With buyers moving en masse away from conventional passenger cars into taller and boxier SUVs many designers of the sedans and wagons, keen to provide a point of difference, are moving to lower and sleeker lines.
The latest (fifth generation) version of the Lexus flagship LS series is a perfect example of this. The LS 500 sedan was built on the same platform as the LC 500 coupe and mirrors that car’s sporty profile in a major change to its predecessor’s conservative limousine lines.
For the first time since the original LS – the 1990 LS 400 – introduced the Lexus brand there is no V8 engine with both LS 500 and LS 500h being powered by different V6s. Note that the name now indicates power output rather than engine capacity as was the case in earlier models.
There’s also a new advanced continuously variable transmission.
Both LS 500 and LS 500h come in two variants, F Sport and Sport Luxury, as well as a limited edition Inspiration model.
Lexus LS 500 features the company’s big and bold signature spindle grille. While the grille isn’t to everyone’s taste, especially in smaller models in the Lexus range, it really does work well in the large LS.
Enhancing its looks the grille has more than 5000 individually calibrated facets to catch and deflect light.
The grille is flanked by narrow three-projector lamps that merge with L-shaped triple-beam LED headlights that wrap broadly around to the side. The coupe-like styling continues with a shoulder line that runs along the length of the car and gives it a low stance.
The front and rear guards are slanted forward for a dynamic effect.
Both variants get 20-inch alloy wheels, enhanced in the Sports Luxury with a hollow-rim structure that helps reduce resonant sounds generated by the tyres.
There’s more interior room thanks to the new LS platform, with its longer wheelbase. Cabin length has been increased to 2145 mm and distance between occupants to 1080 mm. Rear leg room in the Sports Luxury models has been increased by 86 mm to 989 mm.
A 12.3-inch wide navigation display and 8-inch TFT multi-information screen are complemented by a 600 mm colour head-up display projecting information onto the windscreen ahead of the driver.
The new three-spoke steering wheel is 10 mm smaller in diameter than the superseded LS and in the Sports Luxury model is heated and has wood inserts.
At 440 litres the boot is smaller than expected from a car of this size due to space taken up by the hybrid system. The rear seats don’t fold.
ENGINES / TRANSMISSIONS
Lexus LS 500h is powered by a naturally-aspirated Atkinson cycle 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine combined with two electric motor / generators and a lightweight 650 volt lithium-ion battery to provide up to 264 kilowatts of power.
The non-hybrid LS 500 3.5-litre V6 twin-turbocharged engine pumps out 310 kW and 600 Nm well above the 285 kW and 493 Nm of the previous 4.6-litre naturally aspirated V8.
The all-new transmission is based on the electronically-controlled all-gear continuously variable transmission of Lexus Hybrid Synergy Drive, coupled to a four-speed automatic gear set at the output stage.
In manual mode, the two gear sets are controlled together to provide the effect of 10 ratios, these can be controlled through paddle shifters.
The Multi Stage Hybrid System allows for more electric assistance at lower vehicle speeds, and it enables the LS 500h to operate with the petrol engine off for short distances at speeds of up to 140km/h.
The Lexus LS500h uses a 12.3-inch multimedia screen in the dashboard through which the driver can control a multitude of functions as well as two 11.6-inch LCD touchscreens for the rear seat passengers in the Sports Luxury variant. The rear centre armrest has a multi-operation panel, HDMI and USB ports and headphone sockets.
Bluetooth connectivity is simple and the 23-speaker 3D Mark Levinson QLI Reference Surround Sound system is flawless.
In addition to its premium sound system, Lexus LS 500 and LS 500h have active noise control, to detect when engine noise enters the cabin and cancel out certain frequencies using anti-phase sound from the audio speakers.
Sadly much of the benefit of the outstanding infotainment system is offset by the use of a laptop-style touch pad in the centre console rather than the more common touchscreen and/or knob-based control systems.
