Lexus LS VS Audi S8
- Sumptuous luxury for the price
- Impressive efficiency/performance balance
- Excellent comfort and refinement
- Styling looking a little dated
- Multimedia system too downmarket and also looking dated
- A bit more driver involvement would be terrific
- Technical extravaganza
- Elegant looks
- Punchy V8
- Tricky to find a space big enough
- Short warranty
Lexus is returning to its roots and playing to traditional strengths with the 2021 LS update, as the Japanese luxury brand braces itself for the imminent release of an all-new Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
On sale now from $195,953 before on-road costs, the facelift ushers in a raft of comfort, refinement, driveability and technological upgrades, striving to deliver the quietest and most luxurious experience in the upper luxury sedan segment.
The blink-and-you'll-miss-it makeover runs to redesigned headlights, wheels, bumpers and tail-light lenses, as well as the inevitable multimedia screen update, improved seating revised trim and better safety.
Along with an all-in equipment list and unparalleled levels of ownership benefits, the goal is to emulate the dramatic differences that existed between the LS and its mostly German competition more than 30 years ago, which helped make Lexus a disruptor, decades before the term was even coined.
The MY21 range will continue offering two grades – the racier F Sport and opulent Sports Luxury – in either V6 twin-turbo petrol LS 500 or V6 petrol-electric hybrid LS 500h powertrain choices, as per the XF50-generation's Australian debut back in late 2017.
The question is: has Lexus gone far enough with its limousine flagship?
|Fuel Type||Hybrid with Premium Unleaded|
Big sedans are not in vogue at the moment and huge luxury sedans were on the way down before the humble Commodore and Falcon departed the upper end of the sales charts. The Germans, who have always done a spectacular job of these flagship sedans, cheerfully persist with these cars.
|Engine Type||4.0L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
One might be surprised to learn that, without having driven the latest S-Class, rival large luxury sedans have struggled to juggle comfort and refinement with agility and speed. Even in this modern age of adaptive dampers and air suspension. The Germans, in particular, seem to struggle at times.
The latest Lexus LS, however, walks the line with impressive confidence and poise, prioritising the former yet without dropping the ball with the latter. Just keep in mind that the 500h Sports Luxury manages the balance best.
The bar may just about be raised with the bestselling Stuttgart's arrival from March, but even then, with its extensive and complete specification, outstanding hybrid efficiency/performance combination and remarkable build quality and presentation, Japan's master luxury sedan deserves to find more buyers in this country.
Well done, Lexus.
The S8's existence is a source of joy for me because it's not a huge SUV. Yes, it's a huge sedan but it's a reminder that the technological flagship is alive and well, at least in Germany. And the important thing about these cars is the way the toys filter down through the rest of the range. That used to take years but we're seeing this cool stuff a lot more quickly, right down to the A1.
The S8 punches, and punches hard in this rarefied part of an already shrunken section of the market - the twin-turbo V8 matches its German rivals, it's lighter and it's as well-stacked as any of the three. What it doesn't do, however, is shout about itself the way the other two do. It's the incognito choice.
The XF50 series is a long and imposing machine, but is also arguably the most Toyota-looking LS in history, sharing design cues with most larger sedans the company builds – and yes, even the Camry. This is a departure from the Mercedes aping ‘90s and '00 generations. If the latest S-Class can look like a 200 per cent enlarged CLA, why not?
The most obvious – and pleasing – changes are realised when the headlights are switched on, revealing the BladeScan tech. In the F Sport, the redesigned bumpers' air intakes are noticeably larger and have jazzier pattern inserts, as part of a broader exercise in differentiating the grades with what's perceived as ‘sportier' elements throughout the car. The divisive ‘Spindle' grille theme remains.
Out back – arguably the most Toyota-esque part of the LS – are piano black tail-light inserts to differentiate new from old.
If Lexus is about presenting nuanced styling evolution as to not spook the demographic, then the MY21 flagship sedan succeeds brilliantly.
