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Lexus aims to reset the luxury saloon benchmark with its bold new LS flagship

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Lexus will probably never launch another car with the impact of the legendary original LS limousine. Before the 1989 LS, Toyota’s luxury car brand simply didn’t exist.

Not long after it came along, the industry was alive with gossip among Lexus’s European and American rivals, who had prodded, poked, tested and disassembled examples of the car and were, by and large, at a total loss to understand how a luxury saloon could be so refined and assiduously well put together in every detail.

Lexus’s ‘Takumi’ master craftsmen, who hand-build parts of the LS’s interior, qualify for their revered status by demonstrating that they can make a perfect origami cat in 90 seconds, using only their non-dominant hand

In causing the established powers to take a long, hard look at themselves, the original LS probably did change the luxury car industry. But can it repeat the trick? Almost 30 years after it originally caused such head-scratching concern, can the fifth-generation LS be another transformative luxury car?

Those are the questions driving this week’s road test – and it’ll be a top-of-the-range, petrol-electric LS 500h Premier supplying the answers.

The new LS is a car with which its maker hopes to recast perceptions of exactly what a Lexus is and what it can do. In the company’s own words, the LS is “a reimagined flagship vehicle whose mission is to go far beyond what the world expects from a luxury vehicle”.

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And like any flagship, it has to be a rolling manifestation of the pillar-like strengths on which its maker will stake its reputation for the next decade or so. As defined by Lexus, they are: brave design, distinguishing Japanese craftsmanship, imaginative and innovative technology and exhilarating performance.

When combined, those four pillars sound like a convenient four-cornered basis on which to judge the success of this car. Stand by, then, to find out whether Lexus has hit its targets and surpassed every expectation of a luxury car.

What Car? New Cay Buyer Marketplace


Lexus LS500h 2018 road test review hero rear

This is the first LS that moves away from a traditional three-box silhouette, preferring instead the lower, curvier outline of a four-door grand tourer. In its details – those supermodel-like high cheekbones and eye-catching styling lines flowing outwards and backwards from the dramatic ‘spindle’ grille – the car is clearly courting a design-savvy buyer. Such ambitious design doesn’t usually come about without technical revolution, though.

Built on the same GA-L large car platform as that used by the Lexus LC coupé, the new LS measures up quite differently from its predecessor; a 3125mm wheelbase is 35mm longer even than that of the previous LS in ‘stretched’ form, while the new car also has a 15mm lower roofline and a bonnet that’s 30mm closer to the road.

Trademark ‘spindle’ grille seems less of a blight here than on Lexus’s other models — or perhaps we’ve just grown used to it. F Sport models get an even more aggressive design

The car’s construction mixes aluminium and high-strength steel, as is the norm among luxury saloons. In terms of technical content, there’s little you might want on your next luxury four-door that the LS doesn’t offer – until you progress under the bonnet, that is.

Suspension is all-independent, delivered by what Lexus calls ‘high-mount multi-link’ configurations at both ends, and is by steel coil springs and adaptive dampers on the entry-level model, while adaptive air suspension is standard on other variants.

The LS is rear-wheel drive only at entry level, but four-wheel drive is optional with mid-range Luxury trim and standard on the Premier model. The F Sport model, meanwhile, adopts four-wheel steering and a speed-dependent variable-ratio steering rack in an effort to give it greater agility.

At present, at least as far as British buyers are concerned, there is only one choice of powertrain: Lexus’s ‘multi-stage hybrid’. This mates a 295bhp 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine to a 177bhp electric motor, with an epicyclic power split and a four-speed automatic gearbox mounted in series within a continuously variable transmission to make it, in effect, a 10-speed auto.

The LS’s lithium ion drive battery allows for very short-range zero-emissions running only and brings the LS’s lab-tested CO2 output down to 147g/km for a rear-driven car, or 161g/km for a four-wheel-drive LS as we’ve elected to test it. And by the latter figure, the Lexus represents only a narrow emissions improvement over its closest rivals from Audi and Mercedes-Benz.


Lexus LS500h 2018 road test review cabin

Opt for air suspension on your new LS and, as you stride towards it and unlock it at close quarters, the body will rise up by 40mm to greet you.

Open the door and you’ll hear the gentle whirring of the electric motors of the driver’s seat as it automatically adjusts into a similarly raised, receptive position – ending up so high, in fact, that taller drivers should be warned to mind their heads on the way in.

The LS has the busiest head-up display I’ve ever come across, flashing up bright yellow arrows for potential hazards as well as the usual speed and navigation info. Sometimes this is useful, but it can also be distracting

This is the LS’s ‘welcome sequence’ – the first signs of the car’s apparent readiness to anticipate your every need and whim. And it’s all very clever and obliging and wonderful to behold – until, that is, your needs and requests get more complicated, and the car can’t manage to cater for them quite so effortlessly.

