It wasn't too long ago Lexus was simply for making upmarket versions of Toyota models.
Vehicles like the first-generation IS, several generations of the RX, and the first few models of the ES were derivatives of the Altezza, Harrier, and Camry, respectively. Actually of the models on the current Lexus model lineup are, in fact, upmarket versions with Toyota counterparts: the GX is a heavily upgraded and restyled Prado, while the LX is undeniably a more luxurious Land Cruiser 200.
Lexus has been working hard to distinguish its brand of automobiles from Toyota. They even went so far as to develop high-performance models under the F line, a luxury grand tourer in the LC500, and even a supercar with the LFA.
So after all that, why then did Lexus rework the Alphard, and call it the LM? Is this a case of a luxury auto brand regressing? Or could it be perhaps their most brilliant move yet? Maybe after we drive this LM 350, we'll know more.
It was actually in 2018 when first caught a whiff that Lexus must be working on an Alphard. Some markets outside of Asia aren't familiar with the Alphard or Vellfire, but in essence, it's their larger multi-purpose vehicle or minivan. Originally it was a Japan domestic market (yes, JDM) vehicle, but Toyota had begun offering it to their major markets outside of their home.
In the Philippines, the Alphard was first launched in 2010; I know because I was there as a much younger writer. LOL. Fun trivia though: that very Alphard that Toyota presented to us in 2010 was actually damaged during the launch event. Scaffolding or some pipe fell on it just before the launch.
But while many of us there were in awe at the Alphard and wanted to ride -not drive- it, the question on my mind was whether the Philippines was ready for such an expensive Toyota. I was skeptical because the country -nay, the world- was reeling from the global financial crisis just the year prior. It was a good-looking vehicle and it was luxurious, but the timing couldn't have been worse.
Boy, were the skeptics proven wrong.
If you haven't noticed, there are a lot of Alphards on our roads. If you're driving to a place where money is being spent like a mall or where money is being made like a CBD we would be very surprised if you didn't see an Alphard. Actually, if you went to any of Metro Manila's casinos, chances are there's an Alphard in the parking lot or one on the main driveway; Toyota, after all, has sold over 5,700 units of Alphard since 2010.
Clearly, it was a success. We should have seen it coming, as the Philippines is the number one market -outside of Japan- for the Toyota Hiace, especially the luxury models like the Super Grandia. It also begged the question of whether there was a demand for a much more luxurious version. And that brought us to the LM.
The L and M in the name stand for Luxury Mover, and it's not hard to see why. At first glance, Lexus seems to have taken the third generation Alphard and made it look more... luxurious. The headlamps are definitely more upmarket, featuring LEDs as main bulbs with that striking Lexus LED arrow DRL. The grille is the spindle type (of course) and has that same imposing effect as the LS and the LX.
There is more liberal use of chrome on the vehicle whether you're looking at the grille, the window trim, the lower steps, and even the wheels. I have to say that the level of attention to detail on the grille and the wheels is simply outstanding. The rear has been restyled with a connected set of taillight bars that we also see in other Lexus models.
The paintwork is typical of any Lexus: impressive. The luster is impeccable; you can style your hair accurately whilst looking at the paint. The only downer is that there there are actually only two colors to choose from: pearl white or this shade of black worthy of one of the heads of the Five Families.
The driver's door opens and closes in a rather satisfying way; just a soft but solid thud, and then you can settle into that plush driver's seat. The dashboard is largely Alphard with the shroud for the gauges, the positioning of the vents, and controls. Lexus did upgrade a lot of things like selecting better materials and putting in the much nicer three-spoke steering wheel.
If we were to play spot the difference, it is the center stack that received most of the attention, as Lexus put in a much wider multimedia screen instead of the more “basic” 2-DIN unit in the Alphard. That necessitated the migration of the central vents to just below the screen. The climate control panel has also been revised, and the shifter is different. The new bit is the addition of that rather redundant Lexus touchpad. Honestly, I find it to be rather awkward to use and rather pointless since the screen is already touch-sensitive.
What isn't pointless though is the audio system. While Lexus is known for their association with Mark Levinson and their speaker setup, the execution in the Alphard, err, LM 350 is unbelievably good. Cars aren't normally great spaces for audio, but you have to listen to the LM 350's speaker system to believe it. Try listening to a high-quality audio file of, say, a concert and you'll know what I mean.
The LM 350 isn't meant to be enjoyed from behind the wheel though; this is practically a limousine, and the owner isn't driving or sitting in front, but the back. Like the Alphard, this LM 350 has first-class seating in the middle row once you enter those motorized sliding doors. Those are the best seats in the house where you can recline, relax, and enjoy the ride. The power ottoman makes it even more comfortable, just like the Alphard.
From there, you can enjoy the drop-down screen as it plays your favorite movies, and there's also a power moonroof to let more light in if you so wish. The LM also has airliner-style mood lighting up top, and premium carpeting all around.