The sheetmetal is obviously very restrained given it's an Audi first, and secondly, it's just not done to go wild in this part of the market.
It's an A6 that's joined a gym, but didn't join that weird gym with men that can't run after you when you insult them (don't ask how I know this). Rolling on 21-inch wheels as standard, you can go up to massive 22s if you so choose.
The A8 created a subtle redirection of Audi's passenger car look, with the updated A4 and A6 both picking up on the horizontal bar between the rear lights and the huge grille framed by family lights with signature DRL patterns. The S8 builds on that with subtle S cues but nothing even vaguely shouty.
The interior acreage - or 'cabin', if you will - is very comfortable, but you already knew that. The multi-screen layout was first seen in the A8 and has now found its way into A7, Q8 and Q7 and is, as ever, brilliant to look at and use.
The MMI updates that have found their way into other cars are present and correct. Like the exterior, it's very restrained but not to the point of sparse minimalism, despite the lack of switches and buttons.
I really don't like the steering wheel, though, and I can't put my finger on why. It certainly isn't especially sporty-looking but I wonder if the standard flat-bottomed S wheel just looked stupid.
The materials are beautiful and everything fits together perfectly.
This is more like it.
While nowhere near the apex of striking interior design, with a dashboard that – again – is quite clearly from the contemporary Toyota way of thinking, the LS is massive inside, heaving with standard luxury and obsessively crafted in a few key touchpoint areas.
The brand makes a big noise about the floating door-sited armrests and their very obviously expensive craftspersonship, but it is eye-catching and satisfying to drink in the detailing, extending in and around into the dash seamlessly, carrying on the flowing, salubrious themes of sculptured multi-dimensional shapes. In 1989 journos were handing out similar platitudes in the original LS.
If the techno-overload of a Mercedes MBUX or Tesla's OTT tablet leave you cold, this enhances the luxury experience by adding a rich, cosy, warm ambience – though the instrumentation binnacle is familiar; all we can see is the first IS 250 of 1999, complete with its single, watch-face inspired analogue dial.
Here, of course, it's digitised and multi-configurable to accommodate sat-nav, multimedia and other vehicle-related needs, but it is a oddly nostalgic, given the brand's first BMW 3 Series rival is now almost forgotten. Still, it's interesting and isn't that what eccentric rich people who don't want to drive the cliché luxury behemoths desire?
With endless adjustability, the seats are sumptuous to the point of subsuming, in the way you'd imagine a limousine to be, but because of their bolstered support, they also can be manipulated into gently cupping you enough to stop you sliding about when throwing the Lexus about with gay abandon – more on that later on.
It doesn't need mentioning that the fit and finish is fabulous, with the enveloping luxury continuing out in the back seat. The Sport Luxury's airline-style recliners are enough to turn doubters into doe-eyed believers, with their restful, relaxing, relieving, refreshing and revitalising ways – well, to an extent that an airport massage-chair minus the coin box and dodgy stains can, in any case. But the fact remains: ensconced deep into that leather-lined luxury, slumber beckons. Namaste!
And that's the point of LS. It creates a sanctuary from the outside elements at least as effectively as Audi A8s, BMW 7s and Merc S' have costing upwards of 50 per cent more. The cabin is spacious, soothing and secure. On our extended drive of both 500 models, this was made abundantly clear with two stints behind the wheel of the visually similar ES 300h.
Quiet and refined, that car felt loud and coarse compared to the smooth silence of its supersized sibling. Mission accomplished, Lexus.
The cabin is clearly built with rear seat passengers in mind, with rear leg and headroom configured for those continent-crossing drives.
The S8 has plenty of comfort for two rear seat passengers and a few amusing options to while away the hours in traffic or on the autobahn.
That doesn't mean the front seat passengers are in purgatory, with huge but supportive seats adjustable in all conceivable directions.
Front and rear rows score a pair of cupholders and bottle holders while the boot is a handy, if not awe-inspiring, 505 litres.
Price and features
Value, refinement and customer care are Lexus' traditional brand pillars.
