It’s been a big year for big Lexus models, with the debut of the new LC large coupé and, at Detroit, first sight of the new large SUV model, both of which bookend the launch of the replacement LS saloon driven here.
LS is a pretty special car for Toyota’s fastidious luxury-car marque; back in 1989, it all began here at the launch of the first Lexus, the LS 400. Supremely dull to drive but with a V8 drivetrain refined beyond belief, the LS 400 sold well in the States and even made inroads into the saloon/limousine market in Europe, where the luxury chauffeur market traditionally looks to Germany. Basically, LS established the Lexus marque.
In the intervening 29 years, we’ve seen four LS models, each with improved engineering and each better to drive, though up to now all powered by a big V8 or hybrid drivetrain. This new model, which goes on sale next year, marks a sea change in design for the luxury flagship as well as an all-V6 engine line up. Lexus has decided that the traditional limo market is too dominated by the high-end carriage trade, which buys lots of cars, forcing discounts, which adversely affect residual values. Porsche’s four-door Panamera with its sleek, coupé-style looks (which come at the expense of cabin space), is at the more gilt-edged end of the market and that’s where the new LS is headed, though with predicted UK sales of just 100 next year, it’ll be a super-rare sight in the UK.
So out goes the upright, square-set and high-roof bodyshell and in comes this big (5.2 metres long, with a 3.1-metre wheelbase) and low-slung design - there’s no longer a choice of wheelbase alternatives, either.
Is it good looking? The front is certainly track-stopping, but getting four large passengers comfortably into the cabin has meant the same sort of roofline compromises inherent in the Panamera and that’s cruelly evident if you compare the LS with Lexus’s sensational fuel-cell powered LS-FC concept shown at the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show on which this car is based. For all that, the new LS is much better looking than its predecessor and even on 20-inch Bridgestone run flat tyres, it hides its bulk well.
Not so well from the driver’s seat however, from where you can’t see the corners and have no intuition of the car’s limits, which makes it tricky to pilot around town.
The cabin is the epitome of Lexus design and execution, with some quite delightful touches such as the craft-inspired cloth pleating on the door cards, and some more weird ones such as the Kiriko glass panels, which look like pieces of Victorian shop windows - the two cost an additional £7,600. Accommodation is generous in the comfortable and complex front seats (they adjust in 24 different ways), but in the back, despite the reclining seat backs, it feels cramped. The passenger-side rear passenger gets the option of the Ottoman fully-reclining rear seat, which is a bit like an improved economy airline seat.
It’s all well put together and undeniably attractive, but there’s an awful lot of this interior, which pushes towards you and occasionally feels less snug and more claustrophobic. One's left wondering what Lexus did with all that space.
While the LS has amazingly powerful internet connectivity, the company’s shunning of Apple’s CarPlay and Android’s Auto phone connection systems seems almost willful. There's a standard Mark Levinson stereo on upper-spec models and each car is highly specified as is the Lexus way. Controlling those complex electronic functions is via a clunky touchpad rather than a touchscreen, which makes on-the-move adjustments complicated. Each car has the latest A+ Lexus Safety System, which uses cameras and radar scanning to recognise potential collisions with pedestrians, animals or other vehicles and warn, brake and ultimately steer the car to safety. There's also limited autonomous driving abilities to SAE Level 2, which means you have to keep your hands on the steering wheel and monitor progress in case the system hands back control. On a quiet, wide motorway with well-marked lanes, it can be relaxing, but in heavily trafficked urban motorways, its advantages are less clear-cut.
While the rest of the world gets the choice of naturally aspirated or twin-turbocharged 3.5-litre V6 engines, the UK only gets the petrol/electric hybrid system which uses the former engine. The system comprises 291bhp/257lb ft V6 and a 175bhp/221lb ft AC electric motor, giving a total system output of 349bhp. It's basically the same working principle as that in the Toyota Prius, but with a couple of major improvements over its predecessors. The first being the replacement of the nickel-metal hybrid battery with a 1.1kWh lithium-ion unit and the second being the addition of a compact, four-speed automatic transmission, which together with artificial ratios created in the epicyclic continuously variable transmission, gives a total of 10 forward ratios and for the most part the elimination of that Prius 'rubber-band' driving effect.
There are four different trim options: standard, Luxury, F Sport and the most popular Premium, with all-wheel drive available on the Luxury and Premium levels. When it goes on sale in March prices will range between £72,595 and £97,995 and it was the most expensive Premium model with all-wheel drive that we drove. Top speed is limited to 155mph, with 0-62mph in 5.5 seconds, a Combined fuel economy of 39.8mpg and CO2emissions of 161g/km.
From rest, the LS will pull away using the electric motor, which of course gives its maximum torque from zero revs. If more power is required the engine starts and while it revs smoothly, it isn't altogether silent and can be distinctly heard in the cabin despite the standard noise-cancelling system. At a cruise, the power system quietens down and a steady 70mph is both economical and comfortable. At over 2.4 tonnes in weight, the LS is a substantial car, however, and it requires every one of its 349 horsepower to accelerate, which means the engine is revving hard for a lot of the time and economy suffers - we couldn't improve on 30mpg. Where rivals and the previous LS had a wafting quality power delivery from the standstill, the new LS makes it all feel rather hard work.
Coil and air suspension systems are available and the top model is air suspended, which gives uncanny body control and comfort. That colossal weight, however, gives the all-around multi-link suspension system quite a lot to do and at low speeds, the wheels crash through potholes and the road vibrations feed up into the cabin. With three different suspension settings available, you can throw this car up the road if so moved where the chassis proves surprisingly adept, but it all feels a bit strained and actually the LS is best left in Comfort, where the steering feels more natural and the engine has less to do. The steering is one of the better parts of the chassis and the brakes, which are a traditional bugbear of hybrid drivelines, are acceptably refined even at low speeds.
There's a lot to like in this new-direction LS, but it isn't a patch on what it could have been with a better power unit; the hybrid system isn't at fault, it's the donkey, in the form of that V6. We are expecting news of the V6 twin-turbo being used in this car in the future, which would go a long way to making this car more than the rarity it is bound to be in this present guise.