Lexus LS500h is well equipped in any version, a delight to drive and ride in

Lexus LS500h is well equipped in any version, a delight to drive and ride in

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It would be fair to say I initially did not get on too well with the latest Lexus LS. I've always liked the big sedan which started out in 1989 ('91 for me) with a V8 and a mission to clobber the likes of Mercedes (the brand certainly did in the US last month but has never been too much of a threat in Europe) but my exposure since has been pretty minimal, the odd drive here and there. So when the latest one, all GBP105,595 of it, with every standard and optional feature available, hove to in the driveway, I expected to set it up - phones, radio presets, locking and lighting preferences, you know the drill, with a touchscreen. Wrong. There's a screen, no touch.

Instead, there's a centre console-mounted touchpad, bit like the one I never use on my laptop (I travel with a spare mouse) which initially I found, in the absence of an operating manual for the car, unintuitive - until I learned to move a finger around on the pad surface, follow the cursor on the huge centre screen (well it was until Mercedes' latest dashboards), prod for activation and receive haptic feedback (the strength and simultaneous sound are both adjustable). Perusal of the press kit reveals Lexus calls it Remote Touch Interface with a new, enlarged and frameless touchpad that allows gesture controls to be used – pinch, scroll, drag, double-tap – like those for smartphones, while also supporting handwritten input. Simply aiming at a point with a sausage like finger and pushing does not work at all well. So we got the LS set up to my liking (but where's the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto?) but I still hold the system is overly complex and distracting (I need reading glasses to see some small icons) and I reckon some functions would be much better done with two or three prods on a touch screen, tablet device-style, such as suspending navigation guidance (I never did figure out how to can it completely).

There are redundant audio and other controls on the steering wheel and a much simpler setup from there for a wide range of easily accessed driver cluster display info and some more vehicle setup features. Voice control, as I usually find with most vehicles (just ask some colleagues with recent Mercedes experience) was pathetic and I gave up trying to come up with a logical command to change the radio channel. A user manual might have provided some guidance. Clearly, there's a lot to do yet before one can have a natural conversation with this car; an owner might take the time to learn the much more precise commands required. Once it's all set up, though, all is ok but still needlessly complex compared with recent Audi and BMW models I have sampled.

Despite the flaky start, I soon came to love the smoothness and quiet of the gadget-packed car - nowadays a 295bhp, 24-valve, DOHC petrol V6 hybrid with 177bhp electric motor and lithium-ion battery pack- and marvel at the the quality of the interior with its GBP7,600 extra maroon (return to 80s/90s colour schemes) "pleated inner door panels with Kiriko glass ornamentation". Why so expensive? Says Lexus: "The draped pleating in the door panels has been achieved using the time-honoured skills of Origami paper-folding. A colour designer and a fabric artisan produced hand pleats, a new fabric pleating technique that creates a three-dimensional pattern that is pleasing to the eye and touch. The process took four years to develop and can only be carried out by the human hand. It mirrors the work of the finest Origami artists, requiring individual sheets of fabric to be expertly folded, like a sheet of paper. The finished panel changes in appearance according to the time of day and cabin illumination, adding to the elegance and enveloping quality of the interior."

The car with the pleats is actually listed as a separate model - the LS500h Premier (Pleat) and costs GBP105,595 here in England. Minus the pleating, the Premier is GBP97,995 and there are also F Sport (GBP79,995), RWD and AWD variants of the Luxury (GBP79,995 and GBP82,595) and the 'base' plain 500h for GBP72,595.

This fifth(!) generation car is on a new Global Architecture – Luxury (GA-L) platform and its proportions allow for an extended wheelbase (3,125mm, 35mm longer than the previous long-wheelbase model), a spacious interior and a lower, ground-hugging appearance with coupe lines, Lexus reckons. The love-it-or-hate-it signature spindle grille has an intricate mesh design with 5,000 individual surfaces (more than 7,000 in the F SPORT), which took CAD modellers three and a half months to produce (five months for F SPORT), followed by further precision adjustment by hand. Such is the attention to detail. This is the first Lexus sedan to feature a six-window profile, which ensures excellent outward visibility, and also the first to feature windows with flush surfaces that integrate smoothly with the side pillars. Height is reduced 15.2 mm with the bonnet and boot lowered even further – by approximately 30.5 and 40.6 mm respectively. The glass sunroof opens externally allows for a design 30 mm thinner than previously, preserving cabin headroom beneath the low roofline.

