Slightly more eager, slightly more responsive than before, the 2013 Lexus comes in two basic flavors: LS 600h L hybrid and LS 460 luxury sedan, the latter in short- or long-wheelbase editions, with rear- or all-wheel drive. This year, it adds an F Sport model that's aimed primarily at its hard-charging German luxosedan competition, and it aims to capture some of their handling precision through the miracle of electronic controls.
It doesn't quite work out that way for the F Sport, which remains planted in a softer-sprung school of handling than anything with a Deutsche accent. Though it's more controlled than ever, it's not transformed in anything like the dramatic fashion we've found in the 2013 Lexus GS F Sport.
In the very expensive LS 600h L, Lexus teams a 5.0-liter V-8 engine and a hybrid drive system for V-12-like power. The gasoline V-8 makes 389 horsepower on its own, but altogether the system achieves 438 horsepower. The hybrid system dispatches its power through a full-time all-wheel-drive system and a "shiftless" continuously variable transmission (CVT). For more control during sporty driving, the CVT can simulate eight manually shifted gears. The full-hybrid system can operate for short distances, almost silently, on electric power alone. There's even an EV button-a feature never before used on a Toyota hybrid in the U.S. market-that forces the system to use only electric power for several minutes. It recharges its nickel-metal-hydride battery packs either via the engine or through a regenerative braking system.
The LS 600h L moves very quickly, and with almost uncanny quietness. The only time you hear the gasoline engine is when accelerating hard. Acceleration is quick; Lexus claims a 0-60 mph run of 5.5 seconds. But the LS 600h L doesn't feel very sporty. Its variable-ratio steering responds mostly with lightness and distance. And though cornering is surprisingly flat, thanks to the the adaptive air suspension that affords different settings for those driving systems, the hybrid also rides a little stiffly in most modes, a consequence of its heavier curb weight. Fuel economy is rated at up to 20 mpg combined, not bad for a 5200-pound sedan, but not absolutely breathtaking.
The LS 460 seems more intensive change, though its drivetrain is largely carried over from last year. A 4.6-liter V-8 doles out an effortlessly smooth, usually silent 386 horsepower and 367 pound-feet of torque. With a curb weight of between 4,200 and 4,900 pounds, the LS' 0-60 mph times are estimated at between 5.4 seconds to 5.9 seconds, and its top speed is posted at a regulated 130 mph. It's coupled to an eight-speed automatic transmission, in rear-drive form or fitted with optional all-wheel drive (in which case the engine makes 357 hp and slightly less torque, but gets a limited-slip differential with a torque bias of 40:60 that can vary from 30:70 to 50:50 depending on road conditions).
The base versions without air suspension offer electronic control of transmission, revised electric power steering, and throttle in Eco, Normal, and Sport modes. Eco slows out the throttle for better mileage, while Sport speeds it up along with steering response for a nonlinear boost across the board. Cars with the base suspension ride well but are a bit too soft for crisp handling response, and numb, light steering don't encourage enthusiasm. We've also found the transmission can seem indecisive at times, since it has so many gears from which to choose, but it doesn't demand anything from the driver.
All-wheel drive is an option, and air suspension comes with long-wheelbase models. Even on these models, the same effortlessness pervades the LS driving experience. There's a plushness that plays through the steering, which remains a light-touch affair even when Sport mode is engaged. The ride is exceptionally controlled and smooth, even in the air suspension's stiffest mode, probably because the air suspension now shares information between wheels to control ride motions as a whole, not as individual wheels. Eighteen-inch wheels and tires are standard, by the way, with 19-inchers an option.Expectations are higher for the F Sport, since Lexus has done a good job revamping its GS sport sedan under the same initials. The F Sport teases with a faint hint of the visceral snap that dominates the Jaguar XJ, BMW 7er or the Benz S-Class. The driving experience is no longer exactly effortless, now that the electronics of the air suspension, transmission, steering, and throttle allow some custom tailoring.
The carryover drivetrain adapts new controls to tackle that mission. The automatic offers paddle controls and a manual mode, but on prototypes we drove, it didn't respond as swiftly as promised. The gear indicator held firm at the top of its range, despite clicking and tapping to trigger downshifts that should have been legal, given the place on the tach. Downshift blipping are exclusive to the F Sport's flavor of this gearbox. The low gears are staged and groomed still for luxury, and though upshifts are quicker, the LS' gearbox still feels like it deliberates more than the six-speed in an XJ. There's still a measure of control lacking for the driver, a missed connection.
The LS' redesigned suspension, steering and braking systems get tauter for more road feel and tighter control in the F Sport. Its air suspension comes with additional Comfort and Sport+ modes, the latter of which tightens the air shocks to something we'd still call only mildly firm, despite the F Sport's 19-inch tires (summer or all-weather). The F Sport gets the variable-ratio steering system too, but no rear-steer setup like the smaller GS, because of its place at the top of the Lexus the lineup. It's just a bit more assertive, with light feel and just a suggestion of feedback. It's just not as composed as it could be, when dodging shadows on the Skyline above Palo Alto, and grabby brakes and a high-set pedal make it conversely difficult to drive smoothly in town.
There's yet more to set the F Sport apart on paper, less to draw direct comparisons with the German benchmarks. It rides 0.4 inches lower, has Brembo six-piston caliper brakes, and a suspension brace for better rigidity. On rear-drive models, there's even torque vectoring--a Torsen differential between the rear wheels, one that distributes torque to the outside wheel to boost cornering. It's still just mildly more assertive than the base LS, and still less responsive and less crisp than an S-Class or an Audi A8.
The real heresy comes with a sound generator that amplifies some intake noises to enrich the driving experience. Lexus? Adding noise into the equation? From a brand that's championed an effortless driving experience, it's an ironic twist. For all of the past 22 years, Lexus has been about removing those disturbances. Noises have been quelled, vibrations have been damped out. Their re-introduction, and the first pass at pulling the LS into tauter shape, shows the pressure put on the LS by vehicles like the Hyundai Equus, which replicates the silent, unemotional driving experience well enough for substantially less.