Can the new Lexus LS beat the Germans at their own game?
The LS 500H dares to be different in this conservative segment
The story of the Lexus LS is an interesting one. About 30 years ago, Toyota decided to step in a market they had no idea about, the luxury sedans. Back in the days, if you were looking for such car, the only options came either from the United States or Europe. To distinguish itself, Toyota knew they had to do something superior and cheaper than its competitors alongside offering a far better customer experience. They knew it would not be easy as they would have to shift the mind of consumers who only thought of Japanese cars as cheap, reliable, and durable. Toyota had to create a new benchmark that would take into account all the advantages of a Japanese car in a luxurious package.
However, before even designing the car, Toyota needed to get closer to its target market to deeply comprehend their needs and wants. Therefore, they had to go to the United States, a key country for this kind of vehicles. A team of researchers were sent to Laguna Beach in California to observe the richest of the richest. They analyzed and took notes of every single aspect of their lifestyle to understand what kind of car would fit them the best. Then was the name. Toyota could not sell this new luxury car under their own logo because the connotation was not classy enough. They had to launch a new brand with a new name and from a list of 219 potential names, they went down to 5 (Vectre, Verone, Chaparel, Calibre, and Alexis). Alexis was the favorite, but thankfully morphed into Lexus to avoid any association with the name of a character in the popular '80s show "Dynasty". The name was found, now they needed a car.
After 450 prototypes tested, 2.7 million miles driven, 6 years of development, 3'700 engineers involved, the LS400 was launched. It was cheaper than the competition, and arguably better. Mercedes-Benz even purchased two LS to try and find out why they were so good, and ultimately dropped their S-Class prices in the US by 10%. The new LS 400 was an instant hit and in only two years, Lexus passed BMW and Mercedes-Benz in sales in the US. Over the years, Lexus continued to develop the LS and it always remained a solid opponent to the Germans. In 2017, the fifth generation of the LS was introduced and we got to drive the facelift 2021 LS 500H.
First question we asked ourselves. Does it still have this special factor to beat the Germans like it did in the '80s. Well, in this market dominated by Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi, Lexus played it quite differently with a design that is definitely more "out there" than what the Germans offer. Hate it or love it, it bears the same looks as the rest of the range with distinctive Nike'esque swoosh daytime running lights, and I personally think that it's a good-looking car overall. The lines aren't as sculptural as the LC's but what do you want, it's still a conservative segment. The new LS is basically a facelift of the fifth generation that was introduced back in 2017. Th new car has better suspensions, which indeed help it to be supremely comfortable, and an updated interior. It means better seats, a wider 12.3'' infotainment system with third-party apps, and more trims.
Fundamentally, it's not a revolution. But since we didn't drive the previous model, our only point of reference is this one, and it's a very good one. You may not like the exterior, but the magic happens inside and it's not complicated to immediately fall in love with it once you step in. The materials are refined, the infotainment screen is sharp and responsive, and there is a lot of tech. However, overall this car is about comfort. Alongside the many seat adjustments, the LS 500H is also all equipped with several massage functions that will certainly make your trip more pleasant, and the seat behind the front passenger can lean all the way down to get a more relaxed sitting position, just like in first-class plane seats. A small touchscreen inserted in the center console in the back allows you to make these adjustments as well as changing music and temperature. The only element that shows a lack of refinement comes from the screen in the middle of the dashboard that shows just too much information and not too many pixels. It's definitely not as modern as the infotainment one, which makes you think that they come from two different cars.
The driving experience is very relaxed but will not be the highlight of this car. Again, Lexus fosuses on the interior and the ride comfort, and that's why it's better to sit in the back than to drive it. The LS 500H is equipped with a twin-turbo V6 that makes 359 horsepower that will go from 0 to 100 km/h in 5.5 seconds and reach a top speed of 250 km/h. Originally, the LS 500 was equipped with a V8, but that was dropped to enhance the emissions. There is an electric motor that helps a little bit in terms of performance, but is mainly here to improve gas mileage. You'll just feel it when accelerating from a standstill, or when driving really slowly. Talking about gas mileage, the 2.4 tons is a big boy that will average 9.5l/100 km, and I do not understand why they didn't go with a larger battery that can be plugged-in. We know the extra weight may be the capital argument here, but the mileage could have been way better than what they currently offer, plus the LS is already a very heavy car, so it would not have changed much.
This was the first time we had ever driven a Lexus and we weren't disappointed. The LS is an emblematic model and I think they have managed to continue the legacy of their very first model. Just like the original model, the LS is refined, techie, and very comfortable. It also has distinctive looks that will definitely make it stand out in this traditional-looking category. Now, is it better than its German competition? I'd say it has some very good arguments, but with the launch of the brand new S-Class, the LS 500H unfortunately feels a tad old already. I just admire Lexus so much for being the devoted and only non-German carmaker to still produce luxury sedans. Just for this reason I would choose it over its fierce rivals. The LS we drove cost a whopping CHF 180'000.- (£140K), but it's still less than an equivalently optioned S-Class. What would you do then? Buy this, or a more advanced, more expensive S-Class? Or maybe, you'll just wait to see what Lexus is cooking with the sixth generation of the LS?
A huge thank you goes to Lexus Switzerland who have been kind enough to let us test drive this awesome LS 500 H. It was great fun, and we cannot wait to try more models of this cool brand!
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Lexus LS 500 H