Lexus' evolutionary update of its flagship
Recall crisis, quake interfered with LS 460's redesign
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SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Luxury brands typically make grand technological statements when redesigning their flagships. So what to make of Lexus' rather bland evolution of its LS 460 sedan?
Before condemnations rain down, remember that a key portion of r&d and engineering work for this car coincided with the unintended acceleration recall crisis, which forced Toyota Motor Corp. to divert a healthy chunk of its engineering resources. If there was to be a dramatic redo of the LS 460, the scandal set it back significantly. Then the Japan earthquake last March finished it off.
Although Satoru Ohsaku, the LS assistant chief engineer, said 1,000 engineers were involved in the car's development, other executives confirm that some brainpower was reassigned to cope with the recall crisis and quake.
As a result, luxury shoppers will see an LS with some new front and rear sheet metal, although the doors are basically the same. Inside, the 12.3-inch instrument panel and center stack are mostly shared with the new GS 350. There are a few nifty safety and convenience additions.
Lexus says 3,000 parts were revised, but they mostly involve the improvement of existing components -- such as implementing LED lighting and speeding the heating and cooling time of the seats. Key underpinnings of the car remain the same.
The basics: The LS is still offered in standard and long-wheelbase editions -- both available with rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive -- as well as the LS 600h hybrid version. New for the flagship is an F Sport trim level, with Torsen limited slip differential, Brembo brakes and 19-inch wheels.
The 4.6-liter V-8 engine and eight-speed transmission are basically carryovers, with a minor horsepower increase, at a time when rival luxury brands are using powertrain technology as a differentiating ploy.
Drive settings for all models can be adjusted for comfort, sport and sport-plus mode, although most LS buyers will leave the cartoonishly oversized rotary knob alone.
While the suspension setup is mostly carryover, it features new frequency-dependent shock absorbers for a more responsive ride. Steering is described by Lexus as having more accuracy and turn-in response, while the brakes have more pedal feel. Most journalists preferred the F Sport's more taut settings, but traditional Lexus buyers probably will stick with the flagship's standard floaty setup.
Notable features: Some detail changes are significant.
On the safety side, the LS 460 has a collision avoidance system that, at speeds below 24 mph will bring the car to a halt if it detects a possible accident. The safety system also has blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure warning sensors and a reverse-gear cross-traffic alert. An optional infrared camera system can detect pedestrians or an animal well beyond the visible reach of the car's high-beam headlamps.
Inside, 14 temperature sensors will ensure the automatic climate control is accurate in four separate zones. The interior lighting is entirely LED. There is leather padding where the driver and front passenger's knees would touch the transmission tunnel.
The long-wheelbase version adds five inches to the wheelbase and overall length of the car. It also adds an opulent back seat that includes a fold-out ottoman. The right rear seat features optional "shiatsu massage" — but whereas the Hyundai Equus' version feels like an angry Korean with sharp elbows, the Lexus feels akin to a very friendly Swedish au pair.
A Shimamoku wood trim is optional. It takes 38 days to complete the 67-step process of layering, laminating and polishing the Agathis wood graining. The analog clock automatically changes time when a driver enters a new time zone.
What Lexus says: "The LS is about luxury, refinement, craftsmanship and quality," said Mark Templin, Lexus division's general manager. "It drives like a much smaller car."
Compromises and shortcomings: In the standard model, manual downshifts take two full beats to occur, unforgivably slow compared with the German brands. Only the F Sport model has paddle shifters and rev-matching throttle blips during gear changes.
The center console array is an ergonomic mess. The placement of cupholders and the telematics mouse means the gearshift is positioned two inches too far to the rear for comfortable gear changing in sport mode.
The driver must contort his arm and wrist to toggle the gearshift manually. The trés cool bamboo wood trim (not the Shimamoku option) is available only with the hybrid -- although that may change with the next model year. There is no heads-up display available; such displays are largely available on competitors' much lesser cars.
The market: Lexus expects to sell about 1,000 units a month, double the current rate during the previous model's selldown. But that projection is far below the LS peak of 35,226 units when the previous generation was launched in 2007. About 25 percent of LS sales are of the long-wheelbase version. That's far lower than BMW. Mercedes-Benz sells only long-wheelbase versions in the United States.
The skinny: Getting the new LS right is crucial for Lexus. The outgoing version was a technical tour de force leveled at the Germans. But because of tough yen exchange rates and a leeching of needed engineering resources, it's a stretch to call the 2013 LS a full redesign. It's a mild improvement of a car that was amazing five years ago. But five years from now, this car may seem seriously out-of-date.
You can reach Mark Rechtin at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Follow Mark on