Lexus LS 2021: First drive review

Moving Well | Tim Nicholson | Posted on 11 March 2021

Tim Nicholson takes the facelifted Lexus LS for a first drive.

For most premium car-makers, the pinnacle of their model line-up is usually their largest sedan. Think the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, BMW 7 Series, Audi A8 and Jaguar XJ. It’s the same for Lexus and its LS. The LS was the model that launched the Lexus brand, bursting onto the scene in 1989, taking on the established luxury marques at their own game and, in many cases, beating them.

After a few lacklustre iterations, Lexus launched the impressive fifth-generation LS in 2018, and now the mid-life facelift has lobbed. These upper-large limos may not sell in the sorts of numbers they did in the 1990s, but they often showcase the brand’s latest tech advancements. The updated LS gets some exterior design tweaks, mechanical upgrades, improved infotainment and fresh interior touches.

The updated LS gets some exterior design tweaks, mechanical upgrades, improved infotainment and fresh interior touches.

What do you get for the price? 

The LS is available in V6 petrol (LS500) or petrol-electric hybrid (LS500h) guise and pricing is the same for both variants. Buyers can choose from the F Sport priced from $195,193 before on-road costs or the Sports Luxury at $201,078. 

While its German counterparts tend to offer a reasonable standard-features list with an unending number of options that can push the price up, Lexus focuses on value for money and packs a lot of standard gear in. In fact, the only options available are different trim and ornamentation combinations in the Sports Luxury.

Standard equipment across the LS range includes soft-close doors, auto-retractable, heated and self-dimming exterior mirrors, digital rear-view mirror, 23-speaker Mark Levinson audio with subwoofer, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, satellite navigation, colour head-up display, DAB+ digital radio, Lexus Climate Concierge with infrared body-temperature sensors, heated and ventilated front seats and rear heated outer seats and 28-way power-operated front seats with memory. That’s just to start. 

The F Sport gains aggressive sports-themed styling touches, a high-performance brake package, dynamic rear steering and front sports seats. 

The typical buyer of large luxury sedans like the LS tend to spend a bit of time being ferried around by a driver – so the rear-seat experience has to be just so. The Sports Luxury has dual 11.6-inch HD rear-seat entertainment screens with HDMI, rear seat (passenger side) with full recline function and ottoman, rear-seat massage system for outer seats, electric rear sunshades, a cooler box (LS500 only) and rear ventilated outer seats. 

Lexus has a reputation for excellent after-sales service, and it has built on this with the Lexus Encore program of customer benefits. When you buy an LS (or one of its other flagship models) you can access valet parking at participating shopping centres, and you have the option to swap into other Lexus models at select airports and dealerships. This has just been expanded to include New Zealand, so Aussie Lexus owners can grab a Lexus for their NZ holiday when that bubble opens up. You’ll also have access to exclusive lifestyle events, dinners with Lexus ‘ambassadors’, premium hotel stays and more.

How safe is it?

The LS has not been crash tested by ANCAP. New safety equipment on the LS range includes automated collision notification, which generates an SOS emergency call to an emergency call centre in the event of a serious collision or when an airbag has been deployed. It also gains Intersection Turning Assist which alerts the driver – and applies the brakes automatically – if the driver tries to turn in front of a pedestrian crossing the road. It also has autonomous emergency braking with day and night-time pedestrian detection and daytime cyclist detection, a lane-keeping aid and more. 

Interior display of the Lexus LS
Interior of the Lexus LS

The new 12.3-inch touchscreen display is a big improvement, and the Sports Luxury grade boasts reclining seats with seven massage settings.

What’s it like inside?

Lexus calls on its Japanese heritage for intricate interior detailing, using ‘Takumi’ master craftspeople who spend decades honing their craft. The craftsmanship is impressive and there is nothing to fault when it comes to the quality of the cabin materials. The fine details of the ornamentation found on the dash and door inserts of the Sports Luxury include striking herringbone wood, ‘Kiriko’ cut glass, and a new platinum leaf pattern. The ‘floating’ door armrests are also a neat visual touch.

The integrated air vents and sweeping dash design is appealing, but some of the switches look dated. The new 12.3-inch touchscreen display is a big improvement over the old screen that didn’t have touch functionality, but the multimedia system is off the pace of the Germans, particularly the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class with its massive central screen housing virtually all vehicle functions.

The front seats are plush yet supportive, and there are plenty of storage and connectivity options. 

But the wow factor is the second seating row. The rear seats are stunning and even more plush than the front seats. The Sports Luxury grade comes with a central digital controller where you’ll find seven massage settings as well as climate and audio controls. The front passenger seat can be lowered and moved forward so the seat behind can recline. When the rear seats are upright, passengers have acres of leg room, decent head room, air vents at knee and head level and a cooler box to chill the Dom Perignon behind the central rear seatback. It’s like a first-class pod in a Dreamliner back there.

What’s under the bonnet?

The LS500 is powered by a 310kW/600Nm turbocharged V6 petrol engine, good for the 0 to 100kmh dash in just five seconds. The rear wheels are driven via a 10-speed automatic transmission. The LS500h hybrid uses a naturally aspirated V6 engine paired with an electric motor and lithium-ion battery pack for a combined system output of 264kW. It too drives the rear wheels but via a continuously variable transmission (CVT), and it completes 0 to 100kmh in 5.4 seconds. The hybrid is 55 kilograms heavier than the petrol model. The LS uses multi-link suspension front and rear and it runs on 20-inch alloy wheels.

Is it efficient?

There’s a notable difference in fuel use between the two variants. The petrol LS500 consumes 10 litres per 100 kilometres of fuel on the combined cycle and emits 227g/km of CO2. The hybrid drinks 6.6L/100km and emits 150g/km of CO2. Both LS variants have an 82-litre fuel tank, a Euro 6 engine and require 95 RON fuel or higher. 

Rear light of the Lexus LS
Interior of the Lexus LS
Close up of a wheel of the Lexus LS

The lexus LS is a surprisingly capable performer and offers the luxury experience – with a stylish Japanese twist in the interiors.

How does it drive? 

Smoothness is the name of the game with the LS. We spent most of our time in the LS500 Sports Luxury, which is slightly more responsive than the outgoing version, thanks to revisions made to the V6 engine. It’s quick off the mark with linear power and torque delivery and smooth shifts from the 10-speed auto. This helps with overtaking too.

Steering is surprisingly sharp for such a large, plush limo and it corners well for a vehicle of its size. Modifications have been made to the adaptive suspension setup to ensure it retains the pillowy ride expected in a car like this, while improving dynamism. It avoids the floaty feeling you get in some large luxury sedans. It’s hard to fault the overall ride quality.

The cabin is even more hushed than before thanks to tweaks to engine noise. Even when the engine is pushed hard, it’s a quiet space. 

The LS500 F Sport is tuned for dynamic performance but the ride is no less comfortable. The F Sport is the pick for the driving enthusiast. In Sport+ mode synthetic engine noise is pumped into the cabin which ups the aural drama. 

Performance varies little between the hybrid and petrol models so choosing between them would come down to personal preference.

Should I buy one? 

Lexus has made small but meaningful changes to what was an already impressive vehicle. It’s a surprisingly capable performer and offers the luxury experience that buyers in this segment demand – with a stylish Japanese twist. But where it stands out most – and has its (mostly German) rivals beat – is value for money. To get the same level of equipment in the equivalent Audi, BMW or Mercedes, you’d be paying well over $200,000.

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