As convenient as such a set-up is on a laptop it is borderline dangerous for the driver to use in a moving vehicle. That’s because of the light swipes and taps needed to control it as well as the need for the user to look at the touchpad and then up to the screen.
Unless you have a front seat passenger who can operate it for you then it’s necessary to pull over and stop the car to use it.
There’s no doubt that owners will adapt to the system, which also has the option of voice controls, but the word is that the touchscreen alternative will return in future updates as it has done in other recent Lexus models.
The latest Lexus Safety System+ includes a pre-collision system; all-speed radar active cruise control; lane keep assist and lane departure warning; sway warning; blind-spot monitors; rear cross-traffic alert and lane trace assist, which helps following in traffic.
There’s also an adaptive high-beam system to control the LED headlamps and a pop-up bonnet for pedestrian protection.
Front headroom really shouldn’t be an issue in such a large luxury saloon but we found it necessary to power the driver’s seat down to its lowest setting. However if you think of the LS 500 as a four-door coupe then that’s quite acceptable.
Entry and exit is helped by an access mode which automatically raises the car by 40 mm when it is unlocked and lowers it when the engine is activated. The sequence is reversed when the engine is turned off.
Importantly, given that vehicles of this ilk are aimed at executive transport, often chauffeur-driven, accommodation in the rear is excellent in all dimensions.
The large windscreens give excellent vision to the front although we did find the wide A and B pillars caused some inconvenience.
For such a large vehicle LS 500h is surprisingly easy to manoeuvre with a reasonable 11.3-metre turning circle which, with all the electronic gadgetry on call, can cope even in tight car parks.
The sleek silhouette with its fastback roof, flat underside, flush side window glass and air-stabilising fins ensures the LS 500 is up to a 0.29 Cd co-efficient of drag.
The switch from battery to petrol engine in the hybrid is barely noticeable such is the refinement of the V6 engine and the outstanding noise suppression.
Air suspension is standard and the LS cruises in absolute serenity and comfort.
Switching to Sport mode tightens the air suspension and gives a nicely balanced drive with excellent grip through corners. It’s still no sports machine, but comes closer than any of its more conservative predecessors.
LS 500h isn’t the new style plug-in hybrid but uses regenerative braking or simply slowing down to charge the batteries.
Fuel consumption is listed at an optimistic 6.6 litres per 100 kilometres. We averaged in the high eights, still impressive for such a large, heavy car.
The days of the Lexus brand having to prove itself against the well-established European prestige marques that it had the temerity to challenge are well and truly past.
With three decades of success behind it the ground-breaking LS range is right up there with the best in its class. It still lags them in the minds of many, though. Logical? No, but that’s the way of the world.
AT A GLANCE
LS 500 F Sport: $190,142
LS 500 Sport Luxury: $195,542
LS 500 Inspiration: $198,922
LS 500h F Sport: $191,750
LS 500h Sport Luxury: $196,125
LS 500h Inspiration: $199,505
Note: These prices do not include government or dealer delivery charges. Contact your local Lexus dealer for drive-away prices.
SPECIFICATIONS (Lexus LS 500h 3.5-litre V6 twin-turbo petrol / electric hybrid four-sedan)
Capacity: 3.456 litres
Configuration: V6 + 650V Hybrid Drive
Maximum Power (Combined): 264 kW @ 6600 rpm
Maximum Torque (Engine): 350 Nm
Fuel Type: Premium unleaded petrol
Combined Fuel Cycle (ADR 81/02): 6.6 L/100km
CO2 Emissions: 150 g/km
DRIVELINE: Ten-speed automatic transmission
DIMENSIONS, WEIGHT AND CAPACITIES:
Length: 5235 mm
Wheelbase: 3125 mm
Width: 1900 mm (mirrors folded)
Height: 1450 mm
Turning Circle: 11.2 metres
Kerb Weight: 2280 kg
Fuel Tank Capacity: 82 litres
Front: Ventilated disc
Rear: Ventilated disc
Four years / 100,000 kilometres