Lexus broke through with recession-ravaged consumers at the dawn of the 1990s by firstly presenting an attractively conservative S-Class sized sedan at smaller E-Class prices, and then adding an uncannily hushed cabin of exquisite build quality, silky V8 performance, the entire kitchen sink of gadgetry and unheard-of ownership privileges, like tickets to events, free parking at selected venues and home/work vehicle pick-up at service time.
If such a strategy worked then, why not an expanded version now? After all, while sales started off slowly in Australia three decades ago, in the vital US market its impact was immense. Lexus eventually gained traction locally, but nowadays the LS lags significantly behind the leading S-Class; in 2020, it managed a three per cent share compared to Mercedes' 25.5 per cent – or just 18 registrations versus 163.
Sadly, the V8s haven't returned, but the facelift does bring a richer interior with high-quality materials to elevate comfort levels, backed up by redesigned seating and overhauled adaptive suspension dampers that also promote a cushier ride while not compromising steering/handling performance.
Meanwhile, new ambient lighting and (at last) touch-display capability for the 12.3-inch central screen and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity do at least play catch up with the rest of the industry, let alone its direct rivals.
The same applies with the fresh safety gains for the series that include a digital rear-view mirror, Lexus Connected Services (with automated collision notification, SOS call and vehicle tracking), Intersection Turning Assist (that helps keep the driver from turning into on-coming traffic or brakes the car if, whilst turning, a pedestrian crosses the road), far-broader functionality of the autonomous emergency braking systems (including greater rear-cross-traffic warning and intervention), full-speed stop/go adaptive cruise control with traffic flow capability, improved road-sign recognition, better lane-keep and assist tech and a next-gen adaptive high beam tech dubbed BladeScan with stronger lighting and anti-glare performance parameters.
These come on top of the standard adaptive dampers, height-adjustable rear air suspension, front/rear cross-traffic alert, sunroof, gesture-activated powered boot lid, soft-close doors, puddle lights, 23-speaker premium audio, digital radio, DVD player, head-up display, satellite navigation, climate control with infrared body temperature sensitivity, heated/vented front and rear outboard seating, powered seats with memory, heated steering wheel, electric rear blind and a four-camera surround-view monitor.
The F Sport from $195,953 differs from the Sport Luxury from $201,078 (both before on-road costs) with its 10 airbags, dark 20-inch alloys and exterior trim hues, brake-package boost, rear-wheel steering, variable gear ratio, unique instrumentation and dark-metallic interior themes and bolstered front seats, while the LS 500 adds active anti-roll bars front and rear.
Going Sports Luxury changes things up somewhat, with two extra airbags (rear-seat cushion items), special noise-reduced alloys, rear-zone climate control, Semi Aniline leather, a front-seat relaxation system, rear-seat tablet-style screens, powered reclinable heated/vented rear seats with ottoman and massage, rear centre armrest with touchscreen climate/multimedia control, side sunshades and – in LS 500 only – a rear cooler box.
On the owner-benefit front, ‘Encore Platinum' introduced last year builds on the regular Encore's valet servicing with benefits like free use of a Lexus for business or leisure travel within select Australian and now-New Zealand destinations (one-way only – sorry, Kiwis) for up to four times annually and lasting the first three years of ownership. There's also eight yearly free valet parking at certain shopping malls and other venues, several celebrity-laden social events/activities and discounted Caltex fuel.
With all these features as standard, the LS costs several tens of thousands of dollars less than most full-sized luxury sedan rivals with broadly similar performance outputs and optioned up with equivalent luxuries, before the Encore Premium privileges. However, while the Lexus' four-year/100,000km warranty also betters most competitors by one year, it is mileage capped while others' regimes aren't, and none beat Mercedes' five-year/unlimited program.
Though prices are up by nearly $2000, it's fair to conclude the extra kit and improvements help offset them, but it's also worth remembering that earlier last year, Lexus hiked LS prices by up to nearly $4000, and not too long before Encore Platinum was announced...
