It's almost 40 years since Car magazine ran one of its most sensational stories. With a cover picture of a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow sliding around all over the shop, Car informed its readers that Rolls-Royce's vehicles could no longer command the title of "best cars in the world". Rolls had been usurped by a Benz – the Mercedes-Benz 600 Pullman. By common consent, one Mercedes-Benz or another has usually fulfilled the role of automotive apogee ever since.
I do wonder whether the big new Lexus, the LS 600h L, might be ready to knock Mercedes-Benz off its pedestal. I've been driving this giant hybrid, and I find that it is a match, and possibly more than a match, for the Mercedes S-Class, the Bentley Continental Flying Spur, the BMW 7 series and even the Rolls-Royce Phantom and the modern Maybachs.
Yes, indeed. The Lexus is just as refined as most of them. It is more technically advanced, especially with its hybrid petrol/electric powertrain; it is as spacious; it is as cosseting; it is as solid. It might give a few points away to, say, the Bentley or Mercedes on driveability, but not much. It even returned a real-world 25mpg for me; pretty impressive given its 5.0-litre V8 engine (which does most of the work) and the vast bulk it lugs around.
The electric motor adds to the performance, especially from a standing start; that double-barrelled helping of torque from the V8 and the electric motor sees the beast hit 60mph in six seconds. The V12 Mercedes cars have an even greater sense of urgency, I concede, but that is setting the bar very high, and I think the point of all these cars is their waftability.
I would be surprised if the Lexus wasn't as durable as its rivals, too; look on the road and in the classifieds at the number of older, high-mileage specimens still doing service. Usual caveats, but they are a great used buy.
In the long-wheelbase version of the new Lexus, you will want for little. Just know this; the rear coathook is concealed, damped and properly trimmed. Tiny, but telling. The Maybach's aircraft-style reclining seats beat everything else, but short of that the Lexus will look after you as well as any. Wood, leather and plastic are nicely melded. However, the boot is not as big as it looks, as it houses the batteries for the hybrid system. Just so you know.
The styling is strange. It's tall, with a high waistline and a relatively small glasshouse. At the front, it's faintly reminiscent of those old-fashioned British limos of the past, carriages such as the Daimler DS420, being bulky, imposing and upright. But that bluff theme at the prow isn't carried through to the back, so it looks a bit like a cut-and-shut job. It isn't ugly, but it's fair to say it's not as elegant as the Bentley. No one's perfect.
Nor, it has to be said, does the car have the instant classy appeal that some of its longer-established rivals boast. The finish is impeccable, but you aren't treated to the delightful traditional touches you'll find on a Bentley or Maserati Quattroporte or Jaguar XJ. Quite right too: the Lexus brand is not quite 20 years old. Its distant ancestors, cars such as the Toyota Crown, had bogus baronial crests dotted around to hint at a heritage that wasn't there. Lexus is a more tasteful brand than that.
Tasteful, but not quite tasteful enough for Europeans. While the Americans love their Lexuses and buy vast numbers of them, we haven't "got it" yet, because we're still snobby about Japanese brands, even the "premium" ones. (Infiniti, the upmarket Nissan badge, arrives soon in Europe: God help them).
People think the Lexus is just a £80,000 Toyota, which it is. What Toyota needs is a proper old-world badge to plonk on that huge bonnet. You may have noticed that the new Jaguar XF has been styled a bit like a Lexus, and that brand is up for sale...