Elite Traveler gets behind the wheel of the Lexus LS 500h Premier, their latest flagship sedan, as the Japanese carmaker once again attempts to take a slice of the luxury market share from German giants Audi, Mercedes and BMW.
There was something serendipitous about sitting behind the wheel of the Lexus LS 500h Premier for the first time. Two decades previous, I was accompanying my grandfather as he picked and purchased a much earlier incarnation, the LS 400.
At that time, Lexus were still new players in the luxury sedan market and attempting to challenge the Mercedes S-Class, the Audi A8 and the BMW 7-Series. And here they were in my driveway in 2019, still attempting to do the same thing. You have got to admire their persistence.
In the intervening years, the Lexus LS has been the go-to for customers looking for an alternative to those mind-numbingly consistent German manufacturers. In return, Lexus offers outstanding build quality and superior customer service. Adding to that, the LS 500h Premier continues to grow their reputation for stunning exterior design.
Standing from the front, you instantly recognize this car as a flagship model. The distinctive spindle grille and 20″ alloy wheels mark it out from the crowd. More often than not, passers-by are compelled to look twice. They may not know what they are looking at, but they know it’s not your everyday Lexus.
The coupé-like design differentiates it from the crowd and they move yet further afield with the introduction of a gasoline/hybrid engine system. The lithium-ion battery not only allows you to drive on electric power alone in some situations but also works with the 3.5L V6 engine to produce a combined output of 354bhp. That translates to a top speed of 155 mph and 0-62mph in 5.5-seconds, which is notable for a car weighing 2.2 tons.
This innovative drivetrain, which Lexus claims to be the ‘world’s first multi-stage hybrid system’, will certainly win favor with the ecologically conscious CEO, but a week’s worth of driving rarely reaped more than 30 miles per gallon, down from the claimed economy of 39.8mpg and in line with the diesel engines of the S-Class, A8 and 7-Series. Of course, there is much to be argued for an outright rejection of diesel, especially if the owner is planning on driving it in ultra-low emission areas such as London.
A choice six different driving modes (Eco, Comfort, Normal, Custom, Sport & Sport+) gives more than enough choice of how to use the available power, but outside of Sport+, where the pedals become very receptive indeed, the call for acceleration is always met with a slight delay. Counterintuitively, once the car decides to accept your request, you soon find yourself going much faster than originally intended.
But any qualms owners have with the engine will wilt away in the comfort of an extraordinarily comfortable cabin. Sitting in the back, it is clear Lexus are aiming at those who intend to be driven rather than drive. The hand-pleated door linings and Edo Kiriko cut glass around the handles gives it a luxurious and quintessentially Japanese feel. That is to be expected for an optional extra priced at $9,800.
The 28-way adjustable seats are a lovely headline for the brochure, but in practice I soon lost interest in making micro adjustments and enjoyed the seat for what was right out of the factory, devilishly comfortable. With the touch of a button, the front passenger seat slides forward and allows the rear seat behind to stretch out and offer a leg rest to anyone lucky enough to be sitting in it.
An infotainment screen is placed in the the central arm rest to give rear seat passengers complete control of the audio and climate control functions. The TV screens attached to the back of the front seats may be a welcome sight for youngsters and may have been essential for a car in this bracket, but that comes at the expense of what is otherwise a flawlessly flowing cabin design.
Lexus LS 500h Premier: Key Facts
Price: $136,600 (AWD Pleat Edition)
Max speed: 155mph
0-62mph: 5.1 secs
Dimensions (L x W x H): 5235 x 1900 x 1460 mm
The Shiatsu massage is a welcome addition for anyone planning to use the LS 500h as a grand tourer, but for the driver the seemingly simple act of turning it on may actually prove impossible unless they have a willing assistant alongside them.
The touch-sensitive panel that controls the infotainment system in the front is tricky to navigate. Pressing the right combination of buttons to find the function you want, whether zooming out of the Sat-Nav or turning off the heated steering wheel, is a game of luck.
A week’s worth of practise saw an improvement in my ability to operate the panel, but I still found myself needing several attempts to achieve basic tasks like changing the radio station or relocating the Sat-Nav destination. I suspect long-term owners will end up using less than half of features available in the overcomplicated system. The 12.3in display screen is, however, elegantly integrated into the dashboard while the driving position is a triumph.
Upon opening the door the Lexus rises to meet you. Buckle your belt and the seat and steering wheel automatically adjust to your saved specifications. This has been designed to mimic Japanese hospitality and certainly lends a feeling that the car is tailored to you. The heads-up display on the windscreen means you never really have to take your eyes off the road while the driver-aid technology, including adaptive cruise control and lane assist, means it comes with all the latest technology.
The 360-degree camera system can detect oncoming traffic at obscured junctions and differentiate between static objects and pedestrians when reversing. If necessary, it will intervene if it thinks you are going to hit a person. It even changes lanes on the highway for you if you flip the indicator to its halfway point.
Overall, the Lexus LS 500h Premier has succeeded in offering a genuine alternative to the standard luxury sedan from the aforementioned German trio. Instead of trying to imitate what Audi, Mercedes and BMW do so well, Lexus offers an imaginative reinterpretation, particularly in both exterior and interior design.
That may prove to be its most valuable asset because it is found wanting in the same areas that the S-Class and A8 in particular thrive, the performance. The hybrid system is a commendable effort to advance greener technologies but it proves to be an insufficient substitute to the reliable diesel engines still preferred by rivals. Yet those who want to make the world a cleaner place should be willing to make small sacrifices in favor of less nitrogen oxide in the atmosphere.
For 30 years the Lexus LS models have finished fourth in the flagship sedan race, but in the 500h Premier, they have made a solid attempt at playing an entirely different game.
For more information on the Lexus LS 500h Premier, visit Lexus.com