Lexus LS VS Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class
- 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
- Sleek styling
- Beautiful cabin
- Ride and handling
- Limited rear legroom
- Higher entry price into range
- No diesel variant
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|
There are people who probably wish the Mercedes-Benz CLS would just go away. Call security, have it escorted off the premises. That’s probably because they don’t agree with its styling. For them, it’s not how a large four-door Mercedes-Benz should look, with its ‘rude’ coupe roofline.
“You don’t surrender a segment… a vehicle has to do 100 units to justify bringing it – this will do 100 units no problem sat all,” were the exact words from Benz’s head of communications David McCarthy.
You could say Benz created the four-door coupe segment when it launched its first-generation CLS 14 years ago, triggering its rivals to fire back with their own four-door coupes - the Audi A7 and BMW 6 Series Gran Coupe.
Far from surrendering, the CLS has evolved again with this third-generation bringing new engines and styling. So, what do you gain and what will you have to surrender (for lack of a better word) if you choose to go down the non-traditional route of the CLS?
I found out when I drove the new CLS 450 4Matic for the first time on Australian roads at its recent launch.
|Engine Type||2.0L 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 Mercedes-Benz CLS has proven to be a niche hero, creating a segment and then evolving into something even more elegant, while keeping its unique appeal. A beautiful, modern cabin and the new engine in the CLS 450 provides the swiftness to match those looks.
Do you wish the Mercedes-Benz CLS would just go away or do you think it's just perfect? Tell us what you think in the comments below.
Also, check out Matt Campbell's video review from the CLS's international launch:
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 new-generation CLS has arrived looking slipperier than a cake of soap on the bottom of the bath. This model has always had svelte styling, but things have become even smoother with Benz’s design chief Gorden Wagener insisting more lines be removed in the creation of this latest version.
So, while there’s the familiar profile of that roof tapering down into the boot lid, the long rear overhang and that sliver of a window opening arching and turning down sharply at the rear, it's a more flowing design now that there are less edges to break it all up.
A new ‘shark nose’ grille opening, and broad bonnet adds a hunk of muscle car toughness to the CLS’s face. But it’s refined thuggery, with that single-louvered ‘diamond studded’ grille flanked by flush-mounted headlights. The tail-lights, too, are so contoured to the body around them they look painted on.
As CarsGuide senior editor Matt Campbell pointed out in his review of the CLS at the international launch, the car looks far better in the metal than it does in any photo.
The CLS is based on the E-Class, sharing its platform and technology, but it’s about 20mm longer (at 4988mm) end-to-end. That’s almost 50mm longer than the previous generation CLS, too. At just over 1.4m tall the CLS is low-slung but wide at 1.9m across (almost 2.1m including mirrors).
The CLS’s cabin mirrors that of the E-Class, too, with a sweeping dashboard which flows through into the doors, two large landscape displays for your instruments and media, an oversupply of air vents and some darn sexy lighting. It’s a luxurious, stylish, comfortable, but snug setting cocooned by padded leather and polished surfaces.
The Australian CLS has been fitted standard with the AMG interior and exterior packages.
You can pick from 11 colours – eight of which are no-cost options and include, 'Polar White', 'Obsidian Black', 'Iridium Silver', 'Citrine Brown', 'Graphite Grey' and 'Cavansite Blue'. Optional colours include 'Hyacinth Red' and 'Selenite Grey Magno'.
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.
Remember how I said you were going to have to surrender something if you wanted a CLS? Well, yes, you’ve have to surrender your hard-earned money, but you’ll also have to give up quite a bit of practicality.
That swooping roofline makes entry into the front seats a bit precarious for people of my height (191cm) trying to swing themselves into the cockpit without clocking their heads on the A-pillar.
The impracticality only gets worse with entry into the back seats, and legroom in there for me is tight, too.
I can only just sit behind my driving position thanks to the contoured seat backs. Headroom is also limited.
It’s worth pointing out that this time the CLS is a five-seater – the previous generation sat just four.
Storage isn’t bad, running to a deep centre console bin with a split lid, there are two cupholders up front and another two in the rear fold-down armrest along with another covered drawer, and all doors have small bottle holders.
The CLS’s boot capacity is 520 litres, and the rear seats fold 40/20/40 to provide extra space.
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...
Benz has dropped the 250d grade, which means you can no longer have your CLS with a diesel engine. That also means the new entry fee is higher with the CLS 350 kicking the line-up off at $136,900 (list price).
