Saturday 14 December 2019

What lies within: Lexus 'back' to future with LS

Luxury liner lacks dynamic drive, writes EDDIE CUNNINGHAM

Lexus LS
Lexus LS
Eddie Cunningham

Eddie Cunningham

I wouldn't like the Lexus LS 500h luxury hybrid saloon to be remembered only for soothing two aching backs with its outstanding Shiatsu massage system. There is much, much more to it than that (don't worry there are criticisms too).

But as an indication of what is on board this luxury hybrid, soothing backs in transit is as good a place as any to start.

The fact it was snowing outside helped magnify the warm luxury of our (front) leather seats and the thorough pummelling of our lower backs that their inner technology permitted. Not once, but three times, over the course of our journey to and from the frosty midlands did we let it loose on aching bodies.

It's far from back rubbings either of us was reared but we could get used to that, the brother and I. And that is, succinctly, why this Lexus appeals. There are things about it that just make you feel good.

Now, I thought long and hard about starting off this review with an item that may appear frivolous but I decided to do so for the serious reason that it underlines a major trend. Not for back massage; rather for the massive concentration now on what is IN a car rather than what it can achieve in power and performance. The latter two are vital elements, of course, and the LS output of mechanical muscle can live with some of the best. And it is that convergence of performance differentials between top models that is placing even greater emphasis on the 'car within'.

For example, in the case of the LS with its long wheelbase, should you wish to pay the premium (prices range from €112,750 to €148,750), it is possible to stretch out and relax in the back while someone else does the driving. I confess I did just that in Oman late last year. What a contrast that was to this, my latest drive in Ireland, where snow, sleet and frost put totally different demands on car and driver.

My test car was a picture. I love the look of the front of the car. There's nothing much to touch it at this level or price, I think. Boring old Lexus it most certainly isn't any more.

For all that, it was the blanket combination of brown and light-cream leather in the large cabin that had even this hardened old cynic purring (not to mention the un-impressible youngest daughter who deigned to suggest it was a "nice car").

The attention to detail is phenomenal: stitching, door inserts, seats, dials etc all reveal an extraordinary level of micromanaging. I know such application is a perquisite for buyers surveying the elite menus set by the likes of the Audi A8, BMW 7-series, Jaguar XJ, Mercedes S-Class, Porsche Panamera etc but it is the manner of its execution that impressed in the LS.

However, (I told you there'd be criticisms) I think someone took their eye off the main course in a couple of areas. The touchpad that lets you control so much (audio, phone, heating, massage etc) is too sensitive to the merest touch, too flighty, too prone to needing a second or third attempt to secure what I wanted. I gave this a lot of time because it was my tactile base for so many prompts and functions (steering-wheel buttons worked better). But I'm still not easy with it.

Most definitely too, I would skull the two large stunted-horn-like buttons (of minimal functionality) protruding from the driver display binnacle. They jar with the good taste on display elsewhere.

And all that cabin room we luxuriated in comes at a moderate cost: boot space is just about okay, no more for a car of this class.

On the road? I would have expected a better, more confident, level of handling and ride considering my rear-wheel drive test car had air suspension. I know wheels/tyres play their part in the way a car feels but I was disappointed by how easily harshness from ruts and minor potholes intruded. The contrast is all the more dramatic considering it made such smooth progress on good surfaces. The steering also felt woolly sometimes; a bit imprecise.

The so-called 10-speed CVT transmission generated a little bit of 'whine' when I poked the right foot hard on the accelerator but it is definitely a massive improvement on previous manifestations and is no longer a deterring factor.

Maybe, just maybe, kick-down/pick up could have been a tad quicker but the combined power of engine and electric motor showed impressive accelerative ability from a standing start (claimed 0-100kmh in 5.5 seconds).

I think the LS is a car for you to savour luxury - what a quiet drive too - rather than seek edge-of-seat dynamic performance. I reckon the Mercedes S-Class manages to combine both best but, for me, the LS is tops with those radical looks and inner creature comforts. After years in the elite-saloon doldrums, the LS is back - on several fronts.

Facts and figures

  • Lexus LS500h saloon, 3.5-litre V6 petrol (299PS) + lithium-ion battery pack, 2 electric motors = 359bhp Multi-Stage-Hybrid system; 147g/km, €390 tax. CVT '10spd automatic shift'.
  • Standard spec includes leather upholstery, electric/heated/ventilated/lumbar-support front seats, 2-zone climate control, 8ins multi-information/12.3ins multimedia display, parking sensors, Drive Mode select, Lexus Safety System. 'Luxury' trim (on test) adds semi-aniline leather, electric/rear/heated/ventilated seats, 23-speaker Mark Levinson system, 20ins alloys, front-seat massage, air suspension.
  • From €112,750. 'Luxury' trim: €122,750.

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