At Skywalker Ranch — George Lucas’s secretive workplace, which was our home base while driving the new Lexus LS500 — things are never quite as they seem. First, there’s the property itself, a sprawling ranch-like compound set in a lush valley, with the main building designed to resemble a Victorian mansion, even though it’s purely a business facility with no actual bedrooms. Then there’s the interior of that primary spread, which I imagined to be stuffed with R2-D2s, Vader costumes and Imperial walkers. There’s nothing of the sort. Just a few discreet cabinets with some lightsabers, Indy’s bullwhip, and a few small models. That’s it.
But what is in the house, it turns out, is far better: all the things that influenced Lucas himself, rather than all the things from his career that would influence us. Artwork from Maxfield Parrish, Norman Rockwell and Auguste Renoir; carefully chosen representations of significant film, literature and music. They all reflect the craft of storytelling, and the effect is, frankly, far more satisfying and enlightening than a bunch of stuff we’re already quite familiar with.
I noodled over this challenge — giving fans what they expect versus what you think they’ll benefit from most — while driving around in the Lexus after my tour of the ranch. Does Lexus give the fans advanced self-driving capability that most real-world drivers still wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot-pole — or let that simmer a while longer and instead focus on delivering a core experience, on influencing their thinking and their senses rather than flashing the eye candy?
Lexus largely takes the former route with the LS500, for reasons either deliberate or not entirely of its choosing. The car comes with a surprisingly edgy new design — its headlights are shaped literally like Zs, for instance — and boasts significantly boosted comfort and convenience, all the safety features you should expect, plus a few cool new ones. But it’s remarkably restrained in its delivery of the kind of super-advanced semi-autonomous technology that Mercedes, BMW, Cadillac, Tesla, and others have been rolling out for years. It won’t truly drive itself down highways, won’t change lanes automatically and won’t ease itself in and out of tight parking spaces. These days, it seems surprising that a flagship model from a tech-savvy brand wouldn’t have all this.
2018 Lexus LS500 and LS500h
Engine: twin-turbo 3.5-liter V6; 3.5-liter V6 hybrid
Transmission: 10-speed automatic, AWD or RWD
Horsepower: 416; 354
Torque: 442 lb-ft (Hybrid TBD)
0-60: 4.6 seconds; 5.1 seconds
Price: $75,000 (base)
But here, as well, nothing is quite as it seems. The tech is there, mostly, but buried. What is there is top-notch, even if the company as a whole is admittedly behind the curve in autonomous technology development. The LS500 can steer itself to avoid obstacles if you don’t take action, though it won’t put you back on track once you’re clear of the menace, as other cars do. It can also slow down for curves if it thinks you’re going too fast, and it will keep you nice and centered in your lane. Finally, it alerts you to cross-traffic through its slick, dynamic, ultra-wide head-up display. All of this pushes the car right up to the line of semi-autonomy, but never quite crosses it. So early-adopters get what they need, if not precisely what they want.
Regardless, there’s a lot to unpack, because this is truly an exceptional car. Its design is indeed edgy, but not remotely unsophisticated. The Z-shaped headlights frame the always-controversial hourglass-shaped grille, which has been revised to have a more natural presence. From the side, the LS500 is fantastically good-looking. Profile views of cars tend to be huge design challenges, with what amounts to a giant metal slab running the length of the car; but the LS is lower, wider, and longer than its predecessor, and thus far better proportioned and with just the right amount of subtle creasing to add interest to the shape. It looks fully sporty and coupe-like.
I drove three variants of the LS500 after leaving the cozy confines of Skywalker — the standard LS500, the hybrid 500h and the F Sport. All were suitably exciting in ways I didn’t quite expect. They sound great and are fast, with the new twin-turbo V6 in the conventional models producing an enthralling 416 horsepower. It also helps that the lower stance in all models also lowers the center of gravity, and it helps that the newly refined optional air suspension system has been tuned to work more continuously to smoothe out pavement aberrations without generating to pillowy of a ride. Finally, the new platform is significantly stiffer, particularly with the 20-inch wheels installed and, in the case of the F SPORT, the active stabilizer and active rear steering. (Most of the rest of the F SPORT mods are cosmetic.) The car feels a thousand pounds lighter than it has any right to be. It goes off the line briskly and whips through the turns without plowing frighteningly if you come in too hot. Even the hybrid system has edge, running to 60 mph in 5.1 seconds, compared to the non-hybrids’ 4.6.
Inside, the cabin feels substantial and comfortable, and the aesthetics are as deep in significance as Lucas’s Victorian office. The ambient lighting and floating armrests reflect Japanese design qualities, while Kiriko Glass ornamentation add interest and hint at Japanese craftsmanship. When you add your own audio of choice and hear it echoing richly from the 23-speaker, 2400-watt Mark Levinson sound system, the whole experience becomes really serene and satisfying.
In the end, the LS may not be necessarily what you’d fully expect in the impending era of hands-off driving, but it’s so fully present in enough other ways that, to most drivers, that won’t matter at all.
Lexus hosted us at Skywalker Ranch to experience the new LS sedan.