Big flagship luxury sedans are relics. Artifacts left over from a time when social standing was reflected in the length of a car's wheelbase and how upright its grille stood. A time when Mercedes wasn't reaching down-market and Hyundai wasn't aiming for the heights. Back when the sight of a new Cadillac put a company's employees on high alert that the boss was on site, and not just that some drone in Section G had leased a CTS.
So here comes Lexus's redecorated 2013 LS 460 wafting out of the 20th century. The sedan is the direct successor to the 1990 LS 400 that established a reputation for quality, quiet and conservative design for the then-new luxury division of Toyota.
And like that first car 23 years ago, today's LS is as traditionally engineered as a Chippendale hutch. That means rear-wheel drive (though all-wheel drive is optional), an all-independent suspension tuned to quietly suffocate every road and a V-8 engine as creamy as Vermont butter.
Every detail has changed, and the price has gone way, way up over two decades, but the LS is still the most Lexus-like of Lexuses. The LS's new face fronts largely carried-over engineering. The steel unified body structure is virtually unchanged from the LS generation that entered production as a 2007 model.
While the all-independent suspension's tuning has been tweaked, the basic design is the same. The familiar 4.6-liter direct-injection engine used in every LS except the Hybrid (which has a 5-liter version) is now rated at a modest 386 horsepower (six more than last year) and it still sends its power out through an 8-speed automatic transmission. An option on the LS 460, all-wheel drive is standard on the Hybrid. And if the regular LS 460's 116.9-inch wheelbase feels cramped, the LS 460L, with 121.7 inches between the front and rear wheels, is likely to seem less so.
As mechanically conservative as the updated LS is, its reconstructed nose is relatively radical. It's a version of the "spindle grille" used on other Lexus vehicles, the sides pinched in to form an hourglasslike hexagon. Lexus uses words like "bold," "dynamic" and "fresh" to describe the styling, but "alien," "bizarre" and "weird" also work.
That noted, throw in a newly sculptured hood and headlights overstuffed with LED elements, and the result is a car that, at least at a glance, appears newer than it actually is. The value of rhinoplasty is, ultimately, in the nose of the beholder.
It's inside where the redesign is most successful. A 12.3-inch high-resolution display embedded in the dashboard is the command center for a suite of new technologies that include operation of cellphones, audio system, climate controls and the navigation unit. The screen is big enough that it can be split into separate elements for, say, navigation on one side and audio controls on the other.
Lexus also offers an "Executive Class Seating Package" option that reconfigures the rear seating area into a mash-up of a mobile office, an upscale spa and the American Airlines Admirals Club lounge at La Guardia. If you can afford a chauffeur, the $16,400 price ($15,960 with all-wheel drive) is a mere pittance for the power adjustable reclining rear seats, power door closers, multifunction Shiatsu massage system and much more.
But the most impressive thing about the LS is how well Lexus builds it. Every switch, button and lever operates with precision, and when a door opens there's an audible whoosh as the seals around it separate and the cabin pressure equalizes with the open air. The leather is impeccably tailored and so well finished that it seems a shame to sit on it. And the straightforward instrumentation glows with almost symphonic elegance -- starting the engine makes it all blaze to life as if accompanied by a Strauss melody. Viennese moonlight should be so elegant.
Like all cars in this class, the LS carries an array of electronic devices to keep the passengers entertained and the driver from doing anything truly foolish. There's even a precollision system that, if it detects an object ahead and the car is moving less than about 25 miles per hour, will apply the brakes to prevent a collision.
But what's missing is the automatic parallel-parking system that Lexus introduced with much fanfare when this generation of LS was introduced for 2007. (You can get similar systems now in much less expensive cars, including the Ford Focus.)
I drove two rear-drive LS models, a long-wheelbase LS 460L and the shorter, slightly more aggressively equipped LS 460 F-Sport.
Initially both seemed distant in their driving experience. Numb not only in their steering response, but also in how every mechanical system seemed to be drowning in its own silent refinement. Around town, both were simply boring.
On the open road however, each car revealed some character. With so many luxury cars running engines rated beyond 500 horsepower, the 386 horses in the rear-drive LS seems modest. But with eight gears to keep the engine humping in the thickest part of the powerband, both cars rip out solid acceleration. Car and Driver tested an all-wheel-drive F-Sport, in which the V-8 is rated at only 360 horsepower, and still achieved a solid 6-second trip from 0 to 60 m.p.h.
But it's the F-Sport that's more entertaining. With more aggressively bolstered seats, paddle shifting of the transmission (with rev-matching downshifts), larger 19-inch diameter wheels, oversize six-piston Brembo front disc brakes, variable-ratio electric power steering and an adjustable air suspension system tuned to control body roll, the F-Sport is significantly more responsive and entertaining on twisting back roads. It's still not quite a sport sedan in the BMW tradition, but it feels muscular and capable and rides as well as the regular LS.
Prices for the shorter-wheelbase LS start at $72,885 and escalate rapidly. The LS 460L with the thickest option package -- an $18,400 accumulation of electronics that includes a "climate concierge" to coordinate various heating and cooling elements in the cabin -- goes for $97,585.
The F-Sport package is a $15,230 option on short versions of the LS. My F-Sport test car came in at $88,115.
There's something almost noble in the LS's upright stance and forthright engineering. But it's impossible to shake the feeling that this is a car whose time has passed. Not only because Lexus itself offers S.U.V. alternatives that many buyers will prefer, but because so much of the competition is ahead in technology.
The Audi A8 and Jaguar XJ sedans, for instance, are built around lighter all-aluminum chassis structures, and the imminent next generation of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class will be as well. And turbocharging smaller engines has let the German brands produce similar performance with better fuel efficiency. As it is, the ratings of the rear-drive LS -- 16 miles per gallon in the city and 24 on the highway -- are only so-so.
The LS is the flagship -- a car for the Horatio Lord Nelsons of the 21st century. But the ships in other fleets pack more technological firepower. Lexus may need to re-arm if it hopes to rule the waves again.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.