However, the breathtaking lavishness of the cabin and its superbly refreshing sense of style are both massive draws. The black and crimson semi-aniline leather upholstery – part of the £7600 ‘Pleat’ upgrade package – is spectacularly tactile and beautifully stitched. Spread liberally across the interior surfaces, it covers everywhere your arms, hands and knees are likely to come into contact with the car – but it also extends into places as unlikely as the bottom of the door pockets.

That leather is just one of many treats for the senses in this amazing interior. The Pleat package also includes cut glass decorative inlays for the doors, done in the Japanese ‘kiriko’ style, as well as fabric that is hand-pleated to make it look like origami folded paper.

Up front, the car’s driving position is good and offers a very widely adjustable and comfortable seat surrounded by plenty of space. Instrumentation is all-digital, and it’s presented primarily on an unusually small panel. That said, with a head-up display twice the size of any you’ll see elsewhere, you’ll find that you spend longer looking at the projection on the inside of the LS’s windscreen, for information of all kinds, than you do through the rim of the steering wheel.

The idea is commendable, since your line of sight stays closer to the road as a result. But it’s a particular shame that the car’s infotainment system, controlled as it is through Lexus’s ‘remote touch interface’ touchpad, can be so distracting and therefore undoes Lexus’s good work elsewhere.

The touch-sensitive panel is meant to recognise pinch, scroll, drag and double-tap gestures as well as handwriting input, but it seems unnecessarily fussy about where you place your fingertip when you’re using it to navigate menus, while altering the scale of the sat-nav map always seems to take several tries. Still, it has most of the functionality you’d want from a premium set-up, and the 12.3in screen has the graphical appeal to go with it.

For audio entertainment, the car gets a 12-speaker system by Pioneer at entry level, moving up to a 23-speaker, surround-sound Mark Levinson set-up that sounds great and is particularly good at bringing compressed music files to life.

And in those all-important back seats? The LS has good but not outstanding occupant space, on seats that motor into a sleep setting on which you’ll be very comfortable, but not quite to the same extent as you would be in a like-for-like Mercedes-Benz S-Class or A8, according to most testers. The remote infotainment screen for rear seat passengers only comes on Premier-grade cars and isn’t really a match for the removable tablet screens in the new Audi A8, either for usability or functionality.


Lexus LS500h 2018 road test review side on the road

Lexus claims the LS has one of the quietest cabins in a production car, through the use of double-glazed side windows, active noise cancellation from the car’s audio speakers and even noise-suppressing alloy wheels (which have small resonance chambers to break up waves of air pressure that would otherwise turn into road roar).

However, our decibel meter measured 65dB of ambient noise at a 70mph cruise – which is certainly quieter than the average large passenger car but a shade noisier than both the Mercedes S350 Bluetec we tested in 2013 and the BMW 730Ld in 2015. In subjective terms, the LS’s cabin seems well isolated enough – more so from wind noise than tyre roar – but it doesn’t seem like an outstandingly quiet car. But then an effective luxury car is built on more than refinement alone.

For now at least, only one powertrain is available to British LS buyers: a petrol-electric ‘self-charging’ hybrid with 354bhp of total system output.

So, how’s the LS’s driveability? From a petrol-electric powertrain combining a V6 engine with 251lb ft of torque and an electric motor with 221lb ft, you might expect a responsive, waftable feel – but you don’t really get it. Those power sources combine to make the LS overcome its 2.4-tonne kerb weight (as tested) and hit 60mph from rest in a shade under six seconds when you absolutely floor the right-hand pedal. But the powertrain’s slight laziness, its hesitancy to respond to part-throttle inputs and its refusal to pick up speed in effortless fashion all make it feel ill-suited to a luxury application.

The electric motor seems to be able to supply a decent hit of torque at urban speeds, but if you want a healthy swell of acceleration at A-road or motorway speeds, the only way the hybrid system can provide it is by letting the combustion engine spin in a way that isn’t becoming of a limousine. It isn’t that the engine is particularly noisy or uncouth; it’s just that you can’t miss the presence of a V6 turning persistently at 6000rpm in an otherwise quiet luxury saloon.

Using manual mode on the gearbox, meanwhile, only confirms your suspicion that the LS is short on accessible mid-range torque. And on the occasions when you have the patience to let the engine pull from low revs in a high gear, there’s also an unmistakable sense that the gearbox can often slip a bit when it ought to be fully locked up.

The LS’s brakes are operated through a ‘by wire’ pedal, which adjusts braking force independently of pedal pressure as prevailing speed decreases in order to deliver the smoothest stop possible. It works quite well and feels pretty natural underfoot and easy to modulate, but it might worry you in an emergency stop, because the pedal itself is short on travel and very hard at its farthest extreme. The car’s outright stopping power is nonetheless good.


Lexus LS500h 2018 road test review front on the road

The LS will be a heavy car however you specify it. It is to Lexus’s credit, therefore, that the LS’s handling belies all that weight, and that – rather unlike that of its predecessors – makes for one of the more naturally agile limousines in its class.

