Driven: Lexus LS 600h L

There’s only a few months before Lexus send the all new LS luxury saloon to their dealers, but we took the opportunity to try out the outgoing model to see just what the 2013 car has to live up to.

The model we’ve got is the LS 600h L with Rear Seat Relaxation Package, which means the price tag has six figures. Specifically, it’s £100,086, or about the same cost as an average house in the North East.

That’s a lot of money to spend on a car, but does it represent good value? Like the Vauxhall Maloo reviewed last week, if you’re looking at cars at this price then it’s a given that you can afford it and are happy spending the money, but are there better places to put that money?

It’s certainly a conservative car. It’s not dull (although there is a hint of ‘large Toyota’ about the exterior design) but doesn’t shout about its presence. It’s elegant, confident. From some angles it’s quite ordinary, but from others it’s superb. Likewise, from some angles it looks enormous, from others it disguises its bulk with surprising ability.

It’s as if there’s a feeling of such superiority built in to the car that it’s being almost deliberately humble.

Under that long bonnet lies not a 6.0 litre engine as you might expect from the name, but a 5.0 litre V8 petrol engine accompanied by an electric motor. Think of it as a massive Toyota Prius, with the hybrid drive there to boost both power and economy. The 600h badging indicates a parity with the likes of the BMW 760i and Mercedes S600, with an output of 439 bhp backing that up.

The hybrid element marks a huge difference between the Lexus and its German rivals. Thanks to the battery pack, clever hybrid drive system and a smooth continuously variable automatic transmission, the LS 600h is capable of delivering 30.4 mpg on the combined cycle with CO2 emissions of 219 g/km, figures the BMW 760i and Mercedes S600 can’t hope to get close to.

A drive round the official Front Seat Driver Test Route returned 24.5 mpg, but bear in mind our route is not intended to replicate the government test. It includes a lot of country lanes and urban areas, where accelerating the two tonne Lexus uses plenty of fuel. We were rather impressed with 24.5 mpg, suspecting the official figure could well be achievable in certain conditions. Driving along a motorway at 70 mph is certainly putting no strain on the car, with the CVT gearbox dropping the engine revs to a fuel sipping 1,200 rpm or so.

Given that we’re in the LS 600h L, the L indicating it’s the long wheelbase version, you’d expect the 5.15 metres of metal to provide an awful lot of space inside. You’d not be wrong.

I’m certain the interior of the car is bigger than my first flat. It’s certainly better equipped. Starting in the rear, there’s enough space to lay almost fully flat. The seats lay back, a leg rest extends out and suddenly it’s like you’re in a first class cabin of an aircraft. The seat then starts to massage your back, heating you if it’s a tad cold outside or venting cool air through the material if it’s hot and humid. All the time you can be watching your favourite DVD on the large rear screen.

Flip open the armrest and you’ll find the massage seat controls, remote control for the TV, heating and cooling options and seat position controls. there’s even electric sun blinds for the rear screen and side windows. Recline the left rear seat fully, extending the footrest as you do, and the front passenger seat will slide elegantly forwards before tipping upright and tucking the head rest away, allowing you an unrestricted view of the road ahead. That’s attention to detail

You don’t feel like king of the road, but king of the King’s Road. There’s thick, soft, sumptuous leather almost everywhere. If there’s not leather, it’s almost certain to be wood, but it’s all done, as with the exterior, in the most conservative manner possible.

As the driver, you’re faced with a plethora of buttons, all impeccably produced and damped to perfection. Between the seats there’s a switch to change the suspension and throttle responses on the car, from Normal to either Comfort or Sport, and these make an appreciable difference. Ahead of the chrome and wood gear lever is the incredible Mark Levinson stereo.

Actually, stereo doesn’t do it justice. There are 19 speakers in the car that produce stunningly clear, deep sound. Sticking on a bit of live swing, the audio was such that you could close your eyes and imagine being there.

Further up there’s a large touch screen surrounded by buttons to control pretty much everything. The sat-nav resides here and is every bit as unfathomable as previous Toyota units, while the displays for economy or power use are a joy to behold. Watching the animated arrows pointing to which bits of the power train are in use is an addictive pastime.

Directly in front of the driver, behind the wood and leather steering wheel, sits the instrument binnacle. This isn’t your usual sweeping dial setup though, instead these have been replaced by a digital LCD screen split in to three segments. Taking centre stage is the speedometer, with supplementary information appearing inside its arc. However, being a screen rather than fixed dials, things can be moved around, so if you’re pressing on with things like lane assist running, unimportant information, such as the outside temperature, is moved off to the sidelines.

There are still times when you end up with an awful lot of information on the screen, but it works well and is smooth in operation, never distracting. That’s useful, as steering this behemoth through country roads takes your full attention.

The power available, the eerily smooth manner in which it is delivered, and the luxurious detachment from the outside world means you often approach corners at speeds greater than perhaps expected. Brake hard and the car switches to Sport mode automatically, steadying the front end. Mid turn, the independent air-suspension keeps the car in balance, while the four wheel drive system provides traction on the way out. At night, automatic dipping headlights take one more distracting task away from the driver, allowing more focus on the road.

Styling aside, as that’s very much subjective, the only issue we’ve found is the disappointing boot. Storing a stack of batteries in the back of the car has seriously eaten in to the space available and you’re left with 330 litres of capacity. That’s 200 litres less than a lowly Vauxhall Insignia, something that could cause problems when a family holiday comes round; there’s few better cars to take to the airport, but that’s not much use if you can’t take your luggage. On motorways there’s adaptive cruise control that will helps make progress swift and safe, while lane assist keeps you between the white lines. On a cruise down the M11, we went somewhere in the region of seven miles without making any throttle, brake or steering inputs. It’s as close as we’ve got so far to a self driving car. However, should you get too comfortable in the leather armchairs provided and start drifting off to the land of nod, you’ll soon find that the car is monitoring your actions and will rudely awaken you.

Beyond that, you’re dealing with an amazingly complex vehicle (the manual is over 800 pages thick!) that takes the very best in technology for comfort, convenience and safety, putting it all in a capable cruiser that subtly exudes quality. It’s a joy to be a passenger in and it’s not half bad when you’re sitting in the driver’s seat.

At £100,000 the LS is perhaps not the last word in value for money, with options from the BMW 7 Series and Mercedes S-Class ranges coming in at many thousands less, but at this level the actual cost is perhaps less important than what the car says.

There’s absolutely no doubting its technical prowess, its superior quality of build and materials and its driving ability. That all means little if you want to shout about your success, if you want people to look your way as you pull up to your destination.

That’s not what the LS is about. This is about quiet confidence, restraint, understated elegance, and appreciating not only what you have but what’s around you. If that’s you, there’s no better car.

Next year’s LS has an awful lot to live up to.

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Phil is a motoring writer for print and web, failed racing driver, car hoarder and banger rally competitor. Nominated for the Headline Auto Rising Star award and a MGMW member, Phil freelances for outlets as diverse as Diesel Car magazine, and Cambridge Magazine, amongst many others. He also maintains a fleet of unloved motors, but spends most of his time driving an old Corvette.

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