The latest generation of the Lexus LS is a big sedan with big shoes to fill. After all, it was the first-gen LS that launched the Lexus brand three decades ago, proudly proving to the world that the Japanese auto industry could build a car every bit as luxurious as the folks over in Germany. Since then, it’s been the standard-bearer for the brand — a car that, like Mercedes-Benz and its S-Class, stands as proof of what the company is capable of today and where it’s going tomorrow.
The latest model, new for the 2018 model year, does just that. Boasting the sleekest version of the company’s current styling language and an interior that looks every bit peeled from a Minority Report plutocrat’s ride, it’s proudly Japanese, distinctly imposing, and every bit worthy of the flagship title in shape and scale. Especially when it comes to that grille.
The Good: If space and comfort are what you want out of a car, the LS 500 has your number. The verb “cocoon” isn’t too excessive to describe being nestled into the driver’s seat, given how the acreage of leather and wood snuggles around you; it’s cozy, but never constraining. The back seat is just as nice, with space for six-footers to flop about freely and — with the $17,080 Executive Package my tester came packing — aft thrones that heat, ventilate, recline and massage. It may not be the ultimate road trip car, but it’s certainly an ultimate road trip car.
Who It’s For: Luxury sedan buyers who value Toyota’s legendary build quality, and/or have been wooed and won over by the distinctive design inside and out; anyone sick of the garden-variety looks of the German full-size luxury sedans; the occasional Uber Black driver.
Watch Out For: The infotainment system, as with all too many modern Lexus models, ventures beyond frustration into the realm of being dangerous. Using a touchpad to control the largely free-floating targeting reticule is a little better than the joystick Lexus used to use, but it still requires a level of dexterity and concentration well beyond what any other system demands. I lost track of how many times I found myself forced to look away from the road for far, far too long just to do something as simple as switch media sources or toggle up the climate controls. And this is coming from a driver who’s spent many hours in the past using the system; familiarity doesn’t bring ease of use, not when the controls are this sensitive and the cause of your finger so divorced from the effect on the screen.
Lexus is finally addressing the issue with the 2020 RX — that model gains touchscreen functionality, which should help mitigate some of the issues with the setup — but for now, the system’s interface is tricky enough to make recommending the car at all an arguable proposition, good as the rest of it is. Anyone considering buying the LS (or really, any new Lexus) ought to take it home for the night to see how they feel living with the system in the real world, not just in the confines of a four-block test drive.
Review: Once upon a time, Gear Patrol deputy editor Josh Condon described the F Sport version of the current Lexus LS as “a big, comfortable sedan with big, uncomfortable dissonance.” There’s an easy way to solve that problem, it turns out: Don’t go for the F Sport version.
The version unencumbered by the aggro front end and sport-tuned suspension strikes a far more appropriate balance between ride and handling by simply avoiding any implication of sportiness. Left in Comfort Mode on the highway, it glides along as though riding on pats of hot butter, keeping the lumps and bumps from interrupting your serenity as the 10-speed automatic shuffles through cogs with the smoothness of a Delmonico’s wine steward pouring Pouilly-Fuissé.
That’s not to say it’s the reincarnation of a Seventies-era luxo-barge; body roll is kept nicely in check, even when hurling through a roundabout at speeds brisk enough to startle the SUV driver Clark Griswolding their way through their seventh revolution ahead of you. Those could be important people sitting in the LS 500’s well-sculpted seats, either front or rear; can’t have them feeling perturbed. It’s at times like this the car’s shared architecture with the LC gran turismo coupe becomes more apparent; the two might not be twins separated only by door count, but there’s enough common bones between them to count as similar skeletons.
One item it doesn’t share with that wild-eyed two-door, however: the naturally aspirated V8 that makes the LC 500 a surprisingly vivacious drive. Instead, the LS, like most fancy cars nowadays, has downsized under the hood, trading its former eight-cylinder powerplant for a twin-turbo V6. Thankfully, the resulting powerplant is still quite worthy of luxury duty, spooning out low-end torque with near Rolls-Roycian gentility. (All-wheel-drive is a $3,220 option on all LS sedans, which might be enough to keep some buyers from forking over money for an LX 570 whose capabilities they’ll barely scratch the surface of.)
No one’s liable to confuse the LS 500 with an actual Rolls-Royce, though — at least, not from the outside. Granted, the Lexus’s grille is roughly as big as the one on a Phantom, but it’s a curved, cetacean thing that looks ready to devour shrimp by the gallon — worlds away from the Parthenon leading the way for all those Spirits of Ecstasy. Somehow, though, after the initial shock wears off, it works, tying the front end’s design lines together in a way that draws the eye towards that encircled L in the center. Which, presumably, was the idea.
The rest of the general shape is a pleasing form, a striking fastback that seems longer and lower the further back your eyes wander. By the time your eyes reach the tail (which, admittedly, is stricken with some rather generic taillamps, a far cry from the menacing squint of the narrow band of LEDs in the headlights), you half expect to find a Porsche Panamera-like hatch there instead of a traditional trunk. Overall, it’s the sort of shape that leaves you glad the world’s automakers haven’t wholly given up on the sedan. Squeezing this sort of elegance out of a crossover would probably violate some fundamental law of the universe.
A little Japanese-spec weirdness does creep into some of the controls; apart from the aforementioned infotainment system, there’s also the silver radio control buttons barely larger than an engorged tick, and the drive mode controls jutting from the top of the instrument panel shade that bring to mind nothing so much as the bolts in Boris Karloff’s neck. But if that’s the price you pay for the rest of the interior, so be it. The Executive Package may cost as much as an entire Toyota, but a few minutes of Shiatsu massage on a long drive is enough to win over even the most value-minded buyer — especially if he or she ever plans on being driven instead of driving. (Sadly, my car lacked the version of the Exec Pack that, for an extra $6,000, adds hand-cut kiriko glass trim to the doors, a feature that no doubt dazzles the eye and spirit while simultaneously making one wonder how many African children UNICEF could feed with the money spent solely on artisanal glassware in a single moving vehicle.)
Verdict: The first Lexus LS played it safe — doctor-in-an-Ebola-hot-zone safe. It delivered conventional styling, conventional luxury and conventional power, all in pursuit of proving Toyota could outdo the Germans at their own game. In the last 30 years, though, the brand’s had a chance to find its own definition of luxury. The LS 500 shows how far the company’s moved the ball down the field. It may look a little odd, may piss off the occasional technophobe, may draw the occasional unpleasant comparison along the way. But above all else, it’s unconventional in many interesting ways. And anytime a giant company goes that route with a product this important…well, that’s worth praising.
2019 Lexus LS 500 AWD Specs
Powertrain: 3.5-liter twin-turbo V-6; 10-speed automatic; all-wheel-drive
Power: 416 horsepower, 442 pound-feet of torque
0-60 MPH: 4.6 seconds
Top Speed: 136 mph
EPA Fuel Economy: 18 mpg city, 27 mpg highway
Lexus provided this product for review.
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