as good as it could be either. By 'good' I more effectively mean 'intuitive'. It's a little hard to work out, and not as easy to use on the fly as it should be. One thing is true here, however, you do get used to it.
While the boot is reasonably small (430 litres) for the class – thanks to elements of the hybrid drivetrain – it's got enough room for the intended buyer, and more than enough space to stow gear for weekend trips away. There's so much room and comfort in the second row, you might as well be in business class on an A380, the Lexus cabin is that good for passengers. The roof line is a little on the low side, but once you're in the second row, it doesn't feel that way.
I spent most of my time in the LS500h in Comfort mode, and it's a properly compliant and well-sorted ride you get, too. The big sedan just wafts along effortlessly, ironing out bumps and poor surfaces with ease. It's nowhere near as floaty as you might expect of this class either, and in fact it balances nicely between being comfortable enough while also being firm enough.
The non-hybrid LS gets a 10-speed automatic, but the CVT employed here is smooth and flexible, and doesn't do any of the fizzing and whining that previous CVTs used to engage in. In fact, this CVT is part of the reason the LS500h feels so smooth to drive.
While there is undoubted badge prestige that comes with the purchase of one of the established Europeans in this segment – and don't we love that in Australia – there's a sense of value and quality with the LS that is unmatched in my opinion.
Whether it's the 'best' in the segment is a point that probably doesn't even need to be argued, because buyers at this end want a certain sense of luxury from their vehicle, rather than what might be the outright best, fastest or most capable. The LS500h in F Sport trim is a brilliant large, luxury sedan, and it's better than it has ever been.