A GENERATIONAL leap has transformed the Lexus LS large luxury saloon into an automotive art form.
WHAT IS IT?
The flagship LS sits at the very top of the Lexus tree. Now up to generation five, it pushes the boundaries of design and comfort like never before.
WHY WE’RE TESTING IT
Lexus has dispensed with its ubiquitous atmo V8 for this iteration of its flagship sedan, replacing it instead with a muscular twin-turbo V6. The big question is; does the drop in cylinder count and engine capacity detract from what made the previous-generation Lexus flagship so appealing? We’re also keen to see what Lexus’ all-new rear-drive platform does for the F Sport badge that hints at engaging agility – a benchmark Lexus hasn’t always reached.
THE WHEELS VERDICT
The big Lexus saloon offers something of a visually appealing and dynamically engaging alternative to the now more conservative-looking Germans that dominate the high-end four-door market.
PLUS: Spectacular interior and exterior; well equipped; handles well for a big, long, heavy saloon
MINUS: Coupe profile robs rear-seat headroom; artificial engine noise; high thirst
THE WHEELS REVIEW
THERE’S something going on at Lexus. Once the brand known for its staid, conservative cars trading on value for cashed-up buyers, it’s going through something of a renaissance.
The latest example of this is the Lexus LS saloon. Now into its fifth generation, this version of the LS replaces the former generation’s lard whale for something that not only pushes past the boundary of conservatism, but slams the door behind it.
The new-gen LS ditches the previous gen’s 4.6-litre V8 for a range of V6 engines that split between twin-turbo performance (the LS500), and battery-hybrid frugality (the LS500h). It also taps Lexus’ at times polarising design language, the one that adopts the spindle grille and then twists, turns and pinches the rest of the exterior styling to create a range of luxury cars and SUVs that stand well out from the pack.
Just getting inside the new LS is a treat. Pull on the door handle, and instantly you’re presented with something that’s more akin to a work of art. Our LS500 F Sport test car came with the no-cost optional Moon White leather seats – infinitely adjustable, body-hugging, baby’s arse-soft, perforated in a spindle grille-matching diamond pattern and featuring suede-like black inserts – with stunning-to-look-at Naguri-style carved aluminium panels fitted to doors that feature what appear to be floating (they’re not quite, but the impression is pretty convincing) armrests.
Slide in behind the smaller steering wheel (lifted from the Lexus LC coupe), and as the wheel drops and the driver’s seat edges forward to the preset driving position behind the circular LFA-inspired instrument cluster, you’ll notice cascading strips of metal inlay that compress and expand along the fall of the flowing dash that wraps around the centrally mounted 12.3-inch multimedia screen.
The screen sits over a series of small, almost hidden buttons and lathe-turned volume and frequency controllers for the audio system, which are in turn above more mainstream buttons, dials and digital displays for the climate control system. In front of you, a wide, low head-up display appears with speed and tacho, cruise control and sat-nav information. It all smacks of stunning form, but not at the cost of function.
What comes at the cost of function, though, is the larger centre console-mounted trackpad, a carryover feature from the previous LS. It’s fine to use when you’re stopped, but try to navigate the multimedia screen while moving and it becomes frustrating, even with its improved haptic feedback. As well, small item storage is at a bit of a premium if the two cupholders are in use, leaving just the ambidextrously lidded storage bin (with twin USB charging points) under the centre armrest, or a curious little drop-down storage space in front of the driver’s right knee that’s really only big enough for loose change.
READ NEXT: Lexus LC: 2018 Car of the Year review
The rest of the equipment list is long, and smacks of value compared with the expensive options lists of rivals. There’s a sunroof, a 23-speaker Mark Levinson audio system, heated and cooled front seats, heated rear seats, heated steering wheel, DVD player, digital radio, active LED headlights, a rear sunblind and a shallow boot that will swallow 480 litres of luggage. There’s no spare tyre under the boot’s floor, as this Lexus uses run-flat tyres.
In Comfort mode on the highway, the Lexus LS500 can lope along and eat up the kays in an easy manner that will have you re-thinking the need to fly between cities. Barely any road noise makes its way into the cabin, although the staggered rubber – the F Sport uses lower-profile 275/40-spec Bridgestone Turanza rubber down the back compared with 245/45s on the front – allows some noticeable roar into the rear passenger seats.
Flicking the Lexus LS500 into Sport or Sport+ modes unleashes a bit of the saloon’s inner beast. All of a sudden the throttle sharpens, the tacho inside the circular instrument cluster thickens, and kick-downs from the 10-speeder become more urgent and hold longer as the stability control light flickers as the six-step electronic brain tuned to rein it all in works its magic.
It’s better to use the plastic – disappointingly, they’re not cold-touch metal – paddle shifters to pick gears, because left to its own devices the gearbox will take an aeon to skip up the range to 10th after a stretch of twisty road straightens out.
The air suspension stiffens up noticeably in the two sport modes, the steering adds weight and takes less effort to get from lock to lock, and although there’s still a fair amount of body roll despite the active rear sway bar, a lower centre of gravity afforded via Lexus’s new rear-drive GA-L platform and the four-wheel steering combine to give the LS a sense of litheness that belies its 2.4-tonne heft and 5.23-metre stretch.
The under-square V35A-FTS V6 is very different to the over-square atmo 8GR-FXS V6 that burns hydrocarbons in the significantly less powerful hybrid, and delivers decent performance behind the mask of the auto gearbox, although accompanied by a synthesised roar that fills the cabin on fuller-throttle applications that stretch out to the 6400rpm redline.
READ NEXT: 2018 Geneva Motor Show - Lexus UX confirmed
The F Sport’s larger, thicker ventilated disc brakes (compared with the hybrid-engined model) easily stand up to repeated punishment. Overall, the dynamics aren’t quite in the class of the 7 Series or S-Class, but considering where they’ve come from...
Where the big Lexus struggles most, though, is in fuel use. On test, it ranged everywhere from 16.8L/100km down to 13.5L/100km in a mix of driving, emptying the almost 90-litre fuel tank with alarming ease. That’s against an overly optimistic official target of just 9.5L/100km.
In the rear, the svelte coupe styling has its drawback for taller passengers, with the sweeping profile robbing them of headroom. There’s a pair of Rolls-Royce-style vanity mirrors that drop down from the roof, and the centre armrest folds down to reveal seat climate controls, heaps of storage and a pair of USB recharging points. The comfort in the seats back there is even better than the front ones.
Safety is as you’d expect from a flagship, with numerous active driver aids available. However, the radar cruise control has picked up Toyota’s low-speed gruffness, meaning in heavy traffic it’s better to turn it off than suffer its jerky response to throttle inputs, and it won’t automatically limit the speed on downhill runs until quite late in the game. Forward-looking cameras, and a mode that gives a bird’s eye view of what’s surrounding the LS, help in car parks and other tight spaces where the saloon’s heft looms large.
The Lexus LS500 F Sport’s main game is to now look very different to the Teutonic establishment, which it pulls off quite well. It’s a bonus, then, that the big Lexus’s drive experience has followed suit.
Model: 2018 Lexus LS500 F Sport
Engine: 3444cc V6 (60°), dohc, 24v, twin-turbo
Max power: 310kW @ 6000rpm
Max torque: 600Nm @ 1600-4800rpm
Transmission: 10-speed automatic
0-100km/h: 5.0sec (claimed)
On sale: Now