This LM also has a third row that can seat three, making this a seven-seater model. Those seats can fold up to expand the cargo area. If there isn't a seventh passenger, the center armrests can fold down to convert the third row into a pair of captain's seats, though the admiral's seats are the ones just ahead.
The thing is that this LM isn't the range-topping model yet; this seven-seater is trumped by the 4 seater model, as that one is the true limousine complete with a veritable wall that divides the front from the even more luxurious seats in the back. And yes, that 4-seater model has massage seats.
Powering the LM 350 is a 3.5-liter V6; yes, it's exactly the same as the Alphard's. It has 296 horsepower at 6600 rpm and 361 Newton-meters of torque at 4600 - 4700 rpm and is fitted with technologies like direct and port injection, dual VVT-i, and more. The engine is bolted onto a front-wheel-drive transmission with 8 forward speeds.
Frankly, I wasn't expecting much from driving the LM 350, but I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, I do wish I had a chauffeur, but the LM does drive smoothly and has decent power, but it could be better. There was also a huge discrepancy between the official claim that the LM 350 can do a 0-100 km/h sprint in 7.0 seconds. When I activated our performance meter and did a run, the best the LM 350 could do was 10.48 seconds.
The issue with the LM is weight. This vehicle is pushing 2.7 tonnes (gross) already, and a power unit with more torque down low is definitely a welcome addition. Lexus would never consider a high torque diesel with its noise and vibration for this model, but I think Lexus should have really brought in the LM 300h with the hybrid power unit to compensate, especially when it comes to fuel economy. Even with the start-stop system active to save fuel, the LM 350 was doing 6.1 km/L at an average of 21 km/h.
Acceleration and fuel economy aren't all too high on the list of priorities of LM 350 customers though. What does matter is comfort, and that's something the LM has incredible levels of. The suspension is leagues ahead of the Alphard. Actually, the ride of the Alphard isn't as good as I thought it should be, and I expected more of the same. But the LM levels that up significantly.
Go over a bump, and it just absorbs. That's the reworked suspension system in the LM. Go up a parking ramp at an angle, and there's no creaking of any kind. Lexus really stiffened up the monocoque of the LM. Steering isn't great as expected, but braking is very good.
But what really is incredible in the LM is the silence. At 60 km/h on asphalt, the sound level inside was 58.1 dB. On concrete, that only goes up slightly to 64 dB at the same speed. That's really quiet. Even the raucous sound of open muffler motorcycles going at full throttle isn't a problem inside. It's like you're in a vault.
While a lot of the features (particularly the power features) do add weight, what isn't so obvious is the sound deadening. The glass is the double panel type; that lets in far less noise into the cabin. Lexus didn't say exactly where they put extra sound insulation, but knowing them I'll guess that they put it everywhere they could.
Then there's the attention to safety. Of course, there are all the features that we can expect of Lexus like stability control, traction control, tire pressure monitoring, headlamps that follow your steering lock, and enough rapid inflating safety balloons to rival a kiddie party, but the real trick is Lexus Safety System+. Pre-collision, lane tracing, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert with braking, and adaptive cruise control are standard, just to name a few.
So yes, the Lexus LM 350 is impressive. On that there is no doubt, whether you're behind the wheel or sitting in the back, this is an incredible vehicle. Whether you enjoy silence or want to feel like you're at Royal Albert Hall, this will deliver. On those counts and more, I'd say the price bump of PHP 1.5 million from the Alphard to the LM 350 7-seater's SRP of PHP 5.458 million is well worth it.
More importantly, I see the LM as a learning experience for Lexus. Like what they did in their earlier years, Lexus took a Toyota model and upgraded it thoroughly, and eventually, they moved forward to design and engineer their own full models that are unique when compared to similar Toyotas. So what we're seeing here may be just the start of the future of Lexus and the luxury minivan.
If that is the case, then there are things I'd like to see improved and factored in. For one, customers for vehicles like the LM will undoubtedly be looking at some more exotic upgrades. I don't mean multimedia or seating upgrades; I'm talking about vehicle armoring. With the way the Lexus LM is, I have doubts that it can drive well with the extra weight if a customer opts for a high degree of ballistic protection (i.e. level 6 or 7). Good as that V6 may be, it may be pushed to the limit if the vehicle bears the extra couple hundred kilos of armoring.
More power and more torque will be very helpful, but not from a bigger engine but a smaller turbo engine, which brings me to my final point: Lexus doesn't have too many of those. I think Lexus should have worked much sooner on downsized turbo engines. They may have stuck to the 3.5L V6 and other larger naturally aspirated engines a bit too long while many competitors in the premium automobile sector have already moved on to smaller displacement engines. Many of the German brands -probably spurred on by the issues of dieselgate- poured a lot of resources into petrol four-cylinders with turbos that are capable of producing comparable power to larger non-turbo V6 motors but with much better fuel efficiency, better torque at lower RPMs, and far less emissions.
Some would argue that LM clients probably won't be thinking about emissions or fuel consumption or climate change, but I'd say that they really should by now.