The Japanese can do everything a little bit better. Success isn’t achieved overnight and the process always involves gargantuan committees and endless meetings, but let the Japanese pool their resources, let them run the processes and, more often than not, the results are just spectacular. Cars, bikes, consumer electronics, fashion, chocolates, and even whisky – they can take almost anything, work hard at it and make it better.
And the luxury car? When Toyota decided to enter the luxury car market in the US in the ’80s, its chief engineer, Ichiro Suzuki, was clear about what he wanted – to take on the German brands and beat them at everything they did. Whew, talk about being ambitious. It took upwards of 1,400 engineers and six years, but once they were done and that incredible V8 had gone in the nose, it was Toyota who was laughing all the way to the bank. The silky smooth LS 400 was so good, it actually managed to ‘out-tech’ the tech Gods. I still remember driving the car for the first time years later – the effortless slug of torque, the complete hush inside the cabin and no vibrations at all; it was just incredible. The car had the requisite interior quality, it had the stance and a regal air, and then because it sat in between the Mercedes S-class and E-class on the price list, it set the cash registers ringing. Lexus sold nearly 45,000 cars that year, causing panic among the German luxury carmakers. The next three generations followed the same German template, adding hybrid technology and some much-needed individuality when it came to styling.
With this new fifth-generation car, however, Lexus has movedon, evolved. This is pretty evident as I walk up to the car, sat in the middle of an open-air restaurant at JW Marriot. There’s nothing remotely German or understated about its style sheet. Its volumes and proportions are more Maserati than Merc, and even the stance is un-limo like; I’m scratching my head.
The huge spindle-shaped grille and maws are impossibly aggressive. Built using 5,000 individual surfaces, the grille is a piece of three-dimensional modern art. Even crazier is the open-mouthed look of the vents on each side. The ‘Z’-shaped headlights look like lightning streaks and the massive 20-inch chrome wheels are like nothing else seen on a car in this class. Around the side, the long barge-like body is supported by a huge 3,125mm wheelbase, and even the arching roofline and strong shoulder line are different; they look like large, confident strokes drawn by a Japanese calligraphy artist rather than an automotive designer. The rear is more conventional, but the ‘dripping-with-chrome’ tail-lights look neat.
It’s also very different from behind the wheel. The roads that loop around the Delhi airport are devoid of traffic at this time in the morning, and as I accelerate hard out from the slip road and change lanes, the LS immediately feels disturbingly agile and athletic. It’s no BMW 3-series, but no car in this class, not the Audi A8 or even the BMW 7-series, feels as compact. It seems to have an innate sense of agility, the confidence it delivers is fantastic and despite the size and weight, no way does it feel 5.2m long. Maybe the low-slung batteries help here. We’re headed out of Delhi on a series of elevated roads with some long corners, and here too, the LS just impresses so much, I’m much harder on the throttle than I expect to be. And with the air suspension and drivetrain in S+ mode, it feels like its driving manners have been honed on a track. There’s a bit of an artificial-sounding snarl from the exhaust and this big car does roll when you get to tighter turns, but it feels so planted in corners and there’s just so much usable grip, driving the wheels of this car almost comes naturally. The steering is a bit light, but it is beautifully judged and accurate too.
It’s also quick when you plant your foot on the throttle and keep it there. Low-end torque comes from the 60hp electric drive on this hybrid, but most of the performance at high speeds comes from the V6 engine that spins all the way to 7,000rpm and delivers a maximum of 299hp. A naturally aspirated unit with a nice crisp top end, this engine, along with the 10-speed automatic gearbox, delivers a strong performance too; 0-100 takes just 5.4sec, and as I keep my foot in on some open highways, it even crests 200kph quite easily. I would have loved to have more oomph though. A larger 4.0/5.0-litre V8 and twin turbos would have gone down well, but Lexus seems to be clear – customers also want to be green. And that’s where the virtual 10-speed automatic gearbox comes in. Combining a four-speed automatic and a CVT, and blending the resulting efficiencies, it can deliver a super high gear when you are cruising, as well as a tightly spaced short gearing when you want to accelerate. And because there are only four fixed gears, transmission losses are reduced as well. Add to that the electric assist from the hybrid drive and you have a pretty smart package.
After driving the LS longer and harder than I plan to, I slip into the rear seat, which is where most owners will spend a lot of time. And there are plenty of clever bits here too. For one, the rear seats look like individual thrones with a bulky arm rest in the center. But Lexus has built in some flexibility as well; you can flip the armrest up and seat three across the rear bench. And then there’s the rear seat itself. Dial up the touch controls on the armrest and you can flip the seat back and recline it to seriously obtuse 48 degrees – the best in class. The front seats slide away and fold down, and if you really want to relax, you can cool the seats and dial up a massage. Lexus apparently worked with Shiatsu massage experts from Japan to get the degree of thumb-like pressure right in the right places, something you can even adjust the intensity of. You can have targeted heat to your shoulder or your back to enhance the experience and choose from five different massage functions.
We’ve had an early start, and the Shiatsu function really does feel like it is giving me a deep tissue massage. It’s so good, I’m asleep before I know it, with my colleagues chuckling away as they hear me snoring softly in the rear. And there are other nice touches: the LS lifts up on its air suspension to allow for more comfortable ingress and egress; the climate control system uses a matrix of infrared sensors to measure your body temperature; and the Mark Levinson Reference series audio system has a 16-channel amplifier that delivers such brute force and delicacy, it opens up just about any high-quality audio source and makes you hear bits in a song you’ve never heard before.
There are areas where the LS, however, doesn’t do quite as good a job. No doubt the ride quality is excellent and extremely pliant but it’s not really as supple as that of an S-class. The Lexus doesn’t quite have the hush in the cabin as the Merc and the engine bay isn’t as well insulated either. Also, while I’m at it, let me just say the screen-based interface is infuriatingly difficult to navigate; full of hidden menus and illogical listing, Steve Jobs would have attacked it with a katana.
In the stodgy world of high-end luxury cars, Lexus’ new LS comes as a breath of fresh air, delivering something rarely seen here: a different take on luxury. It may not be as technically proficient as some of its predecessors and it chases objectives that differ from the crowd, but after years of continental fare, shouldn’t you try some sushi?
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