Lexus: understated and calmly quiet
What exactly is it? A new version of Lexus’s flagship luxury sedan. The platform and V8 hybrid powertrain is carried over but the 2013 model has seen more than 3000 changes. The exterior is new, as is the main cabin architecture.
Powertrain 5.0-litre V8 petrol and electric motor with Nickel Metal-Hydride battery producing 290kW/520Nm. Continuously variable transmission, mechanical all-wheel drive. Combined fuel consumption 8.6 litres per 100km.
Anything interesting in the equipment list? Lexus claims world-first status for some LS features, including the Climate Concierge that monitors and moderates all four air conditioning zones in the cabin, and an Advanced Illumination System that provides different lighting accents depending on the driving situation. Also standard on the long-wheelbase LS are a rear-seat Blu-ray entertainment system, power window shades, heated/cooled seats with vibrating function, a higher grade of interior trim and an ottoman-style front passenger seat.
Price Starts at $199,500 for the LS460. Price on application for LS600hL.
A prerequisite of a luxury car is that it must have a calming effect.
So said a senior member of the motor industry at a press conference last year. The person in question has no connection to Lexus, so it seems inappropriate/irrelevant to name him in a column about the Japanese maker’s new LS luxury sedan.
But that dictum does explain why I have always liked the Lexus LS so much. None of the four generations of the model produced so far have come close to raising your pulse, visually or dynamically.
The LS was never supposed to be a status symbol or outwardly spirited on the road. But, right from the start, it was supposed to take quality, comfort and refinement to the extreme. It still does.
The high road
The most desirable version of the LS is surely the flagship 600hL, because it is unique in this segment and also the most loyal to the LS ethos. It boasts a hybrid powertrain that is less about fuel economy (the internal-combustion component is a 5.0-litre V8) than offering rapid performance with the last word in refinement.
The car’s ability to run on battery power only for short distances creates an astonishing cabin ambience that has to be experienced to be believed. It’s also perhaps the ultimate test for the structural integrity and build quality of the rest of the car, as no flex or creak can escape unnoticed when there is zero engine noise.
It could be argued that the LS600hL (the ‘L’ indicates a long wheelbase) is a car to be driven in, rather than drive yourself. It’s a theory supported by Lexus New Zealand’s decision to offer the L version in standard specification, while the short-wheelbase 600h comes only in more lurid F Sport configuration (more about that in a minute).
But even in long-wheelbase form, the LS600h is a fascinating machine for those behind the wheel, thanks to that hybrid powertrain, all-wheel drive and the deceptively swift performance.
You are completely removed from the road beneath, which is desirable in a car such as this. Curiously, the LS now features a Drive Mode Select system that allows you to choose between five different modes: Eco, Comfort, Normal, Sport and Sport+.
I’m not convinced of the need for the last three, but I can say the system is unobtrusive and quite logically arranged. Select Sport, for example, and only the powertrain becomes more excitable; go the next step to Sport+ and the air suspension gets involved.
The backlit needles on the instrument panel are real but the graphics behind them change according to mode: the same dial can be an instant economy meter in Comfort or a revcounter in Sport. It still has a more elegant appearance than the completely virtual instrument panels being adopted by some other luxury carmakers.
Spoils of luxury
In such a serene atmosphere, it’s possible for small things to grate. The so-called Remote Touch Interface used to control the cursor on the 12.3-inch multimedia dashboard screen is one of them.
It’s a joystick-type control but the movement of the cursor on-screen is not linear. Instead, it flicks immediately to the next icon, like a 1980s video game.
It’s quite deliberate and has worked this way on many Lexus models since the 2009 RX crossover. Lexus people keep saying you get used to it. After three years, I’m not.
Rear-seat passengers are certainly cosseted. Fold down the massive centre armrest and you have a four-seat vehicle with an enormous bank of controls in the back for everything from the DVD/Blu-ray entertainment system to the vibrating seats.
The wheelbase is extended by 120mm in the 600hL; a truism to say that it offers limousine levels of rear-seat space.
I’ve not yet driven any of the new F Sport versions of the LS but may I say I am somewhat skeptical of the concept? Every generation of the LS has been a luxury car in the purest sense of the word but that single-mindedness also precludes the car from competing with the German establishment on driver appeal.
I’m not sure the LS is an appropriate base for spoilers, sports suspension and a limited-slip differential. We shall see.
The Germans infuse sporting character into their luxury cars in an effortless way that Lexus seems unable to achieve. I’d like to say it isn’t interested in achieving that but the recent appearance of the F Sport sub-brand suggests Lexus is indeed steering toward more of that elusive driver-focused flavour in its luxury machines.
Well, it hasn’t corrupted the LS yet. For me, the Lexus difference is the kind of attention to detail that presents you with a steering wheel requiring 67 manufacturing steps and 38 days of build time, or hollow-chamber alloy rims that reduce road noise to an absolute minimum.
The Japanese maker assumes its customers will connect with that kind of obsessive design and engineering ethos. That’s quite a compliment.
The LS is a niche vehicle within a niche segment in New Zealand, no doubt about that. I know that Lexus would like to sell many more vehicles overall here than it currently does. Other models in its range have some work to do. But at LS level, sales volume is not a prerequisite of luxury.
To my mind, the LS600hL is everything a luxury car should be: astonishingly quiet when required, entirely quality focused and exceptionally understated (he said in an unusually calm voice).