Editor's note: This review was written in March 2013 about the 2013 Lexus LS 460. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2014, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Lexus' attempt to turn the 2013 LS 460 into a sporty limo was only somewhat successful, for in the translation to an F-Sport model, the regular LS 460's opulence was lost to a cold functionality that seems out of place in a Lexus flagship.
When the original Lexus LS 400 debuted in 1989, it turned the luxury car market on its head. It looked better than any Cadillac, proved more reliable than any Mercedes-Benz and cost less than almost any of its competitors. That LS and successive Lexus models propelled the brand to the top of the U.S. luxury sales market for nearly a decade.
Now, the fifth-generation LS 460 attempts to inject a little spice into a marque known for high-quality vanilla with the first-ever F-Sport model of its top sedan. F-Sport comes as an option package with either front- or all-wheel drive on the regular LS 460, but is not available on the extended LS 460L. See the updated LS 460 compared with the 2012 model here.
The most obvious update to the new 2013 LS 460 is up front. Love it or loathe it, the Lexus family spindle grille has arrived. The F-Sport Package on our test vehicle adds more aggressive elements, including a black honeycomb grille insert with larger air intakes in the lower bumper that incorporate LED fog lights. Combined with the 19-inch, multispoke gray wheels and a lower stance, it looks more menacing than a standard LS 460. It's hard to make a silver car stand out, but our car's impressive Liquid Platinum color positively glowed at nearly any time of day, setting off the subtle curves of the sedate bodywork. Still, the LS' shape is not going to grab anyone's attention, but the Lexus buyer has never truly been interested in that kind of notoriety to begin with, so that matters little.
Lexus has always excelled at delivering massive thrust with minimal drama, and the LS 460 F-Sport is no different, hustling through traffic in near silence. It only makes the 4.6-liter V-8's presence known when the driver plants a foot to call up all the engine's abilities. The V-8 engine makes a robust 360 horsepower in all-wheel-drive versions, like my test car, while rear-wheel-drive cars enjoy a higher 386 hp — a significant difference that should make the lighter rear-drive car even quicker.
The eight-speed automatic transmission is gelato-smooth with practically imperceptible shifts, making the LS feel almost like a single-gear electric car. The F-Sport Package includes transmission paddle shifters behind the steering wheel that will almost certainly never be used more than once by any owner — and that likely only during the initial test drive. The full-time all-wheel drive on our tester worked seamlessly when morning snow showers coated local roads in ice.
The F-Sport Package brings with it a host of advanced components meant to make the LS 460 more "engaging," to use Lexus' word. Chief among them is an adjustable air suspension, with six driver-selectable modes that include Eco, Comfort, Normal, Sport S, Sport S+ and Snow. In Normal mode, the LS rides and handles as one would expect it to, which is to say, like it has since Day One in 1989: like a big, plush yacht of a car whose goal is to isolate drivers from their external environment, not involve them in it. Switching to Comfort mode only brings more of this isolation, ironing out road imperfections so they can only be heard through the big wheels and tires, not actually felt. Eco changes the throttle and transmission pattern to create a more relaxed response regardless of how you're actually driving, a provision designed to use less fuel.
Moving the dial into Sport modes changes a few settings throughout the car. Sport S mode remaps the transmission and throttle response, making for slightly more responsive acceleration. With Sport S+, the same things happen, plus the steering and suspension firm up — but only marginally so, perhaps most notably at highway speeds, as steering effort rises and the car feels more planted. But in twisty switchbacks, the firmer settings cannot mask the fact that there is a lot of mass being thrown around. The selector button doesn't magically transform the smooth, sedate LS 460 into a snarling Porsche Panamera, not even in the most aggressive Sport S+ mode. Most drivers will find the differences to be minor, with the gauge cluster's change from blue to red lighting the only real indication. The brakes are a strong point, however, with massive six-piston, black-painted brake calipers that provide excellent feel and bring the big LS to a stop with little drama and a lot of confidence.
While the F-Sport Package's exterior changes are generally positive, the same cannot be said for the inside. The package replaces the real wood trim in the base and hybrid LS 600h with stamped metal trim, made from real aluminum and piano black lacquer, presumably made from real pianos. Black leather covers the seats and doors, with white piping and perforations on the seating surfaces.
