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2013 Lexus LS First Drive

What It Is
The most important luxury car in Lexus' model lineup.
Best Thing
Handsome, detail-oriented interior is fit for a king.
Worst Thing
Sea-sick inducing ride on anything but smooth roads.
Snap Judgment
The LS is a fantastically luxurious flagship... that fails to excite.


The Lexus LS is the most important luxury car in Lexus' model lineup. It is the flagship, the show-off, and the standard for which all other cars in its lineup should strive. And while it's been a very good luxury car for many years, each successive generation has seen it lose its standing from the perch in the premium luxury genre. Mark Templin, Lexus Group Vice President and General Manager, explains that this is due partly to what he feels is a fragmented segment. Lexus no longer has to compete with just BMW and Mercedes-Benz, the brands it once shamed. Today, the LS competes with the resurgent Cadillac, Audi and Jaguar brands, and the upstart Equus from Hyundai, among others, to capture an ever-decreasing slice of the luxury pie.

It's ironic, in a way, that the big Lexus suddenly finds itself under assault from upstarts. After all, it was just more than 20 years ago when Lexus itself shook up the luxury car industry. The original LS was a game changer, proof that Japan could build a luxury sedan not just as good as Europeans -- Americans were a non-factor at the time -- but even better. That car had Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi scrambling back to their drawing boards. Remember how austere German luxury cars used to be, with any-color-you-want-as-long-as-it's-black interiors? Lexus changed all that, and with the debut of an all-new Lexus LS, especially against the surge in luxury players, expectations are high.

The 2013 Lexus LS 460, 600h, and 460 F-Sport represent the automaker's third significant model update this year, following the successful relaunches of GS and ES, respectively. The GS has been a boon to the brand, exceeding monthly sales goals since its relaunch, and with the ES, have led to Lexus' 20-percent sales increase over 2011 figures. An updated LS should help put the automaker back atop the sales podium -- a position from which it fell in 2011.

But is it any good? And is it good enough to unseat its German rivals? Lexus flew us to San Jose for the media preview and the chance to get wheeltime before the general public to find out whether the 2013 Lexus LS lives up to its game-changing lineage.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

Walkaround

Our immediate reaction to the 2013 Lexus LS was a contemplative, "Hmmm." In short time, that grew to a more receptive, "Uh huh," and finally, to a this-is-really-catching-on "Wow."

That pronounced train of thought is something we believe many will encounter, because, quite simply, it's easy to first think that the new LS is a facade-freshened carryover; but it is not. In fact, the new LS rewards the eye that studies and contemplates its intricate detail. Starting with the obvious, the LS receives what is so far the boldest rendition of Lexus' new design philosophy, faced by the provocative "spindle grille." But there's more to the face than its nose, and if you look close, you'll see the L-shaped LED trail beneath each wrap-around headlight, a subtle brand assertion that is more enticing the more you look at it. The profile is conservative business-as-usual, but is one that stands well against the understated vets from Audi and BMW. Out back, the taillights more closely resemble the GS, where designers reversed the slake around the license plate. Compared to the previous generation, the rear bumper and deck lid look lower, wider, and justifiably prouder.

Stepping back to take it in, the viewer is reminded that the LS is indeed a large car, as it ought to be. But its grace is somehow both bold and subtle.

Sitting Down

The 2013 Lexus LS wears the same modern-inspired, horizontal interior theme as the recently launched GS and ES. And yes, it's a commanding, heavy-handed, technology-loaded, in-your-face statement that is somehow decluttered and clean. It also has the now-familiar Lexus 12.3-inch tri-level information screen, which features a host of intuitive Enform-enabled smart apps like voice-enabled Bing search, Yelp, and Pandora. It can also show the GPS map with directions on one-third of the screen, the audio on another third, and finally, the climate controls on the last third. The automatically-cooled-or-warmed seats are soft and America-sized wide, though tall, which may cramp those larger than my slight, 5-foot, 11-inch frame. Of course, there are soft-leather touches at each elbow and right-hand fingers, for the Lexus "remote-touch 2.0" mouse, the best infotainment selector in the business.

The two most fascinating new features though are pretty snazzy. The first, a not-entirely necessary lighting scheme that, when you approach the car, open the door, sit down, start the engine, drive off, or turn the car off, you can watch a series of coordinated, animated lights Tron'ing through the doors, seatbelt buckles, display, and operation zones. Lexus calls this the "Advanced Illumination System," and the intensity and warmth of the light conveys different emotions.

