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The Lexus LS is a huge, high-quality limo. Great refinement, but high running costs and no Mercedes-Benz S-Class

Back in 1989, the comfortable and refined LS400 announced Lexus to the world, making established luxury manufacturers sit up and take note. Four generations on, this latest LS purports to do what Lexus has always threatened and be the complete luxury package while, at the same time, recapturing some of that first car's special feel in process.

There’s only one problem: the competition is large and burgeoning. Neither is it exactly glorious at first glance, for all Lexus’s talk of its L-finesse design language. But the LS600h will need to be a mightily good car to compete with the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, BMW 7 Series and Range Rovers that populate this segment, the favoured choices of diplomats and world leaders everywhere.

Motorised bootlid is useful, but frustratingly slow to open. In the rain we found it was quicker to lift it manually.

On paper, Lexus is certainly talking the talk. It still looks awkward, but it’s still the first big Lexus that, one could argue, is good-looking in an unconventional kind of way. And, crucially, it’s the first that looks like threatening the Germans without copying them, thanks to its unalloyed luxury without Germanic aggression.

It’s a car so complex that the manual explaining the LS’s many, many functions runs onto several hundred pages, and that’s before you dip into the 218-page tome that explains the navigation system.

So for all its obvious appeal to the head, can this be the first big Lexus that appeals to the heart? Or has Lexus’s pursuit of perfection gone too far?

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DESIGN & STYLING

Lexus LS rear

Translating the GS’s swooping curves and IS’s aggressive flanks on to a car measuring over five metres in length was always going to be difficult but, for the most part, Lexus has achieved it. Although it is not as elegantly proportioned as an Audi A8 or as arresting as a Merc Mercedes-Benz S-Class, the LS now looks much more than a generic big saloon and has the same contemporary design language as the IS.

The LS has been treated a couple of facelifts over its 28 year lifespan, with the biggest carried out in 2013 which saw no less than 3000 changes made to Lexus's biggest saloon. Drastic changes were made to the exterior to give the sharp looks of its siblings, while the interior was overhauled, revised climate control system and structural strengthening.

Front passengers are likely to get rear seat envy. The stereo, especially when playing DVDs, is at its most effective in the rear

Perhaps still a touch bulbous from some angles, the overall shape successfully treads the line between obscurity and presence. The body is impressively slippery (0.26 Cd), painted beautifully and built with consistently tight panel gaps.

This car is jammed with technology, similar to most in this segment, but the big Lexus is lagging behind the tech-fests found inside the BMW 7 Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

INTERIOR

Lexus LS steering wheel

Moving inside the LS, what strikes you first is how little effort is needed to open the doors – the action is silky smooth yet oddly light. That’s the first clue to a theme that haunts this Lexus: the gap between perceived and engineered luxury.

From an engineering perspective, the LS is hard to beat. Witness the fact that, despite being tested on a wet surface and on a day with winds so strong that a tornado struck London, the LS460 recorded less cabin noise at 70mph than the Bentley Flying Spur and Rolls-Royce Phantom. What’s lacking is that subjective sense of substance you get with an Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

Boot space is 505 litres without the rear air-con unit

Even in the most basic LS, each occupant sits on a supremely comfortable, heated leather seat, the front two electrically adjusted and air conditioned. Appropriately, though, the rear passengers get the best treatment, with excellent legroom and headroom, and even more toys if you opt for the Rear Relaxer Pack.

Fold down the armrest and you’re confronted with what looks like mission control. From here, each rear passenger can electrically slide, recline, heat or cool their seat, individually adjust the climate control, operate powered rear and side privacy blinds and control the stereo.

But by far the best toy is the roof-mounted, fold-down nine-inch screen. With a 19-speaker Mark Levinson stereo, the experience is better than most home cinemas. We can think of no less stressful way of passing a journey from London to Edinburgh than packing a couple of DVDs and enlisting the services of a trustworthy driver, who is accompanied in the front with a 12.3in Lexus infotainment system with sat nav, DAB radio, USB connectivity and Bluetooth included.

There is only one trim level - Premier, and it comes with 19in alloys, a Brembo braking system, adaptive LED headlights, a glass sunroof, keyless entry, and automatic wipers and lights on the outside as standard, while inside there is quad-zone climate control, heated and ventilated seats, massaging seats and a semi-aniline leather upholstery. 

 

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Lexus LS engine bay

The LS600h is Lexus’s latest and greatest hybrid. It marries a 5.0-litre 388bhp V8 petrol engine with a 221bhp electric motor in what must be the most seamlessly integrated hybrid drivetrain yet created.

All in, the 600h packs 439bhp and yet it pumps out just 199g/km of CO2. It’ll also do 0-62mph in 6.3sec, hit 155mph and return an average of 32.8mpg.

It’s nice to have a full-size spare wheel, but not when the boot space is as compact as this

At 60mph, the loudest noise in the LS600h isn’t the ticking of the clock. Neither is it the engine, road roar, or even wind noise. No, the loudest noise comes from the electric fan of the air-conditioning unit, cooling the supremely comfortable soft leather seat upon which you are sitting. And even that’s hardly what you’d call loud.

