As the original flagship of the then-fledgeling Lexus range when it launched in the late 1980s, the LS was arguably the first Japanese car to make the European brands sweat.
Flash forward to 2021 and the tried-and-tested luxury limousine has received a mid-generation facelift – but does the 2021 Lexus LS still do enough to have the Audi, BMW and Mercedes of the world nervously looking over their shoulders?
As far as “facelifts” go, this is more of an aesthetic nip and tuck than an extreme makeover.
There have been some subtle changes to the front fascia and headlights, but it’s more about under-the-bonnet, chassis and suspension tweaks for added comfort and refinement, and some new tech behind the wheel.
When purchasing the LS, buyers really only have two questions to answer: do they want a petrol powertrain or a petrol-electric powertrain? And do they want a cushy interior or a really cushy interior?
The LS is offered either as a 3.5-litre twin-turbo petrol V6 in the LS500, or as a 3.5-litre petrol-hybrid V6 in the LS500h, with both powertrains recently updated to improve quietness and responsiveness.
The petrol-powered LS500 utilises a 10-speed direct-shift automatic transmission, while the hybrid also utilises a slightly different 10-speed automatic transmission that pairs four fixed gears with six e-gears as part of a continuously variable transmission. Both are rear-wheel drive.
You have the choice of two specification grades – the F Sport for $195,953 before on-road costs, or the Sports Luxury for $201,078 before on-road costs.
Happily, there’s no price difference between petrol and hybrid models, so you’re free to choose with abandon.
Similarly, their performance figures aren’t far apart – with Lexus quoting a 0-100km/h time of 5.4 seconds in the hybrid LS500h, only 0.4 seconds more than in the LS500.
The key differences between spec grades are that the Sports Luxury adds some more comfort and interior features – like reclining rear seats, rear infotainment screens, quad-zone climate control and a seat massage function in the front and back.
Lexus also offers a lot of no-cost options, which means you’re less likely to be stung with those surprise “enhancement” packs to get what you want than you might be when shopping with the Euros.
Really the only place you might spend some extra money is on the new swanky interior ornamentation options available, which can add up to $10,000 to the price.
“I like this Lexus LS, but I wish the ride was better,” – said no one, ever. One thing the limo – and brand in general – has long had on its side is refinement, and the updated LS is no exception.
You’re more likely to hear the ‘thunk thunk’ of bumps than to feel them, with the car doing an excellent job of cancelling out any harshness entering the cabin.
|2021 Lexus LS500||2021 Lexus LS500h|
|Engine||3.5-litre, six-cylinder twin-turbo petrol||3.5-litre, six-cylinder petrol hybrid with electric motor and lithium-ion battery|
|Power and torque||310kW @ 6000rpm, 600Nm @ 1600-4800rpm||220kW @ 6600rpm, 350kW @ 5100rpm|
|Transmission||10-speed automatic||10-speed automatic|
|Drive type||Rear-wheel drive||Rear-wheel drive|
|Weight||2215 - 2275kg||2285 - 2340kg|
|Fuel claim (combined)||10.0L/100km||6.6L/100km|
|Fuel use on test||10.7L/100km||9.3L/100km|
|Turning circle||11.4m in Sports Luxury, 11.2 in F Sport||11.4m in Sports Luxury, 11.2 in F Sport|
|ANCAP safety rating||Unrated||Unrated|
|Main competitors||Audi A8, BMW 7 Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class||Audi A8, BMW 7 Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class|
|Price||$195,953 before on-road costs for F Sport variants, $201,078 before on-road costs for Sports Luxury variants||$195,953 before on-road costs for F Sport variants, $201,078 before on-road costs for Sports Luxury variants|
|Servicing costs||$595 per visit (every 12 months or 15,000km) for three years||$595 per visit (every 12 months or 15,000km) for three years|
Steering is light yet precise, while in the hybrid the handover from petrol to electric power is almost imperceptible at lower speeds.
Lexus said it did some research on driving behaviours before implementing this facelift and found that most drivers use just 50 per cent of the throttle at any given time.
As such, Lexus worked to improve acceleration feel from low speeds – both cars are quick and efficient at getting going from a standstill, with power delivered promptly but without any instability or jumpiness.
The LS 500 produces 310kW of power and 600Nm of torque, while the LS500h outputs a more demure 220kW and 350Nm.
At higher speeds in the hybrid, you may feel a slight lag when you really put your foot down, which isn’t as noticeable in the petrol model.
Switching into Sport S+ mode increases the volume of the engine noise and adds weight to the steering, but the LS continues to prize comfort over performance.
The cabin is incredibly quiet, with little more than wind noise to distract you, while engine noise is minimal until you really take the car up to higher speeds.
Interestingly, at launch, the engine noise in the hybrid was louder than in the petrol model, particularly under heavy throttle input.
The rear-wheel-drive platform in the LS offers dynamic rear steering, which makes the steering more responsive at higher speeds and easier to manoeuvre at lower speeds - something that was welcomed when doing three-point turns on gravel driveways in regional Victoria.