The second interesting LS interior advancement is an automatic climate control system that measures each occupant's temperature and, according to presets, will actively and individually raise or lower the seat and climate controls to a desired temperature. And, with the LS 460L or 600h, and its executive rear cabin, the rear seats feature a multifunction massage and leg rest, a rear-seat wood-trimmed table, and an optional 9-inch Blu-ray entertainment system.

Flashy indeed.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

Driving

This thing is huge. And that's where the 2013 Lexus LS gets tricky. There are essentially three different LS trims to choose from: the standard LS 460, the LS 460 F-Sport, and the LS 600h, a hybrid. Among those trims, each can be optioned with all-wheel drive instead of the standard rear-wheel drive, and the standard LS 460 can be had in long wheelbase; the LS 600h only comes in long wheelbase.

So, you have big and really big.

Why is this tricky? Because the LS rides like a boat, and it's about as heavy as one, too. Which means that the coil-spring and optional air-spring suspensions are working hard to offset the enormous load placed atop them. This is not a problem on the highway, where the LS mocks freeway expansion joints with childish haughtiness. But the LS is not a commuter car, and if you drive it on twisty roads, like Lexus had us do around various Silicon Valley routes near the Pacific Ocean, then you begin to realize that large cars with overtly-floaty suspensions are luxuriously soft, yes, but also a handful. Even at slow speeds. And that's putting it mildly.

Lexus has thankfully employed a drive-selector mode under the driver armrest. With the knob, you are able to choose from Eco, normal, comfort, and depending on vehicle, multiple sport modes. Each of these adjust engine computer and/or suspension tuning such that you can have the more adaptive suspension tuning lessen the dive and sway when desired, like on a winding, mountain road. Lest you think these are just flashy gimmicks, realize that they are not, and that it is our opinion that the LS should be driven in Sport or Sport+ mode 100-percent of the time to reduce the likelihood of seasickness.

Of course, the Lexus LS has never been considered much of a sport sedan, so perhaps criticizing it for a cushy ride and poor back-road handling is asking too much of the big four-door. Oh, but then there's the LS 460 F-Sport. It's lower. And stiffer (but not so stiff that the Baby Boomer's will mind). And you know what else? It's fantastic. The LS 460 F-Sport actually feels smaller than it is. It is responsive at the wheel and at the brakes, and the paddle shifters are, in sport mode, as you'd expect from a premium sport sedan. On the mountainous roads, the LS 460 F-Sport was well behaved, smooth over bumps, and the vehicular heft was easy to manage and transition heading into multiple corners. THIS is the LS that lives up to its lineage, the genre-defining trendsetter that started it all, and it should be the base model.

Summary

It's impossible to think that a 2013 Lexus LS owner could ever be dissatisfied with his purchase -- it's a fantastic car with every conceivable amenity and safety feature on the road. It's less of a head-turner than an actual gaze holder, which fits the conservatively bold styling for its intended demographic. And despite the size, it's fairly quick, thanks to V-8 and hybrid-electric V-8 power and an eight-speed automatic transmission that is as smooth as a 16-year aged Scotch. And yet, we couldn't help but wonder about the Jekyll and Hyde drive characteristics of the F-Sport compared to the base and hybrid models. On the one hand, the 2013 Lexus LS is a newer version of the previous model, an excellent executive luxury car of exceedingly refined quality that fails to excite. That is the car that has strayed from the LS' roots (the model that whipped the Germans into shape), and it is unfortunately the model that Toyota executives seem inclined to keep.

But hold on. The LS F Sport offers up genuine big-car sport sedan moves that actually back up the bold new styling, and help alter the definition of what we expect from the Lexus flagship in the process. Asked about Lexus' brand's appeal, Templin commented on the tendencies of the Baby Boomer demographic, but also with the possibilities of F-Sport. "We've only dipped our toe into F-Sport," he said.

It is the F-Sport that we want, the model that the bean counters and corporate executives acceded into letting the engineers develop, if driven even in Comfort mode, if even for the possibility of recapturing a modern hint of the original.

"Stay tuned," Templin finished. More is on the horizon.

Basic Specs

4.6-liter V-8, 8-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive, 386-hp, $67,000 (est), 16 mpg city/24 mpg hwy (est.)

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