There's a guy that goes to my gym who can't get enough of the Lexus LS – let's call him Gary. Gary's the guy – you've probably got one at your gym, or coffee shop, or some other public but quasi-social location – who talks to everyone he meets. Sit next to him on the rowing machine or run by him on the track, and he's almost certainly going to bend your ear for a minute or 20. Gary is in his mid-60s, a business owner, and the super-proud owner of a 2013 Lexus LS.
Not being a shy man, Gary will be the first one to tell you that he didn't do much comparative shopping (he "drove by" the BMW dealership, and looked at a 7 Series "on the computer"). Being a satisfied former owner of multiple Lexus RXs, there was probably only a tiny statistical chance that Gary wouldn't end up in an LS when it came time for him to treat himself to the tricked out luxury car that he'd wanted for a long time. Still, when I found myself chatting with Gary about his new LS, right after I had spent a wintry week in the 2013 LS460 F-Sport AWD, I figured that he'd have some light to shed on the car.
Without substantively quoting the man (I was on the rowing machine; how often do you bring a steno pad to the gym?), here are the main things that drew Gary to the LS: He's a Lexus owner, as discussed, first and foremost. He likes the brand, has had great experiences with other products, and considers the local dealer a friend who will give him "the hookup." Gary described both the engine and the ride of the LS as being "smooth" or "so smooth" at different times during our conversation, mentioning that the car was really fast, as well. Most of his praise though, was aimed at the styling of the LS, which Gary thought was beautiful inside and out. His one criticism lay with "all those gadgets" in the car, which, I was told, he mostly didn't screw around with. Based on some commenter feedback I've gotten on my last few car reviews, I think that a large portion of the Autoblog audience would identify with Gary's succinct (if sometimes oblique) style of vehicle evaluation. We're talking to his people.
In terms of exterior beauty, Gary's appreciation for the LS seems well-founded. After being almost totally refreshed for the 2013 model year, the LS460 is at least as attractive – to my eyes – as the competitive set. I would accept arguments that full-size luxury cars like the Audi A8 and the Jaguar XJ are sleeker, certainly. But competitors from BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Cadillac all offer imposing styles that are neither much cleaner nor more complex than this F-Sport LS and its version of the "spindle grille." Beauty is ever in the eye of the beholder, of course, and while I found the revised headlights and all-LED taillights to be pretty cool, I had a twenty-something woman tell me that the car struck her as "old-fashioned." Let your own eyes be your guide.
I had a twenty-something woman tell me that the car struck her as "old-fashioned." Let your own eyes be your guide.
Less subjective is the effect that the new bodywork has had on the coefficient of drag (0.27) for the LS, and the attendant noise reduction in the cabin at speed. One of Lexus' brand hallmarks has always been a quiet ride, and this LS does not disappoint on that front. Be it on an open freeway at 80 miles per hour, or chugging through stop and go traffic, the sedan proved itself well-isolated from tire, wind and engine noise, as well as from the bustle of the outside world. The hushed environs make for a calming commuter vessel, or a fantastic place to listen to the 19-speaker Mark Levinson audio system, which has always been one of my favorites.
Aside from the good sound staging, I found the refreshed LS cabin to be less filled with surprise and delight than some of its stiffest competition. While you can feel some commonality with the new Lexus IS interior, for instance, the LS460 has a less cohesive system of controls, clad in styling that strikes me as being dull compared with the rest of the class. A 12.3-inch display is new for 2013, and is easy to read, but navigating its systems by way of the Lexus joystick can be a chore. It's funny, because in iterations past I've loved this system, but in the latest version of the software, movement of the cursor via the joystick is jumpy, and the whole system feels slow to react to inputs. In a world of lightning fast touchscreens, the LS media hub seems behind the pace. Worse, according to Gary's feedback, it might be mostly ignored by users altogether. Since the LS offers standard physical controls for basic radio and climate control functions, my guess is that a lot of LS drivers get by with minimal interactions with the jerky joystick – I know I did towards the end of my test.
My week with the LS460 offered up weather that was appropriate for both the F-Sport package and the optional all-wheel-drive system. The early Michigan spring week started dry, and ended up quite snowy.
In a world of lightning fast touchscreens, the LS media hub seems behind the pace.
Once you discount the cosmetic portion of the LS F-Sport package, the changes versus the base car are these: wider, lower profile tires on bigger wheels, bigger front brakes (14.8-inch versus 14.0-inch vented discs) and an adjustable suspension with air springs and electronically controlled shock absorbers and stabilizer bar. And, naturally, the always-on AWD system with its limited-slip center differential. The net effect of all of that for me, driving more aggressively than my gut tells me Gary would, is a big sedan that's remarkably planted and rigid when faced with multiple corners on a good road. Movement through the suspension is minimal under cornering loads, without compromising much ride quality over small bumps and potholes. "Smooth" even at speed, is a pretty good way to describe it.