For $260,000 there is a lot to get through, as there is on the less sporty A8. Start with huge 21-inch alloys, 17-speaker Bang & Olufsen stereo, panoramic sunroof, matrix LED headlights with laser lights, soft-close doors, acoustic glazing, leather trim, S front seats, extra leather over the A8, Alcantara headlining, carbon inlays, four-zone climate control, heated and cooled front seats, 'Virtual Cockpit' with S mode, and a tyre repair kit.
You also get active suspension, a sport version of the 'quattro' all-wheel drive system (with a sport differential), and a walloping great twin-turbo V8 to get you moving.
A massive touchscreen on the centre stack (familiar in Q8, A7 and Q7) hosts Audi's 'MMI plus' system, which is very good and does away with the console-mounted rotary controller. It also has wireless Apple CarPlay to go with the console-bin wireless charging pad. Android Auto is still USB. 'Audi Connect plus', now in full-featured glory, is also along for the ride.
Another technical highlight is the active noise cancelling which is meant to reduce the noise in the cabin the same way noise cancelling headphones do.
There's a clever rear seat remote control, which is a little detachable tablet to allow those who are being chauffered to faff around with various settings.
Our car had the $13,900 'Sensory Package', which adds a 1820-watt B&O 3D sound system with 23 speakers, electrically adjustable outer rear seats along with heating, cooling and massage function, and full leather.
Engine & trans
The LS is powered by two versions of a 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine.
Around 75 per cent of buyers choose the 500, which employs Lexus' V35A-FTS 3445cc double overhead cam 24-valve twin-turbo V6 petrol engine, delivering 310kW of power at 6000rpm and 600Nm of torque from 1600-4800rpm. Powering the rear wheels via an updated AGA0 10-speed torque-converter automatic transmission with driver-adaptive tech, it can reach 100km/h in 5.0 seconds flat, on the way to a 250km/h top speed.
For the facelift, it receives a revised twin-turbo set-up with reduced lag, new pistons and a lighter, one-piece aluminium intake manifold to save weight and cut noise paths while retaining existing outputs.
The 500h, meanwhile, gains software updates for more electrical assistance at lower revs for stronger acceleration times and feel. It employs the 8GR-FXS engine – a 3456cc naturally-aspirated variation with a higher compression ratio (13.0:1 versus the 500's 10.478:1), developing 220kW at 6600rpm and 350Nm at 5100rpm.
Being a series-parallel hybrid, there is a 132kW/300Nm permanent magnet motor and 650-system volt lithium-ion battery, making for a combined power output to 264kW. It now can run longer on pure electric – up to 129km/h compared with 70km/h before. Sending drive to the rear wheels via the L310 continuously variable transmission with a four-speed shift device and a 10-speed simulated shift control operation to mimic more natural auto responses, it requires 5.4s to hit 100km/h, and manages the same top speed as its 500 counterpart.
Both autos, by the way, have more aggressive Sport and Sport+ shift ratio software, while the M manual mode has paddle shifters.
Kerb weight varies from 2215kg (500 Sports Luxury) to 2340kg (500h Sports Luxury).
That's a lot, even for this big bruiser. Obviously, being an Audi S-car, it has quattro all-wheel drive, which is fed by an eight-speed ZF automatic. Which is in everything now. Well, just about.
That huge torque figure is available between 2000rpm and 4500rpm while peak power arrives at 6000rpm. The 0-100km/h sprint is despatched in - gulp - 3.8 seconds.
As it's riding on the MLB platform, the mild hybrid system is a 48-volt set-up. A lithium-ion battery in the boot takes charge from the belt alternator/starter, which means the S8 can coast at higher speeds with the engine off and also cut out at 22km/h and under in traffic.
The system can also add up to 60Nm of torque in the right conditions for up to six seconds, and if it happened for me, I didn't notice it.
