FIRST DRIVE | Outclassed 2021 Lexus LS 500 lags behind rivals
The LS nameplate is where it all started for Japanese premium brand Lexus. It went on to cement the reputation of the brand as one worthy of mention in the same breath as revered Germans. Probably no coincidence that the first generation car looked like a facsimile of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class W140.
In North America particularly, the LS was an instant hit, a top-seller that shook the stronghold of those Teutonic pioneers. Fast-forward to present times and the fifth generation LS, first launched in 2017, is hardly what you’d call derivative. No part of its exterior or interior execution could be labelled as a copy. But it’s also not as popular as its genesis was, since the Lexus model portfolio has expanded.
In the US, just 3,617 copies were sold during 2020 and 5,528 in 2019. They sold more units of the large LX flagship sport utility vehicle — 4,512 units last year. In SA, your chances of spotting an LS in the wild are slim, in contrast to sightings of counterparts from BMW, Mercedes-Benz or Audi, whose S8 arrived earlier in 2021 (they’re no longer selling the “regular” A8 here).
If you are one of the handful who lusts after the left-field LS 500, good news. Lexus rolled out a few minor changes to their top level sedan. We had some time behind the wheel (and in the backseat) at an event in Mpumalanga last week.
Truth be told, the big LS didn’t inspire us as much as the other offering revealed by the manufacturer, the LC 500 convertible. It rides on the same platform, however, dubbed the GA-L architecture in the corridors of Lexus development.
Visually, there’s a lot going on. The front has to be its most flattering angle, with the familiar spindle grille and sword-inspired elements. It seems to fall apart towards the rear, with a fastback-like profile that’s not expected in a segment where buyers want three-box conventionality. If you want to make a bigger statement, the F-Sport package throws in wheels with an aggressive style, an aerodynamic kit, badges and on the inside, aluminium trim.
What’s actually new in comparison to the 2017 car? The updates are largely beneath the skin. Lexus said the 3.5-litre, twin-turbocharged V6 was fettled to improve responsiveness and reduce operating noise. The timing of the 10-speed automatic has been adjusted. Revised engine mounts, alterations to the damping system and strengthened stabiliser bars (front and rear) culminate in a smoother on-road experience.
Smoothness and hushed operation are undoubtedly the strong points of the LS. On idle, you might think there is some hybrid trickery in the mix — not the case, it is that quiet. The six-cylinder engine note is never intrusive, more like a whispering wind, as the 310kW and 600Nm transmitted to the rear axle facilitates a gentle (but expedient) dash to 100km/h. It takes about five seconds. Semi-autonomous driving features include adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assistance and steering assistance.
It could have been the all-black colour scheme, but the ambience of the cabin in our test car was decidedly drab. The layout packs the usual assortment of sweeps and patterns, straight out of the Lexus architecture handbook. But there were some parts that looked out of place in a high-end luxury car, like those strange silver-on-plastic inlays of the fascia. Or the decorative inserts on the doors, with a pattern that looks like the veins of a leaf. The armrests on those doors are finished in “simulation leather” upholstery. And then there’s that lamentable infotainment system, but at least in this case, there’s touchscreen functionality. All occupants are treated to ventilated seats, with a vibrating seat massage feature.
All the while I couldn’t help but think the LS feels a bit lacklustre. Aside from the power and rear wheel drive chassis, I could have been driving the considerably cheaper ES (an amazing car at its price point). The “wow” factor is missing here. You can buy a BMW 7-Series and option it with a function that lets you move the car back and forth using the key fob. The new S-Class has an interior with screens for everyone and the family pet, and has a pre-collision safety system that literally props the vehicle up in a side impact. If it’s sprinting ability you want, that earlier mentioned Audi S8 can dash to 100km/h in 3.8 seconds.
If you’re spending upwards of R2,204,200 on a flagship sedan, you can do better than the Lexus LS 500.