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2019 Lexus LS 500h Test Drive Review: Japanese Luxury With A Hybrid Heart

Test Drive / 5 Comments

The Lexus LS is proof the carmaker has finally found an identity.

For decades dominated by sober German sedans, the luxury limo market has gotten a whole lot more dynamic. And into it strides Lexus, now on its fifth generation of LS and looking to reinforce its position with a more aggressively styled evolution of the model that launched the brand. I've got a week with it to find out if it's been successful. If the original LS was basically 'Mercedes-Benz S-Class' successfully translated into Japanese this new one has assumed a character and swagger all of its own, reflective of Lexus's growing sense of identity.

This is evident from the very first time you set eyes on the car, that bewilderingly complex interpretation of the 'spindle grille' providing a visual representation of this car's complicated character. With its organic curves, confident bodywork slashes and rear-set cabin the new LS falls somewhere between the traditional sedan format of the S-Class, BMW 7 Series, Audi A8 and the sportier, more coupe influenced Jaguar XJ, Porsche Panamera and Maserati Quattroporte. It's certainly distinctive and brimming with self-confidence, a theme continued inside with design celebrating Japanese craft traditions distinct from the quilted chintz of modern-day Mercedes and tech-led modernism of BMW and Audi.

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My test car is a UK-market LS 500h AWD Premier or, more simply, 'peak Lexus'. The different US product structure means its Stateside equivalent equates to a LS 500h AWD with the $23,060 Executive Package. By the time you add the required extras you're looking at a $114,000 car, fully loaded and including a passenger-side, rear seat recliner with enough power adjustment to make a La-Z-Boy feel as luxurious as a park bench. Heck, it'll even offer you a selection of Shiatsu massage programs with targeted heat stimulation to ease away those boardroom stresses as you get chauffeured back from the office.

I don't have that luxury. Meaning I'll be experiencing the LS from the plump, 28-way adjustable driver's seat and taking the wheel myself. But this is a limo you'll hopefully enjoy equally from any seat, Lexus making sure there's no second-class accommodation anywhere in the cabin. It's certainly striking in here, the 'floating' arm rests looking cool against those exquisitely hand-stitched, Origami-inspired door cards and set off by the intricate Kiriko glass trim. Describing it as a Japanese translation of bling sounds crude so let's settle for Lexus's preferred 'Omotenashi', apparently a long-held tradition of hospitality principles here presented in automotive form.

But a car of this stature needs more than artistic flourishes. Tech integration is racing ahead in this field and the German brands are undoubtedly leading the way, Mercedes with its widescreen displays, BMW with gesture control and Audi and Porsche with their multiple touchscreens and 'hidden' haptic switches. Reflecting its shared GA-L platform (and spirit) with the LC, the LS's instruments get a sporty, standalone binnacle with LFA-inspired driver mode controls sprouting either side and a separate 12.3in central screen for navigation, infotainment and other gizmos. This is controlled by a touchpad between the seats, which will be fine for a right-handed driver in a left-hand drive car.

But a test of dexterity and patience for right-handers in RHD markets like your correspondent. Pinch and swipe functions help a bit but it's perhaps the least successful interface yet fitted to a luxury car, original iDrive included. Worse still our test car didn't like it when I plugged my iPhone in, the navigation freezing at one point and then completely disappearing from the system on a subsequent drive. A Lexus spokesperson seemed aware of the problem and reassured me a plug-in dealer update would solve it, customers able to discuss the practicalities of doing so with their retailer. A minor point perhaps but in a car packed with so much tech it's an uncharacteristic wobble for a Lexus.

Given the complexity of the Multi Stage Hybrid System you'll have to hope the software controlling this is somewhat more resilient… In the US, the LS500 is available as a new 415hp turbocharged 3.5-liter V6 driving through a 10-speed automatic and available with rear- or all-wheel drive. The hybrid LS 500h is a rather more complex beast, pairing a naturally-aspirated 3.5-liter V6 with two electric motors for a system total of 354hp and driving through a combination of a four-speed gearbox AND a CVT unit. Effectively this is also 10-speed, although the technicalities of how that is achieved will make your brain hurt.

This is also available in RWD and AWD variants, the hybrid around 143lb heavier than the petrol-only version and also losing some trunk space to make room for the battery. In AWD form as tested the LS 500h weighs in at a hefty 5,027lb. That's about 500lb heavier than a plug-in hybrid BMW 740Le xDrive iPerformance that can cover a claimed 27 miles on electric power alone. Sure, you're able to purr away from the curb under electric power in the LS. But use much beyond quarter throttle, hit a gradient or exceed 30mph or so and the petrol engine quickly joins the party.

Around town it's pretty unobtrusive but if you need a sudden burst of acceleration on the freeway it'll still howl like any CVT, the sound intruding on the otherwise peaceful cabin in a way that underlines how hard the V6 is working against the LS's considerable weight. Whatever insulation and noise-cancelling there may be over the speakers it's an unpleasant intrusion on the otherwise Zen-like calm and proves the LS is more suited to wafting than cut and thrust driving. Which is one reason you'll be wanting to specify the optional air suspension, whichever grade you opt for.

A $1,500 standalone option, and compulsory addition if you're choosing upgrades like the Luxury or Executive Package, it is pretty much essential on a car of this stature and gives the kind of insulation and refinement you'd want. It'll even automatically raise the car by close to two inches when you park and unlock the doors to raise the hip point of the seats and improve access, the kind of thoughtful touch Lexus includes as part of its Omotenashi design philosophy. Determined to explore whether the hybrid is any more than virtue signalling I spend much of my time in the LS 500h trying to drive on EV power alone, obsessing over the energy transfer display.

You can coast downhill at freeway speeds with a little green 'EV' symbol and no internal combustion power. But it doesn't take much to wake the petrol engine and even keeping below 30mph around town will rarely score you much more than a mile of pure EV propulsion. Europe doesn't get the choice of the petrol-only turbo V6 but given it's cheaper, lighter, faster and the difference in official highway mileage is only 3mpg (30mpg for the regular car, 33mpg for the hybrid) it would seem the more appealing choice. That would certainly be true if you like the more aggressive F SPORT styling and want to explore the Sport S and Sport S+ modes I barely touched in the hybrid.

Attempt to push this car beyond its comfort zone of city streets and highways and if the CVT doesn't put you off the sheer bulk of the thing might. That's like complaining a Ferrari isn't much use as a family car though. And as a finale to my loan when the man from Lexus comes to collect it from me I ask him a favor that raises a laugh. Yes, I want him to drive me around for a bit for a more appropriate LS 500 experience. From that reclining rear seat. He obliges, I tap away at the touchscreen and the front passenger seat pulls forward to open up more than 3ft of legroom. With the seat reclined 48 degrees, the 'ottoman' leg support extended and the Shiatsu massage set to maximum this is the real way to enjoy the LS 500h.

Fiddly trackpads, nav that won't talk to Apple devices and energy management between gasoline engine and electric motors are no longer my problem. And from back here this distinctively Japanese spin on luxury transport suddenly makes sense. Sure, you could turn up in an S-Class. But in the LS 500h you'll be announcing your arrival. And that's the kind of subtle difference freshly self-confident Lexus is selling.