With the 2013 Lexus LS, Toyota's luxury brand has something to solve. The perennial dogfight between BMW and Mercedes-Benz at the very top of their model ranges all but blots out most other competitors. Even Audi's A8 has difficulty gaining breathing room between the S-Class and the 7-Series; Jaguar's XJ isn't yet in the game, really.
The LS hasn't quite made the upper echelon, either, despite the loud and clear warning signal it sent to those German brands back in 1989, when the first LS glided onto the scene. Faultless but characterless, that first Lexus exploded the idea that only expensive European sedans had birthright. Since then it's been a stable influence and a halo car, but not a total tactical success. It's one of the most reliable vehicles on the planet, but its reputation still sits in the shadow of the S-Class and the 7-Series, while the Lexus brand itself racks up hundreds of thousands of sales of RX crossovers and ES sedans.
What to do? This year, there's an obvious swing in the mood. It's time for change, and the LS wears the new face of Lexus, just like all its latest vehicles. The "spindle" grille lifts some inspiration from its LFA supercar, another piece of the transformation puzzle. The interior's along the same horizontal lines as the sporty GS four-door, more evocatively Japanese.
At the same time, the LS' dynamics aren't all that different, despite some work on its electric steering and adaptive suspension. There's even a new F Sport model with a firmer ride and faster steering--but driven against the taut, lean XJ, it's still a loose, less composed attempt at a sport model, nothing near the mighty AMG or Alpina or S or R sedans that set a torrid pace for those other brands.
It's telling that the best details in the new LS are geared to comfort and luxury. The 12.3-inch LCD screen on the dash is as large as the one on the XJ, and enables a triptych view of the GPS. The front seats link up with the climate control for automatic ventilation. The available Mark Levinson sound system registers pure, clean sound across a huge variety of music types. There's a Blu-Ray DVD player offered for the back seat--which also gets a fold-out work table.
With Lexus on track to sell about 240,000 vehicles in the U.S. this year, the LS won't account for much of the total. The change that's come is for the better--and probably mandatory, since the Hyundai Equus now offers the serene, placid feel of a base LS and its own brand of personalized customer service for thousands less. There's no room to fail, and not much room to grow for the LS--but then again, that's what they said when Lexus was launched in the first place.