You’ll be rewarded with a decent amount of equipment for the outlay, though. Coming standard on the CLS 350 are those two 12.3-inch screens, a head-up display, a 13-speaker Burmester stereo, sat nav, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, digital radio, surround view camera, leather upholstery, heated front seats, 'Brown Ash' wood trim on the centre console, wheel-mounted shifting paddles, AMG exterior and interior packages, auto-parking, 20-inch AMG wheels, air suspension, proximity key and privacy glass.
The CLS 450 4Matic lists for $155,529 and adds air filtering in the cabin, power closing doors, a sports exhaust system and all-wheel drive.
At the top of the three-grade range is the Mercedes-AMG CLS 53 4Matic+ for $179,529. The extra money buys you nappa leather upholstery, wireless charging, the ‘Night’ body kit, an AMG exhaust system, and of course, a lot more grunt which you can read about below.
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).
If you’ve skipped straight to this bit you’ll have missed news that there’s no longer a diesel engine in the CLS line-up. Instead you have a choice of three petrol engines – one for each grade and all of them are new to the model.
The CLS 450 4Matic has a 270kW/500Nm 3.0-litre in-line six-cylinder engine with a twin-scroll turbo and like the Mercedes-AMG 53 above it has an integrated electric motor called an EQ Boost. While it’s a hybrid system of sorts the electric motor doesn’t drive the wheels, instead it recuperates kinetic energy and charges the battery.
The CLS 450 uses the nine-speed auto, as well, and is all-wheel drive.
The Mercedes-AMG CLS 53 4Matic has the same transmission and engine as the CLS450 but has been given a heftier twin-scroll turbo charging system and tuned to produce even more grunt at 320kW/520Nm. The 'EQ Boost' performs the same function as in the CLS 450, but also provides power to an electric turbocharger. The Mercedes-AMG CLS 53 4Matic is also all-wheel drive and uses a nine-speed automatic.
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.
This is a good place to remind you (again) that only one CLS grade was available to drive at the Australian launch – the CLS 450, and we were only given the claimed fuel economy figures for that model.
After 197km through, on a route that bumper to bumpered its way out of Melbourne CBD and headed the long way to the airport via Woodend. our car’s trip computer was reporting close to an average of 10.0L/100km.
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.
A reminder again, folks – Mercedes-Benz only had the CLS 450 available to drive. Okay? On with the review…
Nobody likes a traffic jam, apart from maybe taxi drivers. But sitting in a CLS deep in Melbourne’s CBD, stuck in road-work-infested roads, choked with cars going nowhere was as pleasant as the experience could be.
Plush seats, pretty lighting, air filtered and fragranced, air suspension cushioning the patchy tarmac underneath as we wriggled our way north towards Mount Macedon and country roads.
If you read another review calling out a large degree of wind noise filtering into the cabin, they’re right and wrong. See, the weather was apocalyptic as we hit the motorway. Trees doubled over kind of windy, and sure you could hear it rushing past the windows when we were at 110km/h, but you could also hear it clearly when we were at 30km/h.
I like gadgets and so it was about 15 seconds into the motorway stint that I tested out the active cruise control, and automatic lane changing, which works near perfectly.
As the roads became more winding, I switched drive modes to 'Sport', firming up the suspension and steering, at the same time prompting the transmission to kick back into a lower gear.
This is a stable-feeling car, well balanced and effortless to steer. Smoothness is a word for everything it does, including covering the ground quickly.
While that acceleration is rapid, it’s not quite exhilarating, and the engine note under load is a little high pitched for a thug like this.
CLSs of the past were known for being a bit more aggressive and feistier, but this one seems to have mellowed in its third generation. I don’t see any issues with this. There are other angrier Benzs if that’s your thing.
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 second generation CLS was never crash tested and this new one has yet to be as well. So, while it hasn’t been given an ANCAP star rating, given it shares so much with the five-star rated E-Class we’d expect it to score nothing less than that, too.
Along with nine airbags, ABS, and traction and stability control the level of advanced safety equipment onboard the new CLS is seriously impressive. There’s the 'Driving Assistance package Plus' which brings AEB with cross traffic function, evasive steering, blind spot warning with an active function and lane keeping assistance.
For child seats you’ll find two ISOFIX mounts and three top ether anchor points.
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.
The CLS is covered by Mercedes-Benz’s three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty. Servicing is recommended every 12months/25,000km for the CLS 350 and CLS 450, while the CLS 53, like all AMGs needs to visit at 12month/20,000km intervals.
Mercedes-Benz says a capped price servicing plan will be available, but has yet to release the prices. We’ll update this as soon as the costs have been announced.