Lexus looks to showcase all it can be with its flagship luxury car, the LS. Jonathan Crouch takes a look at what's on offer.
Ten Second Review
With this improved fourth generation version of its large luxury saloon, the LS, Lexus looks to showcase all it can be. There's a choice of conventional and hybrid petrol V8 power and standard or sharpened driving experiences. What hasn't changed is that luxury, refinement and sheer attention to detail still get top billing.
Today, the Lexus LS luxury saloon is still a technological showcase, but it isn't the obvious segment choice that it was for a brief period in the early Nineties until the European opposition caught up. The engineers have been working on that though, the result being the revised fourth generation version we're going to look at here, a car launched at the end of 2012 featuring over 3,000 detail changes, among them three world-firsts and fifteen Lexus-first features and technical innovations. Perhaps most significantly for UK buyers, this improved car re-introduced conventional V8 petrol power to the line-up in the form of a LS460 model that the vast majority of potential buyers will want, especially with its availability in driver-focused F Sport guise. Of course, if you've a chauffeur, your priorities will lie elsewhere, possibly in the back seat of the top LS600h petrol/electric hybrid flagship model that rivals have been franticly copying over the last few years. That'll be a rare sight on British roads - and the LS460 we tested won't be much more common. But perhaps that'll all add to the appeal of what will be an unusual but very interesting choice in the luxury saloon segment. Let's try it.
This car's refined - of course it is. It's also very fast. Drive the rear wheel drive LS460 as if you've stolen the thing and courtesy of a 382bhp 4.6-litre 32v V8, sixty two mph flashes by in just under 6 seconds before the silky 8-speed automatic slurs you gently on towards the artificially limited top speed of 155mph. With an electric motor boosting the V8, LS600h hybrid has even more power to call upon - 439bhp - but the extra weight of its batteries and its standard 4WD system means the sprint time is pegged back a few tenths to 6.1s. Either way, it's just as well the electronically controlled braking system has been revised for better response and effectiveness, attributes that Lexus was well aware needed to be carried through into the ride and handling balance this car could offer. It has, to be frank, never previously been a very rewarding thing to drive, something that historically hasn't mattered to the core customer base of lazy Americans and retired Europeans. But Lexus needs to reach out beyond these people, particularly in the British market, hence the introduction of a 'Drive Mode Select' system that sharpens steering feel and reduces bodyroll. You can go even further if you opt for the LS460 F Sport variant which gets 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
In profile, this improved LS shares its predecessor's long, elegant cabin proportions, while at the rear, the spindle design seen at the front is reflected in flowing lines that cut across the boot surface from the C-pillars, before flaring out towards the lower half of the body. It's a shape that remains one of the slipperiest in the sector (with a 0.26Cd drag factor), yet features incisive strokes from the stylist's pen with paper-thin panel gaps that have become a brand trademark: this, you feel, could only be a Lexus. An impression further emphasised behind the wheel where the instrument layout has what's supposed to be a more comfortable and ergonomically efficient horizontal layout. But your first impressions will simply be of over-riding luxury and beautifully chosen furnishment. The cabins of rival competitors are very nicely done but they don't ultimately feel very different from those of smaller executive models in the next class down. An LS, in contrast, 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.
Market and Model
The third generation Lexus LS received over 3,000 improvements prior to its re-launch in late 2012 in the form we're looking at here. By far the most important change for British buyers though, was the re-introduction of the petrol V8 model that over 80% of potential buyers here want, many of them being owners of early third generation LS460 models, people who until the launch of this improved version, saw no reason to change their cars. As Lexus dealers have discovered in recent years, these customers aren't interested in paying a six-figure sum for the top-of-the-line LS600h hybrid, but by the same token, they're also generally not much interested in anything the competition can offer. A captive market then for the UK importers, who've pitched LS460 pricing into the £72,000 to £75,000 bracket and placed plenty of marketing emphasis on the sharper handling F Sport model that's expected to better suit British buyers. Will all of this be enough to take this car's appeal beyond the Lexus faithful? It's debateable. All the time that 80-90% of sales in the luxury boardroom saloon segment involve the kind of diesel power that this Japanese brand refuses to offer, this LS model's appeal is always going to be limited. But for the small band of buyers who do want a large luxury saloon with a large luxury petrol engine, this car could be seen as an intriguing choice. Go for the LS600h hybrid and you'll need a £100,000 budget.
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 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. Is that also true of the top LS, the long wheelbase hybrid 600h? Well, it'll depend upon your frame of reference. On one hand, this variant's returns of 32.8mpg on the combined cycle and a 199g/km CO2 that's 9% better than before, though good on paper for a car of this size with a 439bhp petrol V8 beneath the bonnet, are some way behind those of other luxury hybrid saloons like the BMW ActiveHybrid 7 and the Mercedes S400 Hybrid.
The LS is - and has always been - the car its brand is built upon. The day that Lexus can't bring us a credible large luxury saloon to challenge the best of the premium European makers will be a day the company will have taken its eye off the ball with too much of its focus on sports saloons, compact executive hatchbacks and SUVs. Driving this improved fourth generation LS has reassured me that that time is unlikely to ever come. While this isn't a class leader, it's still a benchmark in so many ways, primarily when it comes to refinement and the sheer epitomisation of luxury in this segment. Driving one of these is an experience, but one that few boardroom buyers will ever get to try. They'll dismiss this car for its lack of diesel power or an affordably priced hybrid engine. They'll bemoan the high-ish V8 running costs. Or assume that driving one will be like piloting a waterbed. Which is a pity because for all its faults, this LS is a car that many top executives would really enjoy owning. Especially now that the option's there to sharpen up the driving experience in LS460 F Sport guise. At its original introduction, the first generation version of this model changed the whole concept of what a large luxury car should be and over a quarter of a century on, this vastly improved fourth generation design continues to deliver its own very individual take on the kind of model this exalted segment should offer. True, it isn't an obvious choice. But then, that might be precisely why you'll like one so much.