New car review: Lexus LS 500
Luxury with a twist of wasabi
Thirty years ago, when Japanese car maker Toyota decided it wanted to weigh into the luxury car fray with its freshly minted Lexus sub-brand, it didn’t do so with a sports car or an SUV, rather it targeted the long-wheelbase luxury sedan, going head-to-head with Mercedes-Benz’s flagship S-Class limousine.
That original Lexus LS 400 was a ground-breaking car in many ways, not least because it showed how combining the Japanese characteristics of fastidious attention to detail with a proven mastery of automotive technology, could produce something that matched, and even exceeded, the qualities of what was then regarded as the world’s best car.
In the intervening decades the Lexus range has expanded from that single model to a full suite of 11 different luxury vehicles, each with multiple variants, bringing the total range-wide offering to some 70 vehicles today.
Within this mix the Lexus LS flagship retains a special significance, since today’s four variant line-up traces its lineage back to the seminal 1989 model that announced Japanese luxury cars on the world stage.
This fifth generation of the Lexus LS made its global debut in January 2017, arriving here in April 2018, and was notable among other things for its more dynamic athletic looks, thanks to the bonnet, boot and roofline all being set lower than its heavy-set predecessor.
But while it may look more nimble, the LS is still a sizeable machine, longer than a Toyota LandCruiser and tipping the scales at a hefty 2240kg, which is about the same weight as a Prado.
The XF50, as this generation is known, internally is also based on a longer wheelbase, with the standard version some 33mm longer than the long version in the previous generation. This ensures generous interior accommodation and plenty of boot space (480 litres), both of which are important perquisites in this full-size premium sedan segment.
None of this is especially “new”, however, given that the LS range has now been on sale here for just over a year.
But what is news, and the reason we’re revisiting the big luxury sedan, is that the brand and the model recently marked the 30th anniversary of the arrival in Australia of that granddaddy Lexus LS400, in May 1990.
Hence why we’re wafting along in the impressively plush interior of this limited edition 30th-anniversary “Inspiration Series”, which is available as an LS 500h hybrid, or as tested here with a 3.5-litre twin-turbocharged and intercooled V6 petrol engine.
Neither powertrain has been upgraded for this limited edition run of “less than 10” Inspiration Series models, meaning outputs remain a still-impressive 310kW/600Nm, driving the rear wheels via an impeccably smooth 10-speed automatic.
It’s the kind of combination one might expect to stop the clock a little sooner than the claimed 5.0-second 0-100km/h time, but the car’s prodigious kerb weight takes some shifting.
Not that the LS 500 ever feels underdone in the power stakes, stepping effortlessly off the mark when driving normally, or with more urgency with either the Sport or Sport+ modes engaged.
Its performance is in the ballpark of the considerably more expensive Mercedes-Benz S450 L, which utilises a 3.0-litre twin turbo V6 petrol to achieve its 5.1-second time.
The driving experience is superbly quiet and cosseted, the cabin wonderfully isolated from the hoi polloi outside, the adaptive air suspension doing a wonderful job of gliding over lumps and bumps, albeit with a vague and somewhat disconnected feel to the steering.
An access mode allows the ride height to be lowered slightly but you need to watch the sporty chin spoiler which barely clears a standard gutter when parking. The gorgeous 21-inch wheels are also vulnerable to kerbing if you’re not ultra-careful.
Lexus says the adaptive air suspension system has been redesigned for this update, with a view to limiting the amount of secondary body motion over bumps.
The LS still wafts along more than a conventional car but there’s enough underlying discipline to the way it grips, corners and dispenses with bumps to hustle, if required.
Corner-carving heroics are not the modus operandi of such executive limousines, however, which are measured more by the hushed silence of their superbly crafted interiors and the staggeringly comprehensive list of standard safety, comfort and convenience features.
Here, the LS Inspiration Series doesn’t disappoint, with an interior that is fit for royalty.
The expansive interior is clad in a combination of soft semi-aniline leather and gorgeous russet brown Alcantara, the latter cloaking the doors, pillars and roof lining.
It’s all superbly finished and beautifully detailed, with a walnut-coloured laser-cut “Kiriko pattern” ornamentation linking the centre console to the dashboard, where an illuminated 30th Anniversary signature appears discretely on the passenger side.
The driver sinks into plush perforated leather seats that offer more adjustment than Neil Armstrong would have had switches in Apollo 11. A comfortable driving position is just a push of a switch away, with a crisply rendered digital dash display in front of the driver, and a large and handsomely integrated 12.3-inch centre display providing access to audio, climate, mapping and much more.
Annoyingly, Lexus continues to flirt with its fiddly haptic touch control pad for the central display, which features Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, along with satellite navigation, voice control, and a stunning 23-speaker Mark Levinson audio system.
There are a number of shortcuts to make navigating it somewhat less confusing, but a selection of knurled aluminium knobs, such as that for the gorgeous audio volume control, would be a far better choice.
While it’s undeniably a beautifully smooth and elegant machine to drive, the LS is as much about its rear-seat passengers as it is about those up front.
The front and rear outboard seats are heated and ventilated, with massage function, while the 22-way power-adjustable rear seats feature a passenger-side ottoman to recline on, electric sunshades on the windows and rear screen, a cooler box and twin 11.6-inch rear entertainment screens.
There’s no ANCAP crash test results for the LS – presumably because of its high price and low volumes – but it comes with an impressive suite of safety features including 12 airbags and Lexus Safety System+.
The latter is a collection of active safety features that uses a windscreen-mounted camera and grille-mounted radar to monitor the road ahead for hazards.
This provides the LS with vehicle and pedestrian pre-collision alert, all-speed radar active cruise control, lane-keep assist with lane departure warning. Other safety features include adaptive high beam, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, pop-up bonnet for pedestrian protection and tyre pressure monitoring of its run flat tyres.
The Lexus LS feels like a car that has been crafted with an incredible attention to detail.
It’s bank-vault solid and everything you see and touch, from the cabin to the boot lid to the under bonnet, has been carefully thought about to ensure that noting coarse or poorly finished interrupts its luxury pall.
Lexus once used the phrase “The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection” as part of its brand strategy, and while that motto has since been updated, the evidence in this vehicle is that it remains very much a cornerstone of the Lexus experience.
However, with only a handful of Inspiration Series models made available to Australia you’ll need to have both won the lottery and fought your way to the head of a queue of entitled millionaires to get your hands on one.
Should you miss that cut but still have couple of hundred grand hidden under your mattress, a “standard” LS 500 will certainly suffice as an elegant introduction to what is a thoroughly remarkable luxury car experience.
MLP: $198,922 (plus on-road costs)
ENGINE: 3.5-litre twin-turbocharged V6 petrol engine.
ANCAP SAFETY RATING: Not tested
TAILPIPE CO2 (g/km): 217g/km
Superb refinement, exquisite interior finishes and detailing, plush ride.
Size, weight, vulnerable chin spoiler, limited availability.