The LS 500 returns a combined 10.0 litres per 100km, or 14.2L/100km urban and 7.6L/100km extra urban. Thus, the combined carbon dioxide emissions rating is 227 grams per kilometre, but can range from 172-321g/km. A theoretical average range of 820km is possible.
Moving on to the hybrid, the LS 500h manages a combined 6.6L/100km, or 7.8L/100km urban and an impressive 6.2L/100km extra urban. Its combined CO2, therefore, is 150g/km, and can drop as low as 142g/km and rise as high as 180g/km.
The Hybrid's average range should be about 1240km.
Both models require premium unleaded petrol as a minimum - 95 RON in the LS 500 and 98 RON in the Hybrid.
A key goal has been on reducing the stop/start frequency of the 500h's petrol engine during high-speed driving to increase both refinement and response.
The 10.5L/100km official figure is, shall we say, optimistic. The launch drive was mostly highway so there's no real information to be gleaned from that, so we'll have to wait for real world fuel figures.
I'd say 12-13L/100km is achievable if you don't like having fun, in which case, the lesser A8 is probably for you.
Audi says the MHEV system saves 0.8L/100km with an early cut-out for the stop-start and the ability to coast on the highway for over half a minute at a time.
No matter what it says on the badge, the LS is first and foremost a large, heavy and imposing luxury sedan. Its sporting capabilities are relative.
Keeping that in mind, the updates for the MY21 version are a success, since the largest Lexus passenger car is uncannily quiet and refined, as you might hope and expect. The ride quality is largely cushioned and free of bump intrusion inside, with a sense of gliding over most road surfaces as if they were blemish-free.
We much prefer the Sport Luxury version, and the 500h in particular, because it can run silently in electric mode for periods, and somehow feels more lavish and plusher to ride in.
Whether that's psychosomatic or actual is debatable, for essentially both the 500 and Hybrid share the same multi-link front and rear platform, adaptive dampers and rear air suspension set-up, but the impression is that this grade is the choice for those wanting to feel ultimate luxury and peace.
On paper, the 500 F Sport should be the driver's choice, since it has the racier look and set-up, as well as 600Nm of tree-trunk-pulling torque.
The thing is, it doesn't necessarily feel all that athletic, and maybe that's because the whole existence of this model is based around isolating its occupants as comfortably as possible. This is no criticism, and the LS certainly envelopes everybody as a great limo ought to, but don't expect Audi S8 levels of steering crispness or handling agility.
Anyway, if you need to feel as if you are a princess in exile escaping villains with bazookas out the back of a Kombi, then the LS does an exceptional job in keeping the 2.3-tonne-plus mass in motion, cornering safely and precisely where it is pointed to, without losing too much composure or traction in tight, fast bends. This is quite a feat, really, for the big Lexus can be hurried along a mountain pass through narrow passages like a much smaller sedan, and without being bumped out of line or off course.
Again, for all-out performance, the 500h feels stronger, especially when called on to pull ahead instantly at speed, because the electric assistance is palpable compared to the regular 500's twin-turbo V6. Both are obviously very, very fast and sufficiently responsive to throttle inputs – and it's a sign of the brand's engineering prowess that their internal serenity means the speed isn't obvious until you're looking at the speedo – but there isn't even a whiff of lag in the Hybrid. That said, once on the go, that twin-turbo V6 in the 500 soars.
Considered in this context, you have to say that the MY21 LS is an exceptionally sumptuous and sophisticated limousine with the speed, safety, security and capability of taking you from point A to B without drama or noise.
Or, for that matter, excitement.
Driving any of the cars in this segment is a rare treat, whether it's the 'entry level' diesel or this top of the heap sports sedan. My day with the S8 was filled with the usual surprise and delight that only these tech-packed cars can deliver.
Heading out of the Sydney CBD in 'Comfort' mode, the car scans the road ahead and adjusts the active suspension accordingly. You already know it has active suspension because when you pull the door handle, the car lifts by 50mm to make it a bit easier to get in.
The suspension's party trick is flat-topped speed bumps - drive at one, brake a little and sense the way the body feels like it stays exactly where it is in the air but the suspension almost completely flattens the speed hump.
