Few cars did more to revolutionize the market than the original 1990 Lexus LS 400, a flagship for Toyota’s new luxury marque and proof positive the Japanese really could go toe-to-toe with the best of the German competition.
In the nearly quarter-century since the LS line first appeared, however, Lexus has played it increasingly safe, especially when it has come to design, no wonder the big 4-door has lately lost ground to the more aggressive Europeans. But during the preview of the smaller Lexus GS last year, Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda promised to punch some more passion into the brand — and the 2013 Lexus LS 460 that debuted in San Francisco last night is a clear indication of what he meant.
At a gathering of 500 invited guests from the San Francisco arts and design community, Lexus actually showed up four different versions of the flagship sedan: the “base” LS 460, the long-wheelbase LS 460L, the LS 600h and the new LS 460 F- Sport, a more aggressive addition to the line-up.
Where recent generations of the LS have evolved into a softly rounded, safe shape that appealed to a buyer largely indifferent about automotive design, the new LS no longer is aiming to play it safe. The most immediately noticeable detail is the so-called spindle grille that the big sedan shares with the smaller LS and other recent Lexus entries.
A thin accent line sweeps back from the grille, adding an element of sculpture to the hood. The new projector headlights flare off from either side of the grille and taper back into the fenders, adopting the LED accents that have become a basic requirement in the luxury segment these days.
Crisp accents lines give more character to the side profile of the new LS family, with the sedan getting broader rear shoulders that add to a sense of both refinement and power.
The new F Sport takes things a step further. The name has been showing up on a number of Lexus models lately, even the RX crossover, though only the small IS-F line offers a real performance package that includes serious powertrain revisions. In the case of the Lexus LS 460 F Sport, the package delivers more aggressive exterior detailing – such as a unique grille mesh and front and rear fascia — with a unique sport interior including leather-wrapped steering wheel with paddle shifters, and aluminum trim.
The F Sport makeover isn’t entirely cosmetic. The sport-tuned air suspension has been lowered 0.4 inches and the sedan gets a Torsen limited slip differential (in rear-drive configuration), six-piston caliper Brembo brakes and 19-inch forged wheels with a choice of summer or all-season tires. The F Sport is available in both standard and long-wheelbase configurations and rear or all-wheel-drive.
The visual changes are largely cosmetic. This is not a ground-up redesign as we saw in 2006, but a significant update to the existing LS platform. The 2013 version of the standard-length Lexus LS 460 still measures 116.9 inches, nose-to-tail, the LS 460L coming in at 121.7 inches.
It would be difficult to claim you’ve come up with a more passionate car without making some tweaks to the handling and performance of what has been one of the premium luxury segment’s more mild-mannered offerings, of course.
Lexus claims to have stiffened the 2013 LS body, improved steering and handling and tightened braking performance, as well, even on the non-Sport models. Those versions not getting the air suspension, meanwhile, adopt new frequency-reactive dampers.
As for the 4.6-liter V-8, it’s a carryover, though the 2013 rear-drive model gets an extra 6 horsepower, at 386 hp, while torque holds steady at 367 lb-ft. In AWD configuration, the numbers each climb by three to 360 hp and 347 lb-ft. The 8-speed gearbox, a breakthrough when Lexus introduced the last LS line in 2006, is also carried over.
The maker generated quite a bit of buzz, seven years ago, when it announced the flagship of its flagship line, the LS 600h. The first premium luxury hybrid featured just about bit of high-tech gadgetry the maker could come up with. But it turned out to symbolize the broader problems of the LS line-up, the gas-electric powertrain neither particularly sporty nor especially great on mileage.
For 2013 Lexus claims to have improved both characteristics, though the basics of the driveline remain largely the same. It starts with a 5.0-liter V-8 mated to a pair of electric motors that together produce 438 horsepower and are claimed to deliver 0 to 60 times of 5.5 seconds.
Notably, the 2013 model opts for lithium-ion rather than more traditional nickel-metal hydride batteries which should deliver both longer range in battery-only mode and improved fuel economy.
As one would expect of a new flagship luxury sedan, the LS line adopts still more technology, including the new Lexus Enform infotainment system – which displays on a huge, 12.3-inch monitor and which can access a variety of smartphone apps, such as Pandora, iHeartRadio and movietickets.com, as well as use Bing to search the Internet and access your Facebook account – so you can brag about your passionate new purchase.
Options include the latest in Mark Levinson premium audio, a business-class style reclining and massaging seat in the 600 L, and all manner of safety features, such as Lane Keep Assist and radar-guided Automatic Cruise Control. That system will automatically brake the LS if it detects a serious speed differential with the vehicle ahead.
The 2013 Lexus LS 460 starts at $68,505 in rear-drive configuration and $70,810 in AWD. You’ll pay about $5,500 more for the long-wheelbase versions, though the fully-loaded long version of the hybrid LS 600L tops out at $113,625.
Lexus is planning a phased roll-out, the base LS 460 arriving in showrooms in October, the F Sport following a month later and the hybrid and long-wheelbase models going on sale in December.
Will the new look and features be enough to put the LS back into gear in the premium luxury market? It will clearly be facing some tough competition, including a refreshed BMW 7-Series coming in the months ahead and an all-new Mercedes-Benz S-Class to follow next year. The competition won’t make it as easy for Lexus as it was when the original LS sedan debuted in 1990.
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