You may have trouble getting your head around the idea of a 'sporty' Lexus LS - but that's exactly what we have here in the LS460 F Sport model. Jonathan Crouch reports
Ten Second Review
Lexus wants to paint the current revised fourth generation LS luxury saloon range as a more dynamic choice than its predecessor. As part of that, the brand has added a more focused LS460 F Sport variant to the range. It's no faster than the standard LS460 Luxury model but it does get lowered suspension, limited slip differential and active stabiliser system.
You really had to be there. The launch of the original Lexus LS400 back in 1989 shook the motor industry to the core. I'm trying to think of any car unveiled since has had quite such a seismic impact as the LS and I'm struggling. You could make a case for the Toyota Prius, but even that gained its influence in gradual steps. The LS arrived with one heck of a bang and the likes of BMW, Mercedes, Audi and Jaguar looked at their products and had to concede that in most of the ways that really mattered, Lexus had schooled them. Much has changed since, of course. Not only have Europe's best been shaken from their complacency but the LS range has been forced to play catch-up at some points and lead from the front at others. We've now got a much improved fourth generation LS model to run the rule over and, for the first time, it offers more than refinement and technology. Now it's got a bit of attitude as well - or at least it does in the LS460 F Sport guise we're going to look at here. You're going to like this.
As a driving tool, the Lexus LS has always been about as sharp as semolina, but that's sort of been the point. If you wanted a big car with a sporting drive, you'd look to a BMW or a Jaguar. No, Lexus was all about bringing the sort of serene 'waftability' you got with a Rolls-Royce or a Bentley to a marginally less moneyed bracket. With this latest car, Lexus has bandied the S-word about. 'Sport'. Not content with that, there's 'Sport S', and 'Sport S+' settings on the Drive Mode Select switch alongside 'Eco', 'Comfort' and 'Normal'. You get this set-up on all LS models, but it really comes into its own on this LS460 F Sport variant. If, like me, you find the thought of a 'sporty' Lexus LS something of a contradiction in terms, then the concept behind this particular derivative might take a bit of getting used to and indeed, such a variant would have been impossible to imagine in any previous generation version of this model. Such have been the dynamic improvements made to this car in recent years though, that, rather against expectations, it actually manages to carry off the F Sport treatment with some elan. Though there's no more power, the addition of an intake sound generator emphasises the big V8's sonorous rumble in a way you'll especially enjoy through the automatic throttle blipping that on this variant accompanies the paddle shifter downchanges. There's also lowered suspension and a torque-sensing limited slip differential to better help you get the power down in bends through which bodyroll will have been minimised with an Active Stabiliser system. It's all enough to create a rather surprising driving experience.
Design and Build
The F Sport version of this LS gets a bit more visual pizzazz to set itself apart from the standard 'Luxury' version, with a dedicated front grille, front and lower rear bumper treatments,19-inch wheels and different badging. If you aren't familiar with this revised fourth generation LS, then on first acquaintance, you might feel it to be something of a looker. The basic proportions aren't that different from before, but the detailing has been sharpened up significantly. The front end is dominated by the spindle grille which then leads the eye to an aggressive under bumper air intake. You'd scuttle out of the way of this car if it homed in on your rear view. And inside? Well, an LS always makes you feel like you're in a very expensive car indeed. I love the precision-machined aluminium analogue clock with GPS time-correction, positioned to perfectly catch the light. The bright Optitron instrument dials that spring into life as you fire up and are positioned either side of a 5.8-inch TFT multi-information screen. And the wonderfully tactile three-spoke leather trimmed electrically adjustable steering wheel that raises automatically to aid entry and exit as the beautifully supportive electric leather seat adjusts its position to suit. The wood veneer trim is beautifully done, created from a painstaking layering and cutting process that takes 38 days to complete.
Market and Model
You'll need a £75,000 budget for this LS460 F Sport. That represents a £2,500 premium over the standard LS460 Luxury model and it's extra cost that buys you lowered suspension, a limited slip differential and an active stabiliser system - but no more power. All LS models are of course very well equipped. Expect to find smart alloy wheels, automatic bi-xenon headlamps, and LED daytime running lights. Cabin comfort is assured with leather upholstery, four zone climate control and air conditioned electrically adjustable front seats (16-way for driver and 14-way for front passengers). On-board entertainment is provided by a 19-speaker Mark Levinson audio system with DVD player, DAB tuner, Bluetooth and USB/Aux ports. Satellite Navigation and on-board entertainment information is presented on a huge 12.3-inch central display. The F Sport's interior gets a sporty feel with a dark cabin finish, perforated leather seats and steering wheel, Lexus scuff plates, aluminium pedals and an aluminium effect finish on the dashboard. Safety-wise, there are all the usual electronic assistance features for braking, traction and stability control, all working as part of an integrated VDIM - or Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management - set-up. This also co-ordinates a Variable Gear Ratio Steering system that'll compensate when you're oversteering, understeering or braking on a road surface with different levels of grip on either side of the car - say, for example, if you've put a couple of wheels on the grass and have to suddenly slow down.
Cost of Ownership
The best part of owning a Lexus is that you can be almost certain that nothing will go wrong. Even if such a thing ever happened, so efficient and pleasant are the dealers that you'll be almost glad it did. All of which will compensate you a little for running costs that may require a pause for thought. To maximise your returns, you'll need to make frequent use of the 'Eco' setting in the Drive Mode Select system. This reduces throttle response and engine power output in relation to use of the accelerator pedal to maximise fuel efficiency at the same time as limiting the voltage of the power control unit. So worthy efforts have been made. But ultimately, you don't buy a huge V8 petrol-powered luxury saloon like this and expect it to be an inexpensive thing to keep on the road. This LS460 F Sport variant returns 26.4mpg on the combined cycle and 249g/km of CO2 - significantly less than you'd get from more efficient direct rivals like BMW's 740i, Audi's A8 3.0 TFSI and Jaguar's XJ 3.0 S/C, but then it would be: these competitors after all use V6 rather than V8 power. You get what you pay for.
It's always fascinating when an established model changes its tack significantly and that's just what's happened with this improved fourth generation Lexus LS. Here is a car that - in F Sport guise at least - has let its hair down a little bit, its manufacturer perhaps becoming a little bored with producing another bland but hugely competent vehicle you could admire but never really feel anything for. The latest model has a lot more about it and while it's not as big a step change as, say, Jaguar made with its current XJ, it's still a marked departure. There's a much more determined focus on improving the car's chassis dynamics while still retaining the sort of ride quality that's become a Lexus LS byword. An interior that's packed with dizzyingly clever equipment and styled more elegantly is a highlight. Downsides? I can't afford one. Other than that, you tell me. This LS is right back at the top of its game.