Green or not, the 600h is a seriously impressive device. Its V8 is a bored-out version of the now-defunct 460’s motor, but instead of that car’s eight-speed auto there’s a kind of continuously variable transmission in line with the electric motor. This is mated to a new Torsen differential that splits power front to rear.

Why the extra weight and complication of a four-wheel drive system? Lexus reckons that this much power demands four-wheel drive.

Despite its comfort focus, the LS remains a remarkably tidy drive, and an improvement over the outgoing car. It does a decent job of disguising its girth and remains composed even when driven hard.

And we have no doubt about the electro-hydraulic brakes’ ability to haul the car up from high speeds, although the system is inconsistent in town, sometimes appearing overly assisted and at other times needing a firmer stab on the pedal.

RIDE & HANDLING

Lexus LS cornering

The impression of comfort in the LS is helped by suspension settings that are aimed squarely at isolating you from the worst the world can muster. Lexus offers the all-round multi-link air suspension with three driver-controlled modes, although even Sport remains pleasingly compliant.

We found that the Comfort setting worked best around town and Normal at higher speeds. However, rear passengers commented that although Comfort offered better isolation, it allowed too much float.

There’s no faulting the LS for clarity or simplicity, but for design flair, ingenuity and appeal it lags behind European rivals.

As a tool for easing away the inconvenience of travel, the LS performs remarkably well, yet it is not flawless. The primary ride is exemplary in any of its three damper settings, but below 30mph, the LS can occasionally be troubled by sharp intrusions, although this is heard more than felt.

So refined is the LS that it’s easy to pick up excess speed. Should you enter a corner too briskly, it responds well, with less understeer than might be expected. Body roll is well contained in the short-wheelbase car, which has highly effective active anti-roll bars, but your chauffeur won’t be able to get away with such tricks in the long-wheelbase machine, which isn’t so equipped.

Another first in this segment is the LS’s electrically assisted steering, a necessity for many of its safety features. Although we recognise the benefits to economy and convenience, we rue the lack of organic feel and natural weighting compared with the best hydraulic systems. It’s also a shame that the remote steering smothers what is a surprisingly capable chassis.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Lexus LS

Despite being a hybrid, the LS600h really isn’t that green. Lexus claims CO2 emissions of 199g/km and combined economy is rated at 32.8mpg. That’s impressive for something with a 5.0-litre V8 under its bonnet, but dig a little deeper in the class and its green credentials are soon challenged.

All of the LS’s chief rivalsBMW 7 Series, Audi A8, Mercedes S-Class – offer smaller-capacity diesel engine options, so the LS600h is nowhere near the top of the class on economy or CO2. We’ve hardly scratched the surface of all the technology packed into this car. Some of it is needed, some of it isn’t, and some we just can’t judge without deliberately crashing the car. However, Mercedes are at the forefront of extending what is possible in a passenger car, while the BMW 7 Series has upped its game to offer cutting edge technology in its luxury saloon.

For this Premier model Lexus is asking top dollar, even considering the exhaustive equipment list and top-notch comfort.

The LS600h is comparable with the 4.7-litre V8-powered Mercedes S500. That car boasts 33.6mpg and 196g/km, and comes in at £92,725. You may need to add a chauffeur’s salary on top, for while it’s surprisingly engaging to drive, the best place to be is the back, especially if you get the long-wheelbase car, with its optional individual ‘ottoman’ chairs. Although, the BMW 740Le and Mercedes-Benz S500 plug-in hybrids are direct rivals and aiming to take the gloss off of the LS's main selling point.

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VERDICT

3.5 star Lexus LS

As a luxury machine – a tool to comfort, isolate and protect from the outside world – the Lexus LS is first rate.

But as a luxury object to provide the sense of occasion that buyers paying £99,000 or more expect, the LS’s attributes are less clear. Over 500 miles, the depths of its abilities, its quietness and soothing ride can’t fail to impress, yet there are aspects – in the cabin, particularly – that for us blemish the experience.

The Intelligent Park Assist is impressive, if not genuinely useful. The system rarely agreed with our judgement of what constituted a suitable space, and even then was too eager to familiarise itself with the kerb.

It all boils down to satisfaction. Details like the overly light glovebox and inadequate gearlever. Or the driver-monitoring system that, despite its immense cleverness, looks like a cross between a set-top digibox and the robot from Short Circuit.

Or the dashboard that is too easily spoilt by bright green lights if you adjust the dampers or use any of the convenience devices. And although the LS is intuitive to use, the cabin is untidily strewn with buttons, many of which could have been consolidated within the touchscreen.

No doubt Lexus has the know-how to get these things right, but maybe not the will. And that brings us back to our gap between perceived and engineered quality. Perhaps it’s a cultural difference, but for European buyers, perceived quality is important and, in this respect, the LS is not quite everything it needs to be. That is why we would suggest popping by either a Mercedes or BMW dealership and have a look at their luxury saloon offerings.

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Lexus LS 2007-2017 First drives