It's uncanny and almost unnatural, with just the tiniest change in altitude and no noise from the suspension.
It also manages the terrible narrow lanes of CBD thoroughfares with ease, the lane keep system letting you know if you're straying.
On to the motorway and you get a feel for its crushing performance. You won't hear much, though - the stereo's noise-cancelling system shuts out almost all tyre noise and consistent wind noise is largely banished, too.
I'm going to admit I gasped when I found some corners. Active suspension bodes well for the tricky stuff, as does the all-wheel steering. Both are exceptionally clever systems for making the car feel a lot smaller in town and in car parks but they're also really good if you want some fun.
But the way the rear-wheel steer adds agility to such a big car is hilarious and clever. While you can't quite chuck it around - and really, you're not buying an A8-sized car for that kind of nonsense - brisk progress is far from intimidating.
Now, obviously, a Ford Fiesta would drive away from the S8 in the really tight stuff but it would take some time to properly shake it. The colossal torque from the V8 hurls even this two-tonne-plus limo out of the corners in a most satisfactory manner.
It's surprisingly agile for a machine more than five metres long and two metres wide. If your passengers are corner enthusiasts, you'll all be having fun in near silence. It's oddly engaging to be moving at pace in such a hushed cabin.
Neither the ANCAP organisation nor Euro NCAP has crash-tested an LS for this or previous generations. And, for that matter, nor has the American NHTSA or IIHS, due to low sales.
Standard safety items include 10 to 12 airbags (depending on model, with dual front, front-side and curtain items), AEB with pedestrian and cyclist detection, forward collision warning, driver attention alert, Lane Keep Assist, a Front Lateral Side Pre-Collision System, Active Steering Assist, radar-based adaptive cruise control, Parking Support Brake, Road Sign Assist (detects certain speed signs), a four-camera Panoramic View Monitor, Blind Spot Monitor, Lexus Connected Services, Electronic Stability Control, traction control, anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and brake-assist, and parking sensors all-round. The BladeScan adaptive LED headlights with anti-dazzle tech is also fitted.
The LS' AEB functions between 5km/h and 180km/h.
Additionally, two rear-seat ISOFIX points as well as three top tethers for straps are supplied.
The S8's considerable safety equipment list includes nine airbags, ABS, stability and traction controls, forward AEB (up to 250km/h), reverse cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning, various collision mitigation and protection systems, exit warning, lane keep assist, active cruise control and on, and on, and on.
The rear seat's centre airbag is terribly clever, popping up between passengers to stop you knocking heads. Another clever trick is the way the car detects a side impact is about to happen, boosting the height of the side about to cop it to try and get the sills to take more of the impact, rather than the door.
Given the relatively niche status of the A8, let alone the S8, there is no ANCAP crash test or safety rating. One imagines given the ton of safety gear a five star rating is all but assured. Even the US IIHS gave the A8 a miss.
Lexus offers a four-year 100,000km warranty, which is considered one of the worst in the industry for mileage distance, due to the low number. Most rivals offer unlimited kilometre warranties, as well as more years in some cases.
However, it does come with a three-year program covering standard logbook services completed at an authorised service centre, with the first three annual/15,000km services for the LS costing $595 apiece.
A complimentary pickup and return service from home or workplace is available, as are a loan car, exterior wash and an interior vacuum during servicing. It's all part of the Lexus Encore Owners Benefit program, offered for three years and includes 24/7 roadside assistance.
Finally, the Encore Platinum brings the aforementioned travel destination free Lexus vehicle program (four times a year over three years) in Australia and NZ, as well as numerous valet parking and events privileges, limited to a several annually, and discounted fuel at participating outlets.
Audi continues to fail to match Mercedes move to a five year warranty, sticking with three year/unlimited kilometre cover. BMW is still doing it too, so maybe Ingolstadt and Munich are playing chicken.
You can get a five-year service plan for the S8, coming out at $3990 for the duration.