A DAY spent on the roads of Japan’s port city of Yokohama was an intriguing way to get acquainted with the new Lexus LS500 and LS500h.
The cars are all new, with a design language that will not surprise any body for being polarizing, but most of all it’s what happens when you’re behind the wheel that raises an eyebrow or two.
Let me start with some background, and the subtle change in Lexus’ approach to this LS. Ever since Lexus debuted with the first generation LS in 1989, they’ve been following each with an encore of what made the world sit up and take notice. Each version after was a slow and steady evolution, of refining what was essentially a car that had taken the good points of luxury sedans of that time, and married it with Japan’s penchant for innovation and efficiency. The result was a bullet proof luxury limo that had enough about it to bloody the noses of critics that had disregarded it as merely an upstart.
Now with the latest generation, Lexus has come to a very poignant chapter in the LS story. This time around their intent is to just go their own way. Some may ask, how is this different from adopting a new design brief that includes the spindle grille and hybrid technology, a signature of Lexus cars?
To be honest, it isn’t, but Lexus is significantly confident of their new LS in a way that it isn’t really bothered about doing anything similar to its contemporaries, as they had done in the past, to make their cars better. They’ve just decided to continue making cars in the vein that they believe should be, and this needs to be applauded.
From the outset, the new design of the LS is one which has a unique duality to it. It is a design that will either rub people the wrong way or be one that you become a big fan of. The spindle grille takes center stage from the front and is flanked by design cues around the vents and headlight cluster that isn’t dissimilar to what one would find in an origami creation. The creases from the front flow towards the hood and the flanks, where the back of the car becomes slightly more effeminate, in particular the swooping curve of the roofline which takes your line of sight to the details in the rear. The low roof isn’t just a design feature, but it helps with the car’s dynamics affording the vehicle a lower centre of gravity.
The panels of the car are aluminum also reducing the weight and helping with the centre of gravity, but the chassis and frame of the car is made of high strength steel that’s extremely rigid, Lexus say this provides the optimum in the safety of car occupants.
An interesting aspect about this car is that it raises itself to allow occupants an easier time of getting in and out of the car before it goes back to its original low stance.The dimensions result in a car that sits lower and is much longer compared to its predecessor, approximately 7.6cm longer between the front and rear axle.
This translates to more space in the interior and when you step inside the vehicle, it is when you probably notice that things are mightily different from the older generation LS that have come before. To put into perspective, stepping inside a Lexus has always resulted in a high quality cabin, this time the experience is taken up another notch. The attention to detail intensifies with a variety of different surfaces and textures that captivate the eye, in addition to which lighting in and around the cabin emphasising that this isn’t just any old Lexus.
For those familiar to Lexus’ selection of materials for the interior, the manufacturer picks very purposefully items like Japanese bamboo finishes and Japanese wood, chosen for its unique texture and ability to highlight finer points in the vehicle. To further this theme in the new LS you can have a package that includes hand folded pleats with Japanese Kriko glass trim on the door panels, which really is as striking as it is elegantly Japanese. All this for door panels! All in all, there is about nine colour choices and options for quilted seat leather and a variety of laser cut wood finishes for those who like to know about such things.
As a passenger, the ride is a plush and cosseting one, with the fine leather stitching on the outside, the seats allow you maximum comfort thanks to wide shoulder room and plenty of rear legroom (8.6cm more than the previous model) for all but the tallest of passengers. The rear passenger behind the front passenger seat also has the ability to recline their seat and have a foot rest, but this is contingent to the front passenger seat folding forwards. Passengers also have the option of opting for 15 minute ‘shiatsu’ massages, a nifty feature for long drives.
While this may sound like a utopia for the passenger, the driving seat is actually not a bad place to be in either. Lexus haven’t really had the urge to make the LS a driver’s car in how BMW and AMG cars have catered to their customers in the past. They still don’t try to make it so, because that’s somewhat besides the point of buying something like the LS. That doesn’t mean that Lexus haven’t paid attention to the need for some excitement for LS drivers.
Before I go any further, I need to make one clear distinction between the two models on offer. If you want to enjoy the performance and dynamic ability this model is capable of, take the petrol version. The hybrid is alright, but has more to offer those who want to be driven around rather than those who appreciate taking a car by the scruff of the neck and finding a challenging road to get to grips with.
Surprisingly, I noticed that there is an F-Sport version that is being offered in the North American market, but from what I understand Brunei would most likely stick with the standard LS500 and LS500h. What you get in the petrol version is a twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V6 engine. I know many will wonder outloud why did they do away from their V8 engine? The newer version makes 415 horsepower and 442 pound-feet of torque, greater numbers than the outgoing model and from where I was sitting it definitely feels it. In fact, the way that power is delivered is very flexible and fluid, thanks in part to the 10 speed automatic transmission. When making the most of this power, and selecting the sport and sport + mode, the car has a willing character that’s very different than the versions before.
What really sets these cars apart are the wide array of safety features and driver-assist technology. There is now pedestrian detection and avoidance technology available and a smart cruise control feature, lane keeping assist, and steering assist, front cross traffic alert and road sign recognition depending on the selection of your safety equipment. One downside is that not all of these features are available as standard, but I personally believe that they are useful enough that you should tick that option box that nets you all the goodies. There was one incident where our test group had one of the systems intervene and help the driver from rear ending the car infront. While it was during slow moving traffic, it still avoided a needless fender bender and prevented us from being another accident statistic.
Is this new LS a game changer? Many will say no, but just as many will go on to say that Lexus is on the verge of taking their cars into the era where driver and vehicle interact in a completely different manner from what we know it. One that includes more driving aids being able to control the car and assist in ways they’ve never done before. With Lexus intent on on introducing an artificial intelligence agent into their vehicles, that goes with you from vehicle to vehicle, helping the driver with certain driving choices, navigation and road information and warnings.
The game has changed quite remarkably from the late 80s and 90s, to the point where the development and manufacture of top end cars don’t just rely on either a good design, healthy amounts of power, luxury and technology. It needs all of them in a coherent and functional package to really make a car that’s a game changer. This is somewhat a product of the original Lexus LS400’s success. It made everyone lift their game, so much so that the new LS and the strides forward that it achieves is diminished some what.
At the end of the day this new LS is a good car, one that will tick many boxes for those who are looking for a luxury saloon car, and tick all the boxes for those who are already fans of the brand. In Brunei Darussalam we have plenty of both.