According to my dictionary, a flagship is defined as “the finest, largest, or newest ship” of a steamship line. In automotive terms, that means it’s the best, most technologically sophisticated and refined model the company has in its lineup. It’s the pick of the litter and ostensibly represents the highest aspirations and engineering accomplishments of that company.
In the case of Lexus, that would be the LS model, which debuted in 1990 and immediately raised the bar for everybody. Before it appeared on the scene, the Europeans pretty much had a lock on the prestige-car market and Mercedes and BMW, in particular, were the big dogs.
Not anymore. It’s safe to say that Lexus took a big chunk out of these companys’ profits and has done so from the get-go. It’s also been at or near the top of most quality and consumer satisfaction surveys, including those of J.D. Power and Consumer Reports. From two models in 1990, Lexus’s lineup has grown to 13, with a significant number of those being offered with a hybrid option.
That also includes the LS, which, for 2013 gets a makeover but not a total overhaul. Exterior changes and more interior amenities highlight the new LS, and it will be offered in seven variations, with all-wheel-drive availability.
Before we get into it, however, a quick word about the kind of people that typically purchase the LS. According to Lexus North America group vice-president and general manager, Mark Templin, these are professionals that are “at the top of their game,” affluent and powerful, with money to spend and an image to maintain. They want all the goodies, and don’t mind paying for them. I also couldn’t help but notice that at the launch, in the heart of silicon valley, most of the American journos I talked to were unapologetic Republicans and the chatter was as much about the current political situation in the United States as it was about the car we were there to evaluate.
But getting back to those exterior changes. The biggest visual difference from the previous model has to be the new “spindle” front end that will be Lexus’ signature grille for the next little while. Just as BMW has its twin kidney grille treatment, Lexus’ wants to be instantly recognizable through this new grille, which made its initial appearance on the LF-LC concept car. Some folks like it, some don’t, but at least it’s not as clumsy as Acura’s ill-advised “birds’ beak” front end. Otherwise, the rest of the LS is “significantly updated,” but not drastically revamped. It still looks like an LS, which is to say, subtle, understated and very much in keeping with this market.
There are two engine choices: a 4.6-litre V-8 that is essentially the same unit found in the previous version, and a 5.0-litre V-8 that is part of the hybrid drivetrain, also carried over. These two develop 386 and 438 horsepower respectively, while the AWD version has about 360 horsepower. An eight-speed automatic transmission is the only choice and, depending upon the model, you can get it with steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles.
But the real story is the list of extras and modcons. This car is loaded. Again, depending upon the model, you can get everything from a rear seat that has a built-in shiatsu massage feature, air suspension that can raise and lower the car, an analog clock that automatically resets itself if you drive across a different time zone, a back-seat monitor that has Blu-Ray capability, a rear cross traffic alert that beeps if you’re backing out of a space and there’s something in the way, an automatic collision alert system that automatically applied the brakes if there’s an accident imminent, and on and on. Lexus designers and engineers haven’t missed much here and you’ll look long and hard to find a luxury sedan with more stuff that this one.
A word about the interior. In a word, it is spectacular.
First of all, this is, without a doubt, the quietest automobile I have ever driven – ever. Leather is everywhere you look, of course, and the LS has what Lexus calls climate control concierge, which is a single setting that controls every aspect of the car’s interior ambience – seats, ventilation, temperature – everything.
During the presentation, Lexus also went to great lengths to describe and explain the wood trim in the new LS, which is a highly accented variety they call “shimamoku”. What does that mean, precisely? It means “striped wood.” We’re not sure what variety of wood it is, but it’s striped.
And here’s a bit of bad news for those who have never mastered the art of parallel parking. The self-parking feature will be history after the 2012 model year. You can still get it on the current model, but, as of 2013, it is no more.
Lexus has not announced a pricing structure for the new LS just yet, but the current version ranges from about $85,000 to $122,000, so you know the new one won’t be far away from that.
2013 Lexus LS
Price: Not available
Engine: 4.6-litre V-8 and 5.0-litre V-8 with three electric motors
Horsepower/torque: 386 hp/367 lb-ft for 4.6-litre; 438 hp/385 lb-ft for 5.0-litre hybrid
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Drive: Rear-wheel and all-wheel
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.6 city/9.1 highway (600h hybrid)
Alternatives: Mercedes S-Class, BMW 7-Series, Audi A8, Jaguar XF