Lexus is a left-field, luxury Japanese car-maker and the LS is the company’s flagship saloon. Ahead of its UK launch in 2018, we’ve sampled the latest, fifth-generation LS on home soil in Yokohama.
The Lexus LS isn’t your average stoic, luxury saloon. Indeed, the 1989 original was regarded as a real trailblazer, helping to rapidly establish the company overseas while winning acclaim for its excellent build quality, superior quietness and abundance of technology. But as technology and safety continue to be democratised, Lexus is having to re-build its brand essence, focussing on brave design and Japanese craftsmanship. This may sound like marketing spiel, but there’s a lot of truth here. For those car buyers who feel the Jaguar XJ is getting a bit old in the tooth, or are desperate to be tempted away from the same-again offerings of Audi, BMW and Mercedes, the Lexus LS has the potential to offer a true point of difference.
The Lexus LS looks like no other flagship saloon you will have seen before. Regardless of whether you like this sleek silhouette, it’s clear Lexus is becoming a beacon for fresh, imaginative design and a welcome tonic to the iterative approach offered by the German big three.
Complex surfacing and sculptural LED lights clothe a modified platform that also underpins the equally striking Lexus LC Coupe, which goes some way to explain why this LS is noticeably longer and wider than previous models. It’s still a practical shape with lots of headroom and legroom – only an extended wheelbase version will be available in the UK – for four adults. Thanks to standard air suspension, the ride height can also be raised at the touch of a button for a more dignified entry.
Inside is suitably plush, too, revealing an appreciation for handcraftsmanship in a world consumed by digital transience. Lexus employs Takumi masters to work on its flagship models, each of whom have a staggering 25,000 hours of work in their given speciality. People have completed doctorates on less…
Unlike previous models, this helps give the LS a very distinct, Japanese flavour. That’s not to say the car gets tatami mats and all the wood veneers have now been sourced from the Japanese sugi tree, but you do get more of a sense of place, which makes it feel special. There’s even an ‘ornamentation panel’ on the dashboard that’s a variation of the ‘gallery’ theme, pioneered by the Rolls-Royce Phantom. Great minds and all that...
Up front, the driver benefits from a widescreen heads-up display projecting speed and navigation information, plus a heated and cooled seat (presumably not at the same time) that’s electrically adjustable in 28 different ways. Rear passengers also benefit from heating, cooling seats with an optional Shiatsu massage feature, plus a central armrest that contains the infotainment controls for the Mark Levinson-supplied 3D surround sound system.
The only engine to be offered in the UK will be the LS 500h hybrid, which marries a 295bhp 3.5-litre V6 petrol unit, lithium ion battery pack and a pair of electric motors to produce a combined power output of 354bhp.
How does it drive?
Truth be told, our test route was limited to a frustratingly short 15km motorway ring road that exposed only a fraction of this car’s talents. To give this Lexus a fair crack at the whip, Motor1.com has to drive the LS more thoroughly in the UK before we can deliver you guys and girls a definitive verdict.
For now, however, impressions are mixed. In town and at low speeds, the steering feels surprisingly weighty while the LS runs smoothly in electric-only mode. For how long is still to be confirmed, but Lexus claims the 0-62mph sprint can be dispatched in 5.4sec, while the new lithium ion batteries can help the LS accelerate to 87mph on electric power alone. Unfortunately, any attempt to accrue speed progressively was quickly accompanied by the fluctuating high revs of the V6 petrol engine.
This less-than-silken soundtrack is courtesy of a clever, four-speed Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT). CVT gearboxes are a popular choice for hybrid vehicles because they focus on fuel efficiency and smooth shifts by effectively creating the sensation of one really long gear. Behind the scenes, there is a pulley system, with cones at each pulley, all connected by a chain belt. Both cones can move closer together or further away, always finding the perfect ratio that balances speed and fuel efficiency. The Lexus CVT has four pre-set ratios, which mimics the equivalent of 10 gears in a conventional automatic, and although performance isn’t instant, the shifts are super-smooth.
Less smooth is the ride quality which, from the rear seats at least, felt noticeably unsettled over speed humps and across motorway expansion joints. Cabin noise is well suppressed and the build quality is excellent, but while you’d expect the collection of crafted details to look and feel as satisfying as a piece of hinoki joinery, a lot of the materials lack cohesion with multiple typefaces across the instrument binnacle, window switches and infotainment system being enough to illuminate the OCD in everybody. You wouldn’t find that on an S-Class…
Onto safety and Lexus bosses were at pains to showcase its all-encompassing ‘Lexus Safety System+’. It includes lane-keeping assist, active cruise control and lane-changing systems, whereby you can hold the indicator in its ‘halfway down’ position and, when it is safe to do so, the car can merge into the lane you’re prescribing autonomously. Tesla more confidently refers to a similar system it uses as ‘AutoPilot’. In our controlled convoy, limited to 40mph, the systems worked convincingly, although the lane-changing facility proved too cautious in many urban scenarios to be truly effective.
Take your hands off the wheel for too long and the system sends a series of audible warnings into the cabin, after which it then prepares for an emergency situation, notifying the emergency services and bringing the car to a controlled stop. The car can also trigger its brakes in very low speed scenarios, such as when you’re reversing out of a parking space and fail to spot a small child behind you.
It’s clever tech that works within the confines of these controlled tests, but it is far from unique. A BMW 5 Series, for example, is an executive category lower than the LS yet benefits from the same lane-keeping technology and can even reverse into a parking space without you having to be in the car.
Should I buy one?
Based on our experience in this, admittedly, very limited drive, we wouldn’t be trading in the Mercedes S-Class just yet. The LS is a solid competitor but the luxury positioning is somewhat eroded by the engine refinement under acceleration, the shimmying over expansion joints and fussy cabin finish. Being a hybrid in the luxury saloon sector is no longer the singular domain of Lexus, either.
On the positive side, the LS looks like a truly unique competitor and will be a rare site on UK roads, with just 250 examples arriving each year. You also get the feeling you’re never ‘just’ another customer in a Lexus dealership. What the company describes as Omotenashi, meaning ‘treating everyone like a guest in your home’, is very much alive and kicking in the UK experience and customer service remains world class.