Six-cylinder showdown for NZ’s LS strategy

The new Lexus LS unveiled to the world this week is a definite starter for NZ – the only issue for the distributor is choosing which engine to take.


SAINT or sinner? That’s the engine choice call Lexus New Zealand’s newly installed boss has to make in respect to the latest edition of the brand’s flagship.

A star of the Detroit motor show, the new version of the LS represents massive separation from the formula that has been previously applied, Paul Carroll suggests.

It’s so much lighter, lither and racier and also – for now at least – loses the V8 power that has been part of the package since it kicked off the Lexus brand here almost three decades ago.

Usurping the outgoing car’s 4.6-litre eight-cylinder is a 3.5-litre twin-turbo V6 that, in delivering a heady 310kW of power and 600Nm of torque to the rear wheels, via a class-first 10-speed torque-converter automatic transmission, operates through two more gears and creates an extra 25kW and 107Nm more than the present choice.

Lexus has been talking up the new mill’s “performance interactivity”, ahead of the other pluses of better emissions and economy, and Carroll agrees it’s an engine that has potential to bring the devil out of a car that, until now, has been more about refinement and ride quality than driver fun.

But will it be a better choice for New Zealand than another drivetrain also destined for the LS?

Carroll has revealed something Lexus carefully steered around when presenting LS to the world in Motown this week: That there’s at least one more drivetrain option planned for this car.

He says the first known alternate is the saintly 264kW/348Nm total system output 3.5-litre V6 petrol/electric. Dubbed Multi Stage Hybrid system, it’s a powertrain that makes first local appearance in the new LC sports coupe here from around July. LC, the only new Lexus being released here in 2017, and LS share a common platform.

Carroll asserts the timing for the 8GR-FXS going into the LS means both sixes will be available for the car’s introduction to New Zealand in early 2018. But with LS likely to achieve no more than 10 sales per annum – that’s around one third the potential LC take up – it would not seem logical to have both locally, but that could happen nonetheless.

What to do? Determining which is preferable is turning out to be a hard call, admits the former Executive Director of Toyota New Zealand who has returned here after five years in Asia with Lexus, culminating as a stint as Vice President of Lexus Asia Pacific.

The hybrid also obviously synchs with a well-established brand bent to promote petrol-electric powertrains – an ethos now so embedded that every current Lexus model here (save the archaic LX) has a hybrid edition, a strategy that has paid off with a massive petrol-electric favouritism within the crossover line that now achieves as the brand’s strongest sellers. The NX, RX and LX comprised 73 percent of of the 720 sales Lexus NZ achieved in 2016, a growing effect (in 2015 they took 59 percent of sales and in 2014 35 percent).

The 8GR-FXS also delivers a different flavour to the long-established marriage of the petrol engine and electric motor in presenting with a lithium-ion battery pack and something else new: A four-speed automatic gearbox mounted behind the hybrid transmission. A four-speed? Well, yeah, but not quite as it seems: This is a constantly variable unit on which the Drive mode has a simulated shift control pattern that simulates a 10-speed box.

Then again, the twin turbo unit is more in tune with the new, driver-first image that Lexus is seeking to embed. Carroll agrees a personal priority is to stir up some extra excitement around the brand and says that’s something the twin-turbo engine certainly achieves. It sounds sporty and feels so much more muscular than the V8 and is backed by a tight-ratio transmission backed up by a three-tiered driving mode – Normal, Sport, and Sport Plus – the latter promising ultra-fast shift times.

So both are appealing. “We’re not sure if we will have both or just one. The volumes are not high. On the plus side, having the 3.5-litre twin turbo would be quite a nice engine to have but the volumes are quite low …

Either way, “we want to try to change the image of hybrid because, I think, we have to accept that in the past hybrid has been regarded as a little bit, for want of a better word, Rastafarian. It’s an environment-focussed thing, which is all very well, but in a Lexus we try and imbue it with a lot more power.”

He says the LC500h shows what can be achieved. “You’ll be very surprised at the way that car drive. Whilst it might not be as involving (as the LC500) V8 it’s very close to it. They’ve done a remarkable job with that unusual gearbox arrangement. That’s what we have to take into account.”

Engine aside, Carroll assures New Zealand will be treated to the highest possible specification: Basically everything mentioned at Detroit.

For all that’s new and different and more exciting, he doesn’t anticipate a sales explosion. LS settled into single figure sales count some years ago; it’s simply become another victim of the market transition away from large sedans and toward luxury sports utilities.

But being niche doesn’t make it any less worthwhile, Carroll contends. It’s still a worthy flagship and, this time around, a damn fine looking one.

“I saw it first when it was in its early clays and I think they’ve done a really good job from bringing it on from there. The vehicle really does have a huge presence … it’s a big sedan but it looks far more sporty.”

“They’ve spent a lot of time trying to really make the car feel as though it’s part of you. That makes it quite different from the previous models, which were set up to be very quiet and ride-focussed, but not a lot of character. This car has a lot of character – it sounds quite sporty when you push it.”

Even though the LS is longer (at 5235mm) and wider (1900mm) than before (and also departs from recent form by being offered in only a single wheelbase length of 3125mm, which is between 33mm and a whopping 158mm more than before depending on variant), weight falls by more than 90kg, partly thanks to far more high tensile steel sheet deployment and increased use of aluminium – including in the multi-link rear suspension set-up.

The new platform also lowers the centre of gravity by placing most weight in a more centralized part of the car, including the engine. Lexus engineers say this allows for a more dynamic drive with more control for the driver. The roofline is also so low, now, that the designers were forced to put the sun roof sliding mechanism on the outside to stop it eating into the headroom.

The luxury experience remains total, of course. Claimed to be inspired by the tradition of Omotenashi, the concept of Japanese hospitality, the new car’s specification list goes on forever. Highlights include a Shiatsu massage function in seats that have 28-way adjustability and an automatic footrest for rear seat passengers.

The cabin features a big 12.3-inch touchscreen interface with latest multimedia, communication, audio, and navigation, a large colour head-up display will be made available, and a bevy of advanced driver-assist technologies make the cut, including adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, auto high-beam systems and a new intuitive pedestrian detection system. If the car detects a passenger in the lane ahead and a collision is imminent, it will brake and drive around the pedestrian, avoiding the collision yet maintaining its lane.

Given the priority on driver enjoyment, how ‘dead’ is the V8 - could it return, perhaps in an F version? Again, LC can readily provide such impetus: The flagship LC500 has the 5.0-litre unit, also shared with the GS F and RC F performance cars, making 351kW and 540Nm in the impending coupe.

Carroll says anything is possible. “Well, it’s on the same floorplan as the LC, so it can take a V8 and I wouldn’t be surprised if, at some stage in the future, it got one but there’s no discussion on that at the moment.”

In addition to LS, 2018 might also herald the next generation of the presently Toyota RAV4-derived NX small crossover, previewed at Detroit by the outrageous UX concept (left).