Visibility for a sedan is strong thanks to a wide, low-set rear windshield – supplemented by the new digital rear-view mirror, which uses a live video feed to augment the mirror view if you have rear passengers.
Lexus quotes 10.0L/100km for fuel use on a combined cycle in the LS500, and 6.6L/100km on a combined cycle in the LS500h.
At launch, several hours of spirited regional driving in sport mode returned a real-world figure of 10.7L/100km in the petrol model, which later dropped to 8.2L/100km with more freeway driving in the mix.
Meanwhile, less than two hours of heavy-footed driving along winding roads in sport mode in the hybrid came in at an unexpectedly high 9.3L/100km, but we didn’t have the chance to see how it performed over a longer, more varied period of driving (quoted urban economy is 7.8L/100km).
In the cabin of the 2021 LS, revised springs and thicker pads make for more comfy seats, with leather-accented interior standard on the F Sport and semi-aniline leather standard on the Sports Luxury grade – with the option to upgrade to an even softer, more comfortable L-aniline leather as part of a $10,000 trim package.
The backseat might just be the place to be in the LS - with excessive legroom for the two outboard passengers, heated rear seats across all grades, plentiful air vents and some especially fancy accoutrements on the Sports Luxury grade.
Unfortunately, middle-seat passengers are somewhat swindled due to a huge raised section behind the centre console leaving no legroom. Taller passengers might also find headroom a bit limited due to a sloped roof.
In the Sports Luxury models, the rear seats recline and a pop-up ottoman offers leg support, plus there are retractable sun blinds, ventilated seats and a massage setting for ultimate relaxation. Petrol Sports Luxury models also add an ice cooler in the rear.
The only issue is that the LS has non-folding rear seats across the range, meaning the 430-litre boot in the hybrid or 480-litre boot in the petrol model is all the cargo capacity you can get.
When it comes to the infotainment, driver assistance and safety technology available, the LS’s only downfall is in its execution.
Lexus has mercifully converted it to a touchscreen, however, which means the touchpad near the gear stick is no longer a necessity if you don’t want it to be.
Similarly, the 8.0-inch TFT driver display is nowhere near as impressive or comprehensive as the larger digital displays available in competitors.
A major change for the 2021 model-year is the Lexus-first digital rear-view mirror. Much like the ClearSight technology offered in Land Rover cars, it uses a rear camera to augment the rear vision mirror view in case you have passengers in the back row.
The LS also features Bladescan, an advanced, adaptive high-beam system that varies light distribution as required, and for the first time, there’s a data communication module able to provide emergency services contact and stolen vehicle tracking.
Still, there are some oversights. For starters, unlike its competitors, the LS can’t park itself, despite offering a four-camera panoramic view monitor.
While everything else in the car is automated – including electric rear sun blinds – the blind for the moonroof is manual and can be tricky to open and close while on the move.
The small, fiddly gear stick also feels incongruous with the grandeur of the car and might take away from the overall tactile driving experience.
Meanwhile, although the 23-speaker Mark Levinson sound system seems impressive on paper, it lacked the immersive, surround-sound experience of other brands (Tesla comes to mind) but that may have been a result of using CarPlay, which seems to bypass the amplification of the native system.
The standard safety kit works well, with highlights including live speed-limit information that updates quickly and accurately, a comprehensive head-up display and a lateral side pre-collision system that warns you of oncoming traffic at intersections and roundabouts.
The all-speed active radar cruise control boasts something called “curve speed recognition” which can detect bends in the road and slow accordingly, plus lane-tracing assist – the latter tugging a little right and possibly requiring more driver intervention than similar systems on other brands.
What could have really set the LS apart from its competitors would be the addition of Teammate, Lexus’ semi-autonomous system, which can accelerate, brake and steer when driving and parking.
Unfortunately, it’s only available on the LS in countries where autonomy is legislated, like Japan, and thus the Australian cars receive a watered-down active safety system.
As for ownership – Lexus LS buyers score a three-year Encore Platinum membership as standard, a four-year/100,00km warranty and three years of scheduled servicing for $595 per annual visit.
The updated LS500 and LS500h are in Lexus showrooms now and much of their appeal arises not from X-factor, but from familiarity and comfort.
Neither car is changing the game, but a facelift has made what was already a very refined offering even more comfortable, quiet and pleasurable to drive.
Be aware the Lexus technology package feels dated in comparison to other premium brands and you might feel let down by the options for advanced driver assistance and safety tech.
Otherwise, Lexus’ hybrid formula is tried and tested and there’s very little between the hybrid and petrol LS models in terms of performance, price and overall feel – almost to a fault.
Aside from extra silence at lower speeds in the hybrid (and, conversely, a bit more engine noise at higher speeds) neither powertrain makes a particular case for choosing one over the other, so test drive both and see which tickles your fancy.
A word of advice: a flagship model is really best served in its top-spec form and this rings true for the 2021 Lexus LS.
That ‘champagne tower’ feeling is at its best in the Sports Luxury grade, with the insanely accommodating interior, comfort-enhancing features and swanky finishes delivering the bulk of the car’s X-factor and individuality.