► Amazing design inside and out
► Disappointing powertrain though
► A rare find: only 100 UK sales a year
If you’re not trying to sell cars to everyone, you don’t have to make cars that everyone likes. The smaller premium car makers do best with polarising designs which 90 per cent of buyers will reject, but which the other 10 per cent will love sufficiently to forgive a few failings and choose in favour of the omni-capable offerings of the German Big Three. Some buyers like to make a statement by not making the obvious choice, but you have to offer them a car which is genuinely different, and not just a less expensively developed clone of a BMW, Audi or Mercedes.
Lexus has done difference more consistently than most low-volume luxury rivals. You can’t dispute its laser-focus on hybrid drive, craftsmanship and, more recently, design. Off the record, design directors at other brands acknowledge how much they admire it.
And now here’s the new flagship Lexus, which has to embody all these virtues and more, and which can be truly love-it-or-hate-it because Lexus UK only needs 100 people each year to love it enough to buy it. Yes: 100. I double checked because I thought they’d missed a zero off.
Read on for our full Lexus LS review.
How many will they sell?
Around 2500 Mercedes S-Classes are sold here annually, and around 2000 each of the BMW 7-series and Tesla Model S.
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I asked the Lexus UK boss to make some vague generalisations about the demographic he’s targeting with the LS (although he probably knows them all by name). If you’re a target buyer, chances are you’re the eco-CEO of your own firm in the tech or creative industries, drawn by the fact that the LS is exclusively hybrid in the UK and thus projects the right image, and buying it both to drive yourself and be driven in.
What's the design like?
I’d usually let you decide for yourself about a car’s exterior design but as you’re unlikely ever to see an LS in the metal, here’s what I think. I love it. In proportion if not in detail, this is how the Maserati Quattroporte (not a fan) should have looked. The LS is based on the same steel and aluminium platform as the LC coupe, but stretched in the middle. So the new LS acquires not only a coupe profile but also a much lower, coupe-like stance.
The wheelbase is 35mm longer than the outgoing long-wheelbase LS (this one comes in one size only) but some clever surfacing trickery just forward of the rear arches seems to pinch the bodywork in, and lends this long car’s lines dynamism and development as they flow backwards. And this being a Lexus, the detailing is crazily complex but perfectly resolved: it has the mad, 5000-surface spindle grille, of course, but the headlamps and air intakes around it are a more subtle triumph.
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And the interior?
It’s rare to get into a car and find materials or techniques you’ve never seen in a cabin before. Our test car’s doors were trimmed with cloth hand-pleated using origami techniques, and the door pulls were great lumps of carved kiriko glass. They are distinctively Japanese and unnecessarily beautiful, but they’re also a £7600 option even on a £97,995 top-spec Premier car. Without them, the cabin design is still striking, with a band of fins which run across the dash and the focused, leather-bound central binnacle.
The Premier spec includes an ‘ottoman’ function which motors the front passenger seat away and extends the rear seat behind to allow the occupant to stretch out with a calf support. But without this option the LS doesn’t offer flagship levels of rear legroom: two six-footers can sit in line in comfort, but not with space to spare. Think Quattroporte rather than S-Class. CEOs intent on both lounging and saving the planet might do better to buy a Skoda Superb and plant a forest with the saving.
What's the LS500h like to drive?
Chassis refinement is good, if not class-leading. The ride is fine, if not quite as cloud-like as the best rivals. The wheels have been designed with resonance chambers in the hollow spokes to cut tyre noise, and the 23-speaker Mark Levinson audio system listens for and actively cancels road noise.
And what about the hybrid powertrain?
But, sadly, it can’t entirely cancel the sound of the engine. It’s a 3.5-litre atmo V6 with the new Lexus Multi-Stage hybrid system and a CVT transmission, first seen in the LC coupe and retuned slightly for the saloon. Its system total of 354bhp is worked hard by the 2340kg mass of the car. Exiting a roundabout at the pace of a chauffeur just starting to get worried about delivering you to the airport on time easily sends the needle to 3000rpm or beyond to deliver the required torque, and an unpleasant moo-whine-thrash into the cabin. Peak doesn’t arrive until 5100rpm, and there’s only 258lb ft of it.
Acceleration improves on the outgoing car’s at 5.5sec to 62mph, and claimed consumption is reduced to 39.8mpg for the all-wheel-drive versions which will be most popular here. If you want to drive fast – which hardly seems the point in this car – it has adequate shove, and the stiff platform and optional air suspension provide reasonable body control and accurate if inert steering.
But the driveline always gives the impression that you’re asking it to do things it would rather not. The car’s deputy chief engineer told me there hadn’t been time to hybridise the twin-turbo version of the V6 before this car was launched, but the job was now in hand. More torque lower down would probably solve both the refinement and the engagement issues, and make the LS a much better car.
Until then, the LS500h will definitely polarise buyers. At least 90 per cent will reject it: job done. But I wonder if even the 1.4 per cent of UK customers for such cars whom Lexus hopes to win over will see past the refinement issues, or the lack of the rear seat options or almost-sentient levels of tech which the German Big Three can offer because the cost is amortised over their greater volumes.
With great visual design and an original and beautifully made cabin this is a proper Lexus, but a hybrid drivetrain no longer counts for much when the main rivals will all soon offer plug-ins which will get you from your office in W1 to Heathrow on electric power (though not back again). In this case, different may not be enough, and 100 cars a year no longer looks like a typo.
Read all our Lexus reviews