Review: Lexus LS throws down gauntlet

Jim Kenzie
By Jim Kenzie
Posted on August 17th, 2012
1 Comments

PALO ALTO, Calif. —The original Lexus LS 400, introduced in Canada in 1990, set the luxury car market on its ear.

It was a conservative car, aimed at conservative customers who valued quality and reliability over all else.

Fine detail engineering and finish made you look. Aggressive pricing made you buy. Outstanding customer service kept you happy.

Toyota had a 20-year game plan for its luxury car brand and very deep pockets to finance its onslaught on European luxury cars.

Subsequent generations of the car haven’t had quite the same impact.

If the LS no longer has the same commercial significance it once did, however, it remains the Lexus flagship and a touchstone for the brand.

The 2013 edition goes on sale later this year. Pricing has not been announced, but it surely won’t be far off the current range of $83,050 for the base LS 460 rear-drive car, to $121,750 for the LS 600h L four-wheel drive hybrid.

This is not a totally new car. The basic body shell remains essentially the same, although new laser welding and panel bonding techniques improve rigidity even further for an even quieter ride.

Lexus has understood for some time the importance of developing a brand “look.” The “spindle” grille, the biggest visual change to the LS, is going to be a big part of this — it has already been seen on almost all other new Lexi. The rear end has also been updated for a lower, sleeker appearance.

It’s not to all tastes but at least you know it’s a Lexus.

The interior has been further refined and includes some cool ambient lighting technology. As you enter the car, various lighting elements fade in to create a welcoming sensation then fade out as you leave. The seats have been recontoured for better comfort and support.

A rear-seat “Ultra-Luxury Executive Class” seating package includes a “shiatsu-like” massage function, reclining seats, a DVD entertainment system and a little fold-out table for your laptop.

And the “Climate Concierge” actually measures each occupant’s body temperature and cranks up seat heating or cooling to compensate.

The interior can be trimmed in walnut, burl ash, aluminum, bamboo, or a new technique known as “Shimamoku,” which involves some 67 processing steps over 38 days — to produce one steering wheel.

A second-generation “Remote Touch” controller (Lexus’ answer to iDrive) allows access to audio, SatNav, climate control and more through a massive 12.3 inch centre-stack screen.

Lexus has always had cool instrumentation — the original car had electro-luminescent pointers on its dials.

The new LS uses a Thin Film Transistor screen — not an automotive first — which allows a variety of reconfigurable layouts. On the hybrid model the left dial shows a power meter, unless you select Sport mode for the transmission, in which case it changes to a tachometer.

The lovely analogue clock in the middle of the dash is hooked into the GPS and automatically updates itself in a different time zone.

Sound systems start with a 10-speaker 276-watt unit, with a 19-speaker 450-watt Mark Levinson system available for true audiophiles.

Mechanically, minor changes to the 4.6-litre engine result in a small power gain: 386 versus 380 for rear-drive cars, 359 versus 357 for four-wheel drives.

The eight-speed automatic — a world’s first in the previous car — has lower first-and-second ratios for better off-the-line acceleration and revised third-through-eighth for improved fuel economy, although the Transport Canada numbers appear to be the same as before.

The hybrid retains its larger 5.0-litre V8 producing 389 horsepower combined with a pair of electric motor/generators. Total system output is 438 horses and 385 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,000 r.p.m.

Suspension is either by steel coil or air springs depending on model.

Steel cars have a three-mode Drive Select system — ECO (modulated throttle response, reduced A/C operation), Normal, and Sport (snappier throttle and transmission response).

Air suspension cars get five modes, including ECO, Normal, Comfort (softer spring rates), Sport S (revised throttle mapping yet again) and Sport S+ (firmer suspension and a tightening of the steering ratio).

A new Advanced Pre-Collision system detects objects — even pedestrians — in the car’s path. If the driver doesn’t react in time, visual and audible warnings are issued and the car will brake automatically if they’re ignored.

New to the LS is its first toe-dip into sportier editions. Dubbed “F-Sport” in Lexus-speak, it’s mostly show and not much additional go. The grille is blacked out. There’s a different steering wheel with paddle-shifters to massage transmission, a TORSEN limited-slip differential, six-pot Brembo front brakes and retuned suspension with 10-mm-lower ride height.

I didn’t get into all permutations but I began in an F-Sport. For a car that stresses luxury and refinement, it’s interesting that to get the most out of an LS’ performance, you have to rev the engine pretty hard. It remains silent and unstressed through it all.

It never feels all that fast, although Lexus claims a 0-100 time in the mid-five second range.

The paddle shifters are a mixed blessing. Given the alleged sporting nature of this package, I expected the shifts to be faster and more positive — more like Jaguar’s XJ-R. I preferred leaving the Drive Select in Sport S+ mode — ride quality is still fine, and the car feels a bit more buttoned up.

The LS 600h L hybrid is the top of the line. Although its peak system torque isn’t materially greater than the regular powertrain, it feels considerably quicker, especially in highway-passing manoeuvres. Electric motors develop peak torque at zero r.p.m. so presumably the boost is most felt in the middle-ranges of the rev band.

Lexus’s slogan “the relentless pursuit of perfection” has always seemed a bit pretentious. That said it is a worthy goal, one that the new LS seems to have followed. Over 3,000 new or changed parts have made small but worthwhile upgrades across the board.

With added features, less bland styling and some cool new technology, the new LS may not rewrite the luxury car book as its progenitor did. It is, however, serving notice to its competitors that they better stay at the top of their games or they will once again be left behind.

2013 Lexus LS 460

PRICE: TBA

ENGINE: 4.6-litre V8, dual overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder

POWER/TORQUE, horsepower / lb.-ft:  LS 460 – 386 @ 6,400 r.p.m. / 367 @ 4,100 r.p.m.

FUEL CONSUMPTION: litres per 100 km, City / Hwy: LS 460 – 12.9 / 8.2

COMPETITION: Audi A8; BMW 7 Series; Hyundai Equus, Jaguar XJ, Mercedes-Benz S Class, Porsche Panamera.

WHAT’S BEST: World-leading quality; smooth silent ride; cool technology

WHAT’S WORST: “Spindle” grille not to everyone’s taste; sporting drivers might prefer to look elsewhere; Canadian prices outrageously high compared to U.S.

WHAT’S INTERESTING: Self-parking feature was world’s first — few chose it, few of them even used it. It’s now gone.

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