New, lightweight materials in the car's structure include new cast aluminium front and rear suspension towers. As aluminium cannot be welded to steel, these are connected to the body using self-piercing rivets and high-strength adhesive bonding. Compared to equivalent steel parts, these towers are significantly lighter and more rigid – about twice the rigidity and 42% less weight at the front; around 1.5 times more rigid and 50% lighter at the rear.

Other lightweight metals, including ultra-high tensile steel, steel alloys and aluminium, are used in critical areas to provide strength and rigidity. High tensile steel accounts for almost 30% of the vehicle's mass, more than double the proportion in the previous LS. Principal panels, including the doors, fenders, bonnet and boot lid are aluminium; where the doors are concerned this not only saves weight, but also allows for a slim but strong structure, maximising space inside the car. The use of structural adhesive and laser screw welding is also significantly greater, to increase the rigidity of panel joints. Almost 33 metres of adhesive is applied to the underbody, compared to just five metres previously

Even the base 'stripper' version (ha) comes with Lexus Safety System+ (Adaptive Cruise Control, Pre Crash Safety, Lane Keep Assist, Traffic Sign Recognition, Sway Warning System); dual zone climate control air conditioning system with nanoe (negative ion) air filter technology, smooth leather upholstery, 20-way driver and passenger electrically adjustable and heated and ventilated front seats, Premium Navigation with 12.3" screen, connected services and remote touch interface, 360° panoramic view monitor with pedestrian alert and 20" alloy wheels with run flat tyres.

Opting for Luxury adds 4 zone climate control air conditioning system, semi-aniline leather upholstery, 28-way driver and passenger seat adjustment with a pneumatic system, heated, ventilated and 18-way electrically adjustable rear seats, 23 speaker Mark Levinson sound system with DVD and a hands-free boot closer.

Sport adds (to Luxury) DRS (Dynamic Rear Steering), F Sport seats in smooth leather, 20" cast special alloy wheels and sporty exterior styling.

Premier majors on rear seat features for captains of industry being ferried from all-day board meetings or home from the red-eye flight from China or, as my other half put it, "for spoilt wives like I'd be if I could afford that and a full-time chauffeur". So it adds Lexus Safety System +A (LSS+ plus PCS with pedestrian alert, Front Cross Traffic Alert, Pop-Up Hood, DRCC with Road Sign Assist, Lane Trace Assist, Active Steering Assist, Front Lateral Side PCS), 22-way rear Ottoman seats with massage function, rear seat entertainment system and, to control the whole lot, a rear multi operation panel which is in the centre armrest and folds down with it. As well as sorting a whole range of rear seat adjustment, with two memories for each side, this also can control a variety of audio and multimedia features including playing DVDs on screens fitted to the front headrests.

The "shiatsu massage with hot points feature" (front and rear outer seats all have it but left rear is the best perch on which to experience this) was the biggest party trick during our time with the LS, demonstrated to family friends and work colleagues. Watching the front passenger seat fold down almost into the footwell, the rear seat extend like a flat business class bed and feeling the electronically controlled and heated massage points go to work is a huge treat. And, unlike that front touchpad, it's all very intuitive to learn quickly and operate efficiently. The seats have auto heat/cool and multiple massage/wellness options, a vast range of adjustments, including aircraft-style moveable legrest on the left, and the screen also controls rear climate and electric side and rear sunshades which, oddly, are controlled simultaneously by the electric window switches on the driver's master panel but have separate controls in the back. Stick a DVD in the front player and Mark Levinson, via 23 speakers, delivers cinema-standard sound.

