Road Tests

Drive review: Lexus LS500 (2018) flagship coming to SA soon

Dakar success for the Toyota Hilux team in 2019 might receive unlikely support from the new 2018 Lexus LS500, driven recently on the international launch in Tokyo.

Baffled by the connection? Out of context these two bastions of luxury and motorsport appear to share nothing in common, yet for years the Hilux you’ve cheered across South America has done so fuelled by Lexus V8 power. The best-suited engine permitted by homologation rules, until now, the V8 is disadvantaged against the madly-tuned forced induction engines in the MINIs and Peugeots once the rally ascended the Andes. Lexus, spurred on by cutting Co2 emissions rather than rally victory, has finally added turbo charging to its 3.5-litre V6. The Hilux whoops with joy.

Not that the press conference felt in any rush to mention something as old fashioned as the combustion engine – after all this is the flagship Lexus so safety and comfort are illuminated and kW and Nm confirm that Lexus isn’t about to build a BMW M760Li rival. Other markets get a hybrid, which is notably faster but due to cost, we’ll have better luck with the 221kW and 356Nm RWD version – those turbos barely turning at any rpm, it would seem. Max power lives up near the rev limiter but the non-hybrid version does come with Lexus’s superior 10-speed auto (first tested on the LC500) so it mitigates what would otherwise be a vocal powertrain.

The drive outside of Tokyo traffic proved uneventful; calm, relaxed and serene as the stately Lexus LS500 sails along with the silky response from the standard air suspension on wheels that don’t affiliate themselves to any aesthetically enhanced performance-line.

But Lexus is using the LS flagship to promote itself as a having similar capabilities to its rivals with safety and driver assist functions guaranteed to become de facto in GS, IS and RX models soon. Lexus, and many others, is working towards a zero fatality future so the launch dived into a demonstration of park assist and autonomous features before putting a journalist at the wheel.

Now it’s seldom that Lexus buyers consider themselves early adopters – innovation often succumbs to the conservative habits of old built off rational studies – and Lexus isn’t about to use its drivers as guinea pigs, – so many of the features are already in circulation in cars like the BMW 5 Series, E-Class and don’t get us started on the A8…

We’ve sampled autonomous brake on numerous occasions – when a car will wrest control from a driver and come to a stop to prevent a forward collision, if it believes the driver hasn’t reacted in time –  but this is the first time we’ve seen this technology cover reverse gear. A practical evolution that’s unsurprising given the gamut of sensors already in place and when coupled with cross traffic alert, it mitigates any chance of low speed collision. But I do query the functionality under real world circumstances; how the LS500’s radar will distinguish a low speed accident from nannying a normal parking in your garage or at a mall. Look for that verdict early next year.

Lane Change Assist is another essentail piece of the jigsaw puzzle en route to next level autonomy so while in isolation it offers little on-the-road value, features such as this are necessary chapters in establishing the landscape of self-driving vehicles. Holding the indicator down preconditions the move once the car is certain the space is clear, otherwise it will alert you with yet another warning beep before resetting. The driver then has to start all over again – the car won’t store the command. It works but is overly cautious which in busy traffic situations means you can wait a long time before it finds a large enough gap to slide 5-metres of luxo-limo into.

Disclaimer time, our drive was very controlled so when I asked the driver how long it would keep to a lane with my hands off the wheel he frowned at me with such frank seriousness and advised ‘you must never take your hands off the wheel.’ Which defeats the purpose but I couldn’t argue against such innocent paranoia. Swapping seats I did get a practice run on the new control pad operating the large screen which uses your finger as the cursor and manages to restrain wobbly swipes into organised sub-menus. Accuracy has improved tenfold but competitors offer around six ways of communicating with your car, including a touch screen, while the Lexus LS500 offers around half those.

Once more the LS500’s handcrafted appearance is what you’re paying over seven figures for so you get an analogue clock, smooth panels juxtaposing textured surfaces all the while complementing the slim integrated packaging of what was not long ago the largest screen fitted to any car. The proportion of modern interface to austere interface is well handled without favouring driver or passenger, the Lexus LS500 has evidently passed through a couple further design studios versus the rest of the range.

Late Q1 of 2018 is when we’ll do a local drive of the Lexus LS500 but the model will have its full capabilities intentionally downscaled for the same legislative reasons as the BMW 5 Series had its lane change assist deactivated and removed from the extensive options, even though the hardware exists. But will that reflect in the pricing? Probably not, you’ve already paid for the development in other markets… So buy the Lexus LS500 if you want restrained luxury in its purest definition but without some of its USP features, it’s hard to say it’s class-leading.

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