But what comes across as modern and opulent in wood comes across as dark and dull in aluminum. Arguably the best interior color combination comes in the LS 600h L long-wheelbase hybrid, which can be had with a light bamboo wood trim that contrasts beautifully with the black upper instrument panel and available flaxen (tan) leather seats and doors. These colors emphasize the dramatic shapes and cut-lines of the interior panels, evoking a modern Danish furniture aesthetic that is truly attractive. Unfortunately, it does so in a $120,805 hybrid that gets 23 mpg on the highway — the same highway mileage as the all-wheel-drive LS 460 and 1 mpg worse than the rear-drive version.
The driver can control entertainment and other functions through a massive 12.3-inch display panel that is surprisingly not a touch-screen. It's controlled by a joystick on the center console that requires the user to lay a hand on a handrest and move a cursor around the screen via a fingertip selector. Having to remotely move a cursor around on the screen adds an extra step to the process, which during a more complicated action — like hunting for a song or playlist on an iPod — becomes frustrating.
The benefits are a screen that never gets smudged by fingerprints (because you're not touching it) that's located high up in the dash to minimize the time your eyes are off the road. The on-screen graphics, however, are shockingly behind the times, featuring a clarity and sophistication that appears two generations behind the best systems on the market, and one generation behind graphics in mass-market brands like Ford and Buick. Controls for climate control and audio systems still have some dedicated buttons, however, meaning use of the electronic display screen can be minimized. Voice controls work well — and quickly, too — with flawless on-the-fly navigation operation in my first attempt, something other brands struggle to do.
A 19-speaker premium Mark Levinson sound system can replace the standard 10-speaker system as a stand-alone option, but I found it to be oddly biased toward the center channel speakers in all modes. I was also surprised at how it struggled to hit high-end frequencies, particularly in vocal performances. In short, the electronic features offered in the top-of-the-line Lexus flagship struggle to outperform systems now common in mass-market compacts, which is either a testament to how much these systems have trickled down into lesser vehicles, or a statement on how much work Lexus has in front of it to remain a leader in the field.
As of this writing, only a frontal crash test has been conducted on the 2013 LS, by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, in which it received the top mark of Good. Additional tests by IIHS and the federal government will likely come later. Airbags abound in the LS 460, including front knee bags, side airbags and side curtain airbags. As is required in all new cars starting with the 2012 model year, the LS has antilock brakes and an electronic stability system.
Lexus also has an available electronic precollision system with Collision Avoidance Assist. The system helps detect obstacles and can even brake the car to a full stop from 24 mph on its own.
For full specs and safety equipment listings, click here.
In the Market
The LS sedan range starts at $72,885 for a basic rear-wheel-drive model and stretches up to an eye-popping $120,805 for the long-wheelbase LS 600h hybrid (all prices include destination charges). Our all-wheel-drive model started at $75,830 but added blind spot monitoring, the Mark Levinson sound system, a cargo net and a trunk mat, along with the F-Sport Comfort Package, which includes heated and cooled front seats, a power rear sunshade, power-opening and closing trunk, and heated rear seats. The F-Sport Package itself included 19-inch, 10-spoke wheels, an adaptive air suspension, black leather interior, paddle shifters, and the interior and exterior styling changes mentioned earlier. All that brought the total for our tester to $88,029.
Unlike earlier LS generations, which undercut the European flagships, this LS 460 is priced close to other luxury brands' top offerings, including the BMW 7 Series, the Audi A8 and even the Jaguar XJ. All those are better-handling driver's cars that offer considerably more choices in everything from powertrains to exterior colors. One hesitates to include the Mercedes-Benz S-Class in the competitor set, however, seeing how its base price is nearly $20,000 higher, at $93,255. Click here to compare the LS 460 with its competitors.
Originally meant to compete with these models head-to-head, the big Lexus simply hasn't kept pace with the technology or exclusive feel of the German counterparts that it once upset. The same formula is applied today as it was nearly 25 years ago — a big, quiet, cushy, V-8-powered sedan that does things well and with minimal drama, but whose main goal is isolation and precision, not passion or ostentation. One buys the Lexus LS for the same reason one buys an Omega watch — it's still a luxury item, just not the craziest, most expensive one of its kind. It's highly competent, but not likely to get noticed — for better or for worse.