The car proved a delight to drive with plenty of power, good handling and a very comfortable ride. It will happily be pushed hard into corners if you want but in a car like this it is much more sensible to waft around more gently savouring the luxury. As for all the gadgetry - hours of fun guaranteed for both driver and passengers.

So, can Lexus claim much exclusivity in this relatively rarified sector, the top-line limo with chauffeur drive option? Time to ask sometime just-auto contributor and editor of Professional Driver magazine, Mark Bursa.

"It's a pretty impressive piece of kit," he said. "The only problem is it's still only a petrol-hybrid powertrain and, despite all the anti-diesel nonsense that's going on, for chauffeuring work you can't beat a diesel and that's what did for Lexus in the previous time they were in the market with the hybrids because they just didn't have the fuel economy and they didn't have the boot space.

"So there were two big issues with the LS600, the previous model, which was a brilliant car, no question, it was up there on every level with the quality of build and the refinement and the comfort and everything that went with the need to compete with [the Mercedes] S-Class in the chauffeur market. But it had a massive great battery pack that took up half the boot space and you could get two small cases in the boot and that was it. That's ok if you're doing short range, chauffeuring one person around going from, say, a hotel to a dinner but it's not ok if you're taking two people to an airport with suitcases."

According to Bursa, the S-Class is the king of the chauffeur drive sector here in the UK as well as the "extremely good" new Audi A8 launched late last year and BMW's 7-Series. He also mentions the Jaguar XJ, Maserati Quattroporte and Porsche Panamera as contenders in the sector.

At the time of interview, he had yet to subject the Lexus to a full comparison with its peers but said an initial look showed the boot in the new model is "better than it was". "There clearly is room for suitcases," he added, "but it's not quite as good as it might be." Professional Driver uses a standard set of suitcases to provide objective comparisons between models. "There is much more of a boot than there was on the previous LS where the boot was literally half a boot. This one is a lot better, it does look reasonable."

For the record, the LS500 passed the standard Roberts boot measure - the weekly shop with all bags in and the lid comfortably closed. There's a couple of panels in the boot floor, one of which hides the 12V battery but no tyre kit or temporary spare wheel as the car has run-flat tyres. Battery packs also seem to get smaller with every generation of hybrid and PHEV, too.

Bursa was also quick to dispel any ideas I had the shiatsu massage might be unique to the Lexus. "You do get that in everything else," he said. "You get hot stone massage in the BMW 7-Series and S-Class, you get all this stuff, the fully reclining back seat with the front seat that moves fully forwards so you can stretch out full length, that kind of thing is not unique to Lexus but it does mean they are competing and matching the stuff that is available in the topline models.

"If you go to the real top line of BMW, Audi and Mercedes, you're looking at an S600 level of spec, it's humongously specified, well into six figures so, at the very top level, where you're dealing with a very rarified market, a sheik's or an oligarch's private chauffeured car, a senior Chinese businessman who wants to show off how rich he is, from a commercial point of view, there are very few chauffeuring companies that will buy those cars. There are a couple of specialised companies that deal with hotel clients, they're picking up people to go to the airport or to the Cotswolds [a scenic area of England] - they want to go in an S-Class, they want to go in an S600 and that's that."

Bursa said the "bulk of the market" needs a "more refined price" and noted the latest Lexus starts at GBP72,500 which is "a bit higher than your average price for an S-Class" but "not far out". He noted rivals can be ordered as hybrids such as the BMW Seven Series - which is also a PHEV. Under new emission zone rules for London, the non-plug-in Lexus "won't be compliant (for free entry to a defined zone) as a private hire vehicle because it won't be zero emissions capable" though at that level an owner can afford to pay the GBP12.50 daily charge and roll that in to what the client is charged but "it is a disincentive". The market for this type of car in the UK is "a few thousand units, there are a lot of 7-Series and S-Class sold".

His verdict: "Lexus makes great cars but they're not necessarily going to make huge inroads into Mercedes, BMW and Audi; they're going to be a refined alternative choice." He sees sales to both private chauffeur companies and private individuals but he does not see the big companies making a "wholesale replacement of S-Class with Lexus".

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