First Drive: 2013 Lexus LS 460

Over the past two weeks, we’ve given you a comprehensive rundown of the changes you can expect in the 2013 Lexus LS lineup, and we’ve also taken a trip down memory lane with our timeline of Lexus LS development, going all the way back to 1983, when the idea of a world-class, full-size luxury sedan from a Japanese automaker seemed like a pipe dream to all but a few visionaries inside Toyota. All that remained was for us to get behind the wheel of the freshened Lexus flagship, which we’ve just done in Palo Alto, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley and in the shadows of Stanford University. It’s luxury-car central here, and the fleet of LS sedans that Lexus has waiting curbside at the Four Seasons has to compete for attention with Porsche Panameras and Lamborghinis in the hotel’s circular entrance drive.

The 2013 Lexus LS lineup consists of seven distinct models:

1) LS460
2) LS460 AWD
3) LS460L
4) LS460L AWD
5) LS460 F Sport
6) LS460 F Sport AWD
7) LS600hL

Further variations include steel-coil or optional air suspension systems for models 1-4 above; the new F Sport and the hybrid LS600hL both have standard air suspension. We first hopped into a standard-wheelbase, rear-wheel-drive LS460, as it’s the model that’s most similar to the original 1990 LS400 that so shocked the world all those years ago. It also, quite frankly, reminded us that we were still young when the Lexus brand debuted. Our tester had the optional air suspension and was slathered in a delicious brown paint that’s new for 2013 called Fire Agate Pearl. We slid into the cream-colored leather seats, which have firmer bolstering and new stitch patterns, gazed appreciatively at the revised instrument panel and its huge, 12.3-inch horizontal display screen, and hit the start button. After consulting with our co-driver about our intended route, we almost forgot that the engine was already running. Ah, yes, this is the level of quietness and isolation that so charmed luxury-car buyers when the original LS400 debuted.

As we headed north on the 101 freeway, the LS460 felt at once familiar and fresh. Look up “ride comfort and suspension compliance” in your automotive dictionary, and there will be a picture of the Lexus LS460. Yet the Lexus flagship didn’t demonstrate the floatiness and utter lack of body control that have plagued the car for years. This newfound athleticism was further demonstrated when we headed west on California Routes 84 and 92, the latter being the famous Skyline Boulevard that snakes through the woods at the top of a mountain range. Sure, the steering still lacks feel and the car remains isolated from the road, but there’s very little head toss, and pitch and dive are well controlled. The air suspension, which now operates all four wheels in tandem, such that they react to each other rather than only independently, effectively snubs out road imperfections. The revised electrically powered steering system provides more steering resistance if you dial in Sport Plus via the Drive Mode Select knob on the center console, varying the steering gear ratio by up to 30 percent. The new, three-spoke steering wheel is itself 10 mm (0.4 inch) smaller in diameter than the 2012 car’s, which theoretically at least gives the tiller a sportier feel. The LS460’s brakes carry over from 2012—13.1-inch vented front rotors, 12.3-inch rear rotors—but the brake pedal has a shortened stroke, something we appreciated when we had to scrub speed quickly when we encountered a wobbly bicyclist on Skyline Boulevard.

Next we drove an all-wheel-drive LS460 F Sport, the new trim level for 2013 that Lexus hopes will help it reel in some of its longtime buyers who’ve drifted away to sportier German competitors. Unlike the IS-F sport sedan, which was a comprehensively conceived and executed competitor to the BMW M3, the LS460 F Sport has zero powertrain enhancements as compared with the standard LS, sharing the same carryover 4.6-liter DOHC V-8 and eight-speed automatic transmission. Appropriately available in short-wheelbase form only, the F Sport is differentiated visually from its brethren by a meaner, darker interpretation of the now-ubiquitous “spindle” grill; by a small badge on its front fenders, just behind the wheels; by unique nineteen-inch forged wheels with a dark gray metallic finish; and by a revised rear bumper with diffuser. The F Sport also rides 10 mm (0.4 inch) lower than the standard car, has higher spring and damper rates, stiffer front and rear anti-roll bars, and the same Brembo brake package that previously was offered on the LS460 LZ. The rear-wheel-drive F Sport has a Torsen limited-slip rear differential and summer tires. The cabin gets different trim and more aggressively bolstered seats. So, overall, there is some substance behind the F Sport badge, even if this is not the stuff that will have Mercedes-Benz AMG engineers jumping off rooftops.

Out on the road, the F Sport is also no BMW M5, but it’s sure a lot more tied-down and entertaining than any other Lexus LS in history, benefitting perhaps more than any other model from the stiffer body shell that is part of the 2013 LS upgrade. (The stiffer body was made possible by increased applications of high-strength steel at the A- and B-pillars, the cowl, the roofline, the floor cross members, and behind the rear seat). An “intake sound generator” pipes some of the V-8’s honk, usually muffled under layers of sound insulation, into the cabin, but there’s no discernible exhaust note or other auditory signal of sportiness.

We hopped from the all-wheel-drive F Sport into a rear-wheel-drive F Sport and turned the Drive Mode Select knob to Sport Plus, which resulted in a surprisingly harsh freeway ride. We decided it was best for us to dial it back to Sport and for Lexus engineers to spend some more time with Jaguar’s sportiest models to learn how to properly combine luxury and dynamic parameters into a single suspension. Still, there’s fun to be had if you slide the F Sport’s gear selector into manual mode and work the shift paddles, which are precise in operation but feel a little plastic-y. We found that the transmission works great when you’re ripping down the freeway at 80 or 90 mph, dashing in and out of holes in traffic and generally making a nuisance of yourself, but at lower speeds, the transmission can get a little flummoxed if you nail the gas and expect immediate response. Take solace in throttle blipping during downshifts. Yes, that’s right, throttle blipping in a Lexus LS. Who would have imagined that back in 1990?

What you can imagine for probably the 2016 model year is an all-new, fifth-generation Lexus LS sedan. With this extensive face-lift for 2013 (some 3000 new parts out of 6000 total, Lexus claims), Lexus is stretching the life cycle of its aging fourth-generation car, which debuted six long years ago. Historically, the LS has come in for a complete re-do every five or six years, so this tactic seems strange for a car that once led its segment and now faces, as Lexus chief Mark Templin points out, more competition than it ever has. What gives? Lexus officials are a bit sheepish about stretching this car’s life cycle to a decade but point out that, with a proliferation of all-new models, the brand has stretched its engineering staff quite thinly. (This 2013 refresh alone took the efforts of 1000 engineers.)

More important, the stunning LF-LC concept coupe from this year’s Detroit auto show is almost surely headed for production, and Lexus officials hint that it will be built on an all-new, rear-wheel-drive platform that will then spawn the fifth-generation LS sedan. Given the changes that Lexus recently has wrought to its perennial underdog, the mid-size GS sport sedan, this plan of action makes sense, and one can more easily imagine a future LS that well and truly competes with the best from Europe, just like it did all those years ago. We’ll wait.

2013 Lexus LS460 F Sport
On sale: Fourth Quarter 2012
Base price, estimated: $75,000
Powertrain: 4.6-liter V-8, 386 hp, 367 lb-ft
0-60 mph, per manufacturer: 5.4 sec

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