And yet, there's nothing about the experience that begs pushing the LS harder, or even driving with a lot of passion to begin with. One of the things that has fascinated me with the Jaguar XJ and BMW 750i is that those big sedans feel very enticing when driven quickly, thanks to relatively responsive steering and ever-so-much play from the rear of the car. The AWD Lexus offers none of that; response to steering inputs is quick but devoid of road feel or heft, and the chassis feels dedicated to safely understeering through every hot corner it encounters.
The core value of the LS has always been comfort, not excitement.
That last part is fine, as the core value of the LS to my way of thinking has always been comfort, not excitement. And, I'm happy to report that, while the F-Sport package didn't add a lot of joy to my back-road bombing, the AWD setup did just fine in response to snowy weather. On all-season rubber, and having to deal with the streets in my neighborhood that always are the last to get plowed, the LS breezed through six-plus inches of snow with little drama. I didn't ask Gary if his LS was of the all-wheel or rear-wheel flavor, and I feel I don't have to. A Midwestern man with his head as firmly screwed down to his shoulders as ol' Gary isn't going to leave himself stranded when the plows are a little late – bet on it.
One unforeseen downside to selecting the AWD LS over the rear-driver is that it means the same 4.6-liter V8 engine is rated at 360 horsepower and 347 pound-feet of torque, instead of 386 hp and 367 lb-ft. A more restrictive exhaust system in the AWD car is the culprit. Lexus tells us that the exhaust system had to be reconfigured to fit in the engine bay, because of the extra room eaten up by the all-wheel driveline. The reduction of power, combined with some 300 added pounds of curb weight, mean that the LS AWD takes about a half second more to sprint to 60 mph, and loses one mpg in the EPA's city and combined ratings. Those facts might be a little bit irksome, but they really don't impact the driving character of the LS too much. Acceleration in the car feels strong and unstressed (the engine note hardly ever rises to a dramatic pitch in-cabin), both from a standing start and when passing on the highway. In fact, the car's quiet and super-stable ride makes it feel freight train-like at high speeds, with 80 and 90 mph repeatedly coming up without my really noticing.
One downside to selecting the AWD LS is that the same 4.6L V8 engine is rated at 360 hp and 347 lb-ft, instead of 386 hp and 367 lb-ft.
When it was all said and done, the LS keys handed back over to Lexus and another media vehicle taking its place in my driveway, I found myself hard pressed to disagree with Gary's emphatic assessment of the Lexus flagship sedan. It's smooth (in a lot of ways) and good looking and easy to live with, sure. However, with my experience driving other cars in the segment just a bit more significant than my gym buddy's drive-by, I'm not sure that I would plunk my money down on the LS before all the rest.
Looking at all-wheel-drive versions with the closest possible powertrains (V8s under 400-hp are starting to get scarce in this part of the automotive kingdom), the strongest case for the LS seems to be cost of ownership. Starting at around $75,000 if you exclude the F-Sport trimming and include destination and delivery, the LS460 AWD is a few thousand cheaper than the supercharged V6 version of the XJ AWD or 740i xDrive. It's tens of thousands of dollars less dear than any all-wheel-drive version of the S-Class, too. Of course, all of those cars offer more power and better driving dynamics, and both the BMW and the Mercedes have much slicker in-car technology. To a certain extent, you get what you pay for here.
But I think the best competitive set for the LS includes the cars that undercut the Leuxs in terms of price: the Audi A8 and Cadillac XTS. The new Caddy is really hoping to eat the Lexus' lunch, offering a similar fuss-free driving style, very similar interior space front and back, but with a next-level suite of technology and amenities. (You might not love CUE, but it's clear at least that the XTS is working with much newer hardware.) There's less shove on tap from the Cadillac V6 than you'll find in the Lexus V8, it's true, but will comparative shoppers mind when the bottom line means shelling out $10k or $15k less for the XTS? The A8 is tougher challenge yet, with prices just a few thousand lower than the LS, power levels closer to equal from its supercharged V6, restrained sheet metal, a jaw-dropping interior and brand cachet for Audi higher than ever.
The real equalizer here, and the fact truly demonstrated with Gary's purchase, is that Lexus has built an impeccable reputation for quality and sensible luxury that keeps buyers from straying from the herd. Car writers like me, and armchair pundits everywhere will be able to pick apart the LS until it is fully replaced in the next couple of years (and in front of the technology cycle once more), but Lexus will keep selling this 2013 LS460 in the meantime, rest assured.