In the company of the very rich, Lexus has generally been the poor relation.
Its cars are perfectly good, but a pricing strategy that majors on value (a relative concept of course), uninspiring styling and well-made but mundane interiors means it is often on the outside looking in on the big three of BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz.
And nowhere is any shortfall – real or perceived – more harshly spotlighted than the luxury sector, where car makers get to show off everything they can do. Showing off really isn’t a Lexus trait.
The new LS460 doesn’t change that approach. It doesn’t have a bullying exterior that demands deference, or a bells and whistles interior designed like a hi-tech superyacht. But it is a very, very fine way of getting about.
It gets an entirely new 375bhp 4.6-litre V8 engine bolted to an eight-speed automatic gearbox – a world first. While it might seem that Lexus is embarking on a game of cog-oneupmanship, engineers claim that the combination of slightly smaller engine than rivals’ 5.0-litre versions and the extra gear(s) mean equal performance and better fuel economy in most driving conditions.
With the styling, it seems incredible that Lexus has managed to make the smaller GS look so lumpen when the big LS looks so sleek and handsome. It’s a seriously good-looking car.
In my opinion, the A8 is still the best looking luxury saloon, but the LS has a strongly proportioned, mature, masculine appearance and is big, but not bulky in a Pierce Brosnan/bloke-in-a-Gillette-shaving-ad way. It even looks good in white, which should please the oil-rich Middle East market.
The interior is the typical Lexus mix of quality materials mixed with functionality. While the German brands have been tucking many of the cars’ functions away in new digital homes, Lexus has stuck to the old-fashioned buttons-everywhere approach, although the touch-screen system does prevent the button count reaching three figures.
So in terms of dashboard layout, the LS feels more at home in the executive class than luxury, alongside an E-class for example, but you cannot fault what it offers you in equipment levels, or the standard of materials.
The leather, which is draped everywhere, is of phenomenal quality. It’s so soft, I’d like my bed to be made of it, and you’d be paying serious money for an upgrade to match it in the competition. And, of course, offering more than the competition is a key Lexus strategy, and the LS doesn’t disappoint.
For the first time it is available in four trim levels, as opposed to the old ‘throw everything at one model approach’. A standard LS, costing £57,000 has DVD sat nav, voice command, Bluetooth phone, climate control, parking assist, electric memory seats and keyless entry and start.
Even more toys are added in SE trim, and by the time you get to the £71,000 SE-L, which will even park itself, an equivalently- specced S500 would cost around £18,000 more, Lexus claims.
The automatic parking is one of a number of technologies introduced into the LS. It’s a wonderful gadget. Pull the car up in front of the space (it will either parallel or reverse park), poke the touch screen and watch as the steering wheel spins you back into the spot. Unparalleled parking.
Much of the rest of the LS’s innovation are a little less obvious, and are safety-based. Here we enter the wonderful world of Lexus acronyms. Using radar and infra-red, the Advanced Obstacle Detection System (AODS) will warn the driver if they are about to hit something. PCS (Pre-Crash Safety) arms the VGRS (Variable Gear Ratio Steering) to make the steering faster, AVS (Adaptive Variable Suspension) tenses to stop body roll, and VDIM (Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management) looks after traction and stability control. All of this can make the difference between a lairy out-of-control moment which results in a smash or a controlled avoiding manouevre.
The LS also has a camera which monitors the driver’s face and grabs their attention if they are looking away and about to hit something, as well as Rear Pre-Crash, which detects an imminent rear impact and moves the headrests to minimise whiplash.
Next year, Lexus reckons it will sell about 500 LSs with a further 200-odd hybrid 600hs, which will come at a significant price premium (see page 9). That’s well under half of what even the least selling rival manages. Mainly that will be because there will not be an entry-level diesel, excluding it from many chauffeur fleets.
Max power (bhp/rpm): 375/6,400
Max torque (lb-ft/rpm): 364/4,100
Max speed (mph): 155
0-62mph (secs): 5.7
Fuel consumption (mpg): 25.4
CO2 emissions (g/km): 261
On sale: January 8
Prices (OTR): £57,000–£71,000
Behind the wheel
The LS460 is a joy to drive. Lexus has managed to get the balance between comfort and driving enjoyment exactly right for this sort of car.
The ride quality is exemplary and the engine only makes itself heard when you get the urge to floor the accelerator. Any other time it just swooshes you along and is certainly pretty rapid. 0-62mph takes 5.7 seconds and there’s little roll through corners, or pitch when braking. The adaptive suspension does its job very well.
The steering is ideally weighted while the eight-speed gearbox ensures the engine offers plenty of immediate urge, but quickly finds a high, relaxed gear as soon as you start cruising.
Much of the new technology works well, too. On an airfield the object warning and avoidance systems did themselves proud, illustrating how when it detects danger, the LS tenses like a cornered tiger and then reacts extremely sharply and precisely. It gives you the maximum possible chance to get out of a scrape alive.
Less impressive is the lane keep assist system, which partially steers itself to keep you between white lines, but not enough that you haven’t got to keep your wits about you to stop it drifting. So it does neither one nor the other, and is irritating and a waste of time.
Lexus has put itself on the luxury car map with this car, and while many will opt for the three-pointed star thanks to its cachet, this new LS deserves consideration alongside anything BMW or Audi can muster.