Lexus banishes frump factor with new LS

Peter Atkinson
The new Lexus LS500 boasts a sexy silhouette and also shines inside the cabin

Boring can be a very difficult label to shake off.

It's a tag that was applied - with some justification - to Japanese luxury brand Lexus for the first half of its corporate existence, and one they've been trying to shake off ever since.

Boring, of course, can mean different things to different people. In the case of Lexus, it became a byword for the quality, safety, luxury and, yes, conservative style and values that characterised their vehicles.

Yet while most of those terms still apply to Lexus, you could scarcely describe their cars as "boring" these days.

Lexus' flagship limousine, the LS, has always delivered more quality, safety, luxury and conservative styling than any other model to wear the badge. But it has also remained the Lexus most likely to be driven by a middle-aged man wearing a cardigan.

Until now.

The arrival of an all-new, fifth-generation LS has banished the "frump factor" once and for all.

The company once derided for building "tricked-up Toyotas" has made massive strides in its design department over recent years - from stylish SUVs to the jaw-dropping lines of the new LC coupe. Now, at long last, the Lexus design team have nailed their big car design with the new LS.

It's taken long enough. Keep in mind that the LS was the first Lexus model ever sold in Australia way back in 1989 - at a time when it represented the entire Lexus model range. Always refined, beautifully built and supremely comfortable, it could never match its rivals in the excitement stakes.

Now, if it's not the best-looking machine in this high-priced segment, it's certainly in the grand final. That gloriously long-and-low silhouette challenges the best that Germany has to offer in the form of the Audi A8, Benz S-Class and 7 Series Beemer, bringing looks, charisma and pure athletic appeal.

Dynamically, it has also taken a massive step forward. While doing away with a previous big V8 engine in favour of a twin-turbo-boosted V6, it delivers performance to back up those sexy looks.

A generous 310 kilowatts and 600Nm make this a seriously spirited thing to drive - as evidenced by its 0-100km/h time of just 5 seconds.

Driving through a 10-speed transmission (sounds more like a pushbike but it certainly doesn't drive like one), the big Lexus offers creamy, seamless progress - further enhanced by the cloud-like ride of the air suspension system. Pleasingly, selecting Sport mode markedly sharpens up the car's performance and handling to the point of being quite racy to drive.

As well as the model tested here, Lexus also offers its signature hybrid option, coupling a normally-aspirated version of the 3.5-litre V6 with a multi-stage hybrid system that adds an additional 300Nm and makes it almost as quick as the twin-turbo model.

But it's inside the cabin where the Lexus really shines.

The car is said to embrace the Japanese hospitality principles of Omotenashi - caring for its passengers and anticipating their needs.

Lexus boasts of using "Takumi craftsmanship" in manufacturing processes that borrow from origami and other traditional Japanese craft. Even the car's start-up function is, apparently, inspired by the "soft glow of traditional Japanese Andon lanterns". To me it seemed more like a meteor shower released within the cabin when you started the car. But it's pretty cool, however you describe it.

For once, Lexus has curbed its long-held inclination to cram a cockpit with as many buttons as possible - as if the price tag dictates how many gizmos and gadgets a car should have.

Instead, they've (mostly) pared back the switchgear in favour of better using its centralised cabin management system, plus a few key buttons for everyday tasks.

Unlike the Euros, the LS hasn't opted for a series of high-res screens to dominate the dashboard setup. Instead, the LS's digital instrument panel is surprisingly small and focused, albeit with some snazzy graphics and digital displays.

Yes, there's a big screen at the top of the centre stack but it's all nicely integrated and, for Lexus at least, quite intuitive to use.

Still, it wouldn't be a Lexus without a dazzling array of electronics, and this car doesn't disappoint.

A quick highlights package would include the 23-speaker Mark Levinson audio system, a lateral radar pre-collision system and a lane-tracing assist that aids the driver by recognising road markings and tracing the vehicle ahead.

Comfort is a given, but this is next-level.

The rear seats are bucket-style and individually adjustable via a pretty little touch-screen, ensuring every whim of the rear-seat passengers is accommodated, be it audio, climate, seats or sunshades.

In the Sport Luxury model tested here, that stretches to an extraordinary 22 ways to adjust the rear seats at the push of a button.

There's a massage function (Shiatsu, of course) and a series of spot heaters to target any areas of stiffness or discomfort. There are five massage programs including "Refresh" and "Stretch".

Ironic, then, that when the LS has finally become such an interesting thing to drive, the rear seat is probably the best place to be.

Enough to put you to sleep, perhaps. But certainly not boring.


HOW BIG? It's a full-sized limo, with enough rear-seat leg room for occupants to lean back and have a nap if they wish. The boot is huge, too.

HOW FAST? Seriously so, for a car that has never claimed to be particularly athletic. The twin-turbo V6 version is narrowly quicker than they hybrid.

HOW THIRSTY? The straight petrol version guzzles 9.5L/100km - while the hybrid manages a much more impressive 6.3L/100km.

HOW MUCH? The "basic" LS costs just over $200k, while the Sport Luxury tested here costs $211,040 drive away.