At moderately keen road speeds, the LS maintains good, flat body control around quicker corners and has fairly crisp and consistent steering response. The car’s balance of grip deteriorates if you start to lean on the outside tyres with any real vigour, and with a suddenness that eventually reveals the bulk that the adaptive air suspension has been so effectively masking.

It’s worth being conservative with your speed through faster, off-camber corners, because you can run short on front grip quite suddenly.

Even so, the LS’s electronic safety aids guard the limits of its handling and stability very effectively. The car’s ride, by contrast, doesn’t so clearly “go far beyond what the world expects from a luxury vehicle”. Over a smooth surface and at low speeds, the suppleness and bump absorption of the air suspension are more than respectable – provided you use the Comfort driving mode.

Larger intrusions are filtered out fairly well, too. But sharper ridges, particularly those taken at A-road and B-road speeds, are dealt with in a slightly fussy, fidgeting way that feels closer to what you’d expect of the ride of big-wheeled grand tourer than of a limousine.

The LS’s secondary ride – the close control of its wheels relative to the ground – is just clumsy enough to make you aware of the stiffness of the standard run-flat tyres’ sidewalls, and although you’d probably be happy enough to accept the car’s rolling comfort when judging it in isolation, you’d be unlikely to in direct comparison with that of an Mercedes-Benz S-Class or A8.

Although the LS’s handling is flat, fluent and relatively agile at road speeds, its dynamic flair doesn’t survive indefinitely when it’s driven quickly on a road as testing as the Millbrook Hill Route. For a big luxury saloon, that’s no great criticism; we’d expect the poise and handling accuracy of an Audi A8 or Mercedes S-Class to deteriorate in a very similar way, although a BMW 7-Series or a Jaguar XJ might stand the test a bit better.

The LS can carry plenty of speed through corners and stays balanced, flat and on line until you’re pushing harder than you ever would in such a big car on the public road. When the handling precision fades, the car stays fundamentally stable, slipping from the front axle first, but it can run wide quite quickly if you’re too ambitious with your cornering speed. Luckily, the powertrain isn’t likely to encourage you to pour on speed too quickly as you pass an apex.


Lexus LS500h 2018 road test review hero front

The £105,000 price tag of our top-of-the-range Premier-grade LS looks eye-watering at first glance, but it’s important to remember that Lexus gives you a lot of equipment as standard here that you’d have to pay extra for elsewhere.

Even an entry-level, £73,000 LS 500h comes with 20in wheels, LED headlights, a 12-speaker audio system and ‘around view’ parking cameras. Luxury trim is probably where the car is at its strongest on value, because it bundles four-zone climate control, a leather upgrade, Mark Levinson premium audio and heating and ventilation for all four seats and then delivers it for less than £80,000.

High-end Lexus is forecast to hold onto its value well, beating conventional S-Class and A8 in percentage terms

For the £105,595 of our Premier (Pleat) test car, you get a cabin full of Lexus’s richest materials, all of the latest active safety systems, motorised rear sunshades, massaging seats all round, a rear seat entertainment set-up with its own DVD/Blu-Ray player and more. A similarly equipped, fully loaded Audi A8 55 TFSI quattro S line would be within a couple of thousand pounds of the same asking price.

We recorded better than 40mpg from the LS on our touring fuel economy test, attesting to the fact that the car can be frugal when driven in the right mode.

What Car? New Cay Buyer Marketplace


Lexus LS500h 2018 road test review static hero

With the fifth-generation LS, Lexus has made a clear grab for a distinct identity for its flagship limousine. It was a bold decision, and it’s resulted in an unusual car that should appeal to anyone looking for a fresh take on a large executive saloon characterised by eye-catching design and the imaginative use of cabin materials.

However, when you’ve finally digested everything the LS is and begin to concentrate instead on what it does, the car’s appeal as a luxury product unravels a little. This is a relatively heavy car with a powertrain ill-suited to moving its mass in suitably low-effort style.

LS has never been more appealing, or less competitive in key areas

It’s also a car that handles better than it needs to but doesn’t ride nearly as well as it should, and one whose onboard technology roster is exhaustive but which often seems too complex for its own good when you’re engaged in the business of driving it.

Rated exclusively alongside other full-sized saloons, the LS might have just made it into our top five below. But ranked simply as a flagship vehicle, it’s not among the ways we’d recommend you spend a six-figure sum or thereabouts if you want the last word in luxury.

What Car? New Cay Buyer Marketplace

Richard Lane

Richard Lane
Title: Deputy road test editor

Richard joined Autocar in 2017 and like all road testers is typically found either behind a keyboard or steering wheel.

As deputy road test editor he delivers in-depth road tests and performance benchmarking, plus feature-length comparison stories between rival cars. He can also be found presenting on Autocar's YouTube channel.

Mostly interested in how cars feel on the road – the sensations and emotions they can evoke – Richard drives around 150 newly launched makes and models every year. His job is then to put the reader firmly in the driver's seat.