LUXURY cars are a common sight at the Skywalker Ranch, about an hour out of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge.
Star Wars supremo George Lucas set up the ranch in the 1980s as his creative hub and it's still in day-to-day use for sound work on major films.
But today is different, even for Skywalker Ranch, as two dozen near-identical luxury cars roll up the driveway for Episode 5 of the Lexus LS story.
The LS is the oldest Lexus of them all and is being set for another swing at the heavyweight champions from Benz and BMW.
The latest LS500 has a downsized V6 twin-turbo engine, with a hybrid V6 also in the family, a bigger and tauter body, more standard equipment and is promised with a similar price tag to the current car from about $195,000.
The rework of the LS brings a more-rigid body that's longer, wider and lower. There's also more distance between the front and rear wheels to ensure plenty of back-seat space and a big boot. The shape of the car is smooth and elegant, but the overall effect is ruined by overly fussy detailing.
Still, the design of the dashboard is great, with a low wide sweep and large digital displays. It's a change from the Germanic style that dominates the class.
The new LS has been re-engineered to be more involving to drive.
"We wanted to create a car that is the best partner for the customer. Not just a means of transport,” says the car's deputy chief engineer, Shinji Kishida.
It's the same with the twin-turbo 3.5-litre V6 that sends 310kW and 600Nm to the rear wheels via a 10-speed automatic gearbox.
Lexus is not providing any economy numbers yet and only talks about a 5.4-second sprint to 100km/h in the hybrid, which uses a non-turbo 3.5-litre V6 from a different engine family. Its combined power output is 264kW. Lexus doesn't publish a combined torque figure.
There are two LS models, F Sport and Sports Luxury, with predictable levels of standard equipment including leather trim, 28-way adjustable electric seats, Mark Levinson custom sound with 23 speakers and the largest head-up instrument display in the class.
On the safety front, the new LS is nowhere close to the latest BMW and Mercedes-Benz flagships, with their semi-autonomous features, but the car comes with up to 12 airbags, auto emergency braking, adaptive cruise control and lane-keep warning and assist.
The target from the first quarter of 2018 is 200 deliveries, matching the record from 2007, although few are expected to be defectors from other luxury brands.
"The majority will be current LS owners and there will be a minority of people who are potentially new to our brand,” says Lexus chief, Peter McGregor.
ON THE ROAD
The new Lexus is easily the best LS since the start. That's not much of a compliment, as the four previous generations since '89 were bland, boring and felt like an oversized Camry.
Tackling the undulating twisty challenges near Skywalker Ranch, in the canyon country of Marin County, the F Sport car is genuinely fun. It turns exceptionally well, is nicely balanced in all conditions, and stops well.
The 500h with Sport Luxury packaging floats too much over bumps and freeway joints, but is fine on SanFran freeways.
The seats are very comfy and easy to tailor to exact needs, the view over the low-set dash is great and the punch from the new twin-turbo V6 is as much as I need. Some LS owners might miss the V8 engine note, but they will be in the minority.
There is good steering feel and feedback through a wheel that's 10 millimetres smaller, the car is easy to park, and one minor improvement for Gen5 cars - alloy wheels with a special cavity to absorb "slap” over concrete joints - really sounds as if it works.
But I cannot get past the over-fussy styling of the LS. For a car that's claimed to be focused on the driver, particularly with the F Sport package that's my choice for the roads around the Ranch, it's way too much and unlikely to impress anyone aspiring to a Benz or BMW.
Not set, but Lexus promises the base price will be lineball to the outgoing car, which means about $195,000.
Surprisingly light compared with the latest German flagships, with no sign of semi-autonomous support and even parking assist dropped. The focus is more on cosseting luxury, including 28-way electric seats and 23-speaker sound.
Two new 3.5 V6 engines, twin-turbo in the 500H and naturally aspirated in the hybrid, match the numbers for the previous V8 and should be significantly better on economy. The only downside is the loss of the V8 engine note.
The biggest change with the new LS is more focus on driving enjoyment. The car feels planted and balanced in all conditions and a genuine rival to a BMW 7 Series. It's a giant improvement over earlier LS models and more like the impressive Lexus LC 500 coupe
The basic proportions are good, there is more cabin space and an impressive dashboard layout, but the Lexus designers went overboard in almost every area. There is too much chrome, too much fussiness, and the end result is a confronting design that loses points gained in other areas.
AT A GLANCE
PRICE From $195,000 (est)
ENGINES 3.5-litre twin-turbo V6, 310kW/600Nm or 3.5-litre V6 hybrid, 264kW (combined output)
TRANSMISSION 10-speed auto, RWD
THIRST Not available yet
SAFETY Auto safety braking with pedestrian detection, up to 12 airbags
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