A little more than two decades ago, Toyota turned the world of luxury cars upside down with the introduction of its premium Lexus brand. The brand launched with two cars, the Camry-based ES250 and the flag-ship LS400. In the intervening period, Lexus has grown to be a full-line brand and aside from the uber-expensive, uber-fast and low-volume LFA, the LS remains the flagship.
Today's LS is available in two wheelbase lengths with a choice of conventional 4.6-liter V8 or 5.0-liter V8 hybrid for the LS600h. We spent a week with the stretched LS460l with all-wheel-drive and came away from the experience a bit disappointed.
When the original LS debuted, it was lauded for quality and finish levels on a par or better than the best in world, namely Mercedes-Benz and BMW. Lexus also introduced a level of customer service unparalleled in the industry. That first generation model also featured styling that looked a bit like a knock-off of a contemporary Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Despite the sometimes less than exciting looks, the quality reputation of Lexus helped it becoming the number one selling luxury brand in America by 2000, a position it has held ever since.
The current fourth generation LS has been with us for four years now and it just received a mild refresh for 2010. Today, the styling has grown closer to that of the BMW 7 Series than the S-Class but it's still much more subdued than either of the German brands.
The LS has a sleek but slightly conservative look that will surely appeal to a certain segment of the buyers in this market segment. This is really the alternative for the low-key executive that prefers not to stand out in a crowd. The Lexus designers have done an admirable job with even the extended wheelbase model so that it looks natural without having the appearance of being stretched. Make no mistake though, this is a very large automobile spanning over 121 inches between the axles.
As with other extended length sedans from Germany, the LS offers huge quantities of space in the rear compartment. Our example also featured the executive seating package which features a large center console splitting the rear seats. The switchgear on the rear console allows rear passengers to set their own entertainment and climate control options. Both rear seats get power fore-aft and recline adjustments as well as heating and cooling but the truly special treatment is reserved for the right side passenger.
One of the numerous switches on that console allows the "executive" to move the front passenger seat all the way up and forward. With the extra leg room, the VIP can now extend an ottoman out and recline the seat back to about a 45 degree angle providing something akin to an airline business class seat. If you need some extra privacy back there additional switches will raise and lower shades on the rear and side windows.
In that rear compartment, virtually all of the surfaces are covered in leather, wood or carpet giving a truly luxurious feeling. Unfortunately if you happen to be piloting the LS it's a bit more of a mixed bag. The black upper portion of the dashboard is covered in the same sort of rubbery soft touch material that you'll find covering the much of the inside of most Audis which we've never had a problem with. The mid-section features a strip of dark-grey bird's eye maple that stretches from door to door.
Below the maple is mostly but not entirely covered in the same light-grey leather that covers the rear compartment. The area along the sides of the center stack is covered in a plastic that matches the color of the leather but not the graining. The leather is actually very smooth with only the most subtle graining. The grey plastic and the black material across the top features a much more prominent elephant-hide like grain that you typically find on much less expensive vehicles. It's not that the material is that terrible to look at but the mis-match next to the leather looks out of place.
We also had issues with uneven fits on several interior pieces most notably the glove-box cover and to a lesser degree around the top of the center stack and the vents at outer end of the dashboard. It was certainly nowhere near as bad as a Toyota Venza we drove a year ago, but not what we would expect in a car costing nearly $100,000.
From an ergonomic standpoint we've never been found of Toyota's placement of the cruise control on a stalk behind the lower portion of the steering wheel. You can't see it and if you are not used to its operation it can be confusing to set properly. Familiarity would likely alleviate most of the problem, but we still prefer to have the switches on the front of the steering wheel.
Ever since the original LS400 arrived on the scene, the Lexus flagship has been renowned (or in some cases criticized) for its remarkably peaceful and serene interior space when under way. With the 357 horsepower 4.6-liter V8 is fired up with the start button, it's clear this latest LS has lost none of that isolated feeling at least by default. Cruising around town or down the freeway, this machine feels as solid as a bank vault and nearly as quiet.
With the suspension in normal or comfort mode the ride is pillowy soft and willing to absorb any of the heaves that Michigan roads offer up. In comfort mode in particular, the LS could actually feel a bit underdamped on some of the concrete freeways with their long low frequency undulations. The steering is a bit on the light side with minimal feedback and someone interested in a more aggressive drive would likely be more content in a BMW 7 Series. More troubling was the behavior of the variable gear ratio steering. Under most conditions this system that slows the steering response at highway speeds to help keep the car from wandering is fine. At lower speeds such as maneuvering in parking lots it can feel distinctly unnatural.
Putting the suspension into the sport mode tightens the damping and the steering just a bit but not enough to suit our more German oriented tastes. The seats are comfortable but wider and flatter than we prefer although they do allow for easy ingress and egress.
The current generation LS was the first car to come to market with an eight-speed automatic transmission and this is one of the smoothest shifting transmissions we've ever driven. One of the concerns with such multi-speed transmissions is that they can start hunting between gears but this unit is so seamless that even when it does seem confused about which ratio to use, you can't feel it. Under wide open throttle acceleration a bit of the characteristic V8 roar is audible, but just a bit.
The LS460 has plenty of grunt with 0-60 mph coming up in about 5.6 seconds and plenty of braking power to haul it back down. As the flagship of the Lexus line the LS offers plenty of advanced driver assistance systems including pre-collision braking, pedestrian detection and a driver attention monitor. A little pod on top of the steering column contains a camera that detects if the driver is looking away for several seconds. If the pre-collision system cameras looking out the front of the car detects an obstacle it will warn the driver and if the driver does not respond it will automatically apply the brakes.
Buyers looking for a big luxury sedan have plenty of excellent cars to choose from several manufacturers including the BMW 7 Series, Audi A8 and Mercedes-Benz S-Class. The LS460 is an excellent option right now if you're looking for a more conservative looking cruiser but not the best option if you're after a more lively driving experience. Our all-wheel-drive LS460L stickered out at $95,765 and averaged 18 mpg in a week of mixed driving. What may be a real problem for Lexus is the pending arrival of the Hyundai Equus this fall. Hyundai wants to pose the same sort of value oriented challenge to Lexus that Toyota did to the Germans 20 years ago.