The LS and I have had a long relationship. Back in 1993 I was an impressionable teenager nearing that holy-grail of ages: 16. This meant I dreamt of driving constantly. My parents were Oldsmobile and Chrysler folks, so my choices were a 1980 Custom Cruiser, a 1985 Cutlass Ciera, or a 1988 Grand Voyager. The Oldsmobiles were diesel. Need I say more? One day my best friend’s dad pulled up in a brand-new 1993 Lexus LS 400 for the school run. I had no idea cars could be assembled with that kind of precision and my world was changed forever. Needless to say, when the Lexus invited me to the unveiling of the fifth-generation LS, my expectations were set high.
The first thing to know about the all-new fifth-generation LS is it’s not all-new. 2013 brings a major refresh to the “FX40″ LS sedan where some 3,000 parts were changed compared to the 2006-2012 model (which was face-lifted in 2009). Being a major refresh, there are sheetmetal changes and only the doors, roof and rear quarter panels remain the same. Lexus fitted a very aggressive interpretation of their new “spindle” finally giving the LS similar “rear-view mirror” presence as the German competition.
Lexus has a reputation for interior perfection. Even though we were in a pre-production car (which normally means there’s going to be something wrong), there wasn’t so much as a seam out of place. That’s not to say that the LS is class leading in interior parts. The LS 460 still uses a molded dash and pleather door panels while Mercedes and BMW have been doubling down on stitched leather goodness.
While the LS’ seats are among the most comfortable I’ve ever sat in, the GS’ 18-way seats offer a wider range of motion and customization. Should you be lucky enough to be buying an LS to be driven in rather than to drive, the 10-way power rear seats have no equal. Oh, and the right rear seat shiatsu massages. Like Mercedes and BMW, Lexus offers a short and long wheelbase version of the LS. Due to the age of the LS’s basic dimensions however, the LS 460L’s interior is noticeably shorter than BMW’s stretched 7 series.
Aside from the opulence of the rear seat in the stretched LS, the gadget list is a reminder of two things. One: the 2013 LS is a refresh. Two: historically Lexus has been a company that perfects rather re-invents. To that end you won’t find a snazzy LCD gauge cluster or any whiz-bang-I-gotta-have-it tech. Lexus has even quietly removed their complicated self-parking option. Instead, Lexus has doubled-down on what their target market has demanded: perfect leather, perfect seams, the quietest ride you have ever experienced and quantities of wood that would make Jaguar blush.
In the center of the new dashboard is a standard 12.3-inch infotainment/navigation screen. This latest generation of Lexus “Enform” is essentially the same software as last year’s model, adjusted for a wider screen. The screen is bright and easily readable, unfortunately Lexus’s awkward joystick came along for the ride. If you think iDrive is a pain to use, Lexus’ pointer device may take you to an all-new level of frustration. As with the system in the current GS, the graphics and interface are step behind iDrive, MMI and Volvo’s Sensus.
The optional 19-speaker Mark Levinson audio system is as close to audiophile perfection as you will find in a factory-installed audio system. While the 450-watts on tap places this system behind the Bowers & Wilkins and Bang & Olufsen systems used in the competition, its unlikely to be a problem for most buyers. USB, iDevice and smartphone app integration are the same as in the rest of the Lexus line up delivering a solid and stable interface without voice commands ala Ford’s SYNC and even Toyota’s Entune.
With all the changes inside and only 50% of the parts being new, it’s obvious what hasn’t changed; the drivetrain. The same 4.6L engine and 8-speed transmission that were ground-breaking in 2006 remain with only minor software tweaks that bump the engine by 6HP to 386HP total, or 360HP when equipped with the optional AWD system. Should you feel particularly spendy, Lexus will continue to offer the LS 600h L delivering 438HP and seemingly unlimited torque through all-four wheels (and consuming large amounts of gasoline in the process). The observant in the crowd will notice these numbers pale in comparison to the twin-turbo V8s from the Germans, but remember that the LS stickers for considerably less.
When the rubber hits the road, you don’t hear much if you’re piloting an LS. Lexus always been known for serene rides, but the LS takes things to an all-new level. Even at triple digit speeds, it’s still possible to carry on whispered conversations with rear-seat passengers. The LS is so quiet the new LS F-Sport LS uses a sound tube to duct engine noise from the engine’s intake into the cabin. Aside from this duct, the F-Sport receives no engine modifications making it a suspension and appearance package. Despite this, the F-Sort is more engaging on the winding roads in Northern California than the Mercedes S-Class thanks to low-profile summer tires, but the BMW feels more poised.
Back in the “regular” LS 460, the ride is tuned to the softer side of luxury , especially when the LS is equipped with the air suspension system. It’s not the LS’ spring rates that define the handling however, the curb weight of 4,277-4,794lbs has the biggest impact on what the LS does when you enter a corner. Before you’re ready to dismiss the LS as a land-yacht, keep in mind the V8 S-Class and 7-Series are several hundred pounds heavier than the LS and have a very similar weight balance. The result is a very precise, albeit numb, vehicle.
Our short time with the LS included a hands-on demonstration of Lexus’ new driver assistance systems. First up is Lexus’ first all-speed radar cruise control which, like Volvo and Mercedes’ systems (the best on the market right now) will finally handle stop-and-go traffic. During a 20 mile trip in heavy Bay Area traffic, the system proved itself to be an equal of the benchmark systems.
2013 also brings Lexus’ interpretation of Volvo’s City Safety system. Instead of a single camera and laser scanner, as Volvo’s standard system uses, Lexus uses a stereo camera with IR illumination setup. The Lexus system is active to 24MPH vs 19MPH on the 2010-2012 Volvos and 31MPH on the 2013 Volvo models. In 2011, the IIHS released their first study on City Safety in which they reported the XC60 (the first model with the tech standard) had 27% fewer liability claims, 51% fewer injury liability claims, and 22% fewer collision claims compared to other midsize luxury SUVs. A logical person would conclude that LS models with this tech would reap similar statistics.
My personal history with the LS had set my expectations high and I was honestly somewhat disappointed. But should I have been? After all, Lexus as a brand is steeped in perfection, not necessarily innovation. This fifth generation improves significantly upon the previous generation LS. Compared to the German competition, Lexus has done little to correct the LS’ infotainment deficiencies despite the new wide-screen interface, but the precision with which it is assembled is unequaled. The LS is not without its charm, Lexus continues to deliver the most serene ride on the road this side of a Rolls Royce with large, cushy seats that will coddle your bottom for cross-country road trips. Lexus’ impeccable reliability reputation, coupled with a price that is likely to undercut the competition makes the LS a vehicle that has a place on your short list.
The Lexus event was held locally so no flight was required. Dinner, a hotel room, and all-you-can-drink Coke were provided.