Big, rear-wheel-drive, luxury-branded sedans seem archaic as the 21st century heads toward its third decade. Maybe the Mercedes-Benz S-class will always be around, but Lexus could have let the LS die. After a few wistful tears and melancholy reflections, the world would have moved on; after all, Lexus makes its real money selling crossovers and SUVs. Yet here’s a new big Lexus four-door, the direct successor to the original 1990 LS400 that rocket-launched the brand into existence and also the only Japan-made vehicle of its type still sold in North America.
If God is in the details, then the new fifth-generation 2018 Lexus LS500 packs a supernatural punch. This is a car best appreciated at the granular level, where texture and intricacy invite ever-greater microscopic investigation and where you forget overall impressions and dive into the minutiae. But the big picture matters, too, and that’s more problematic. Like, where’d the V-8 go?
Except for a few floor stampings and some of the rear suspension, the latest LS is pretty much all new. Now riding on a 123.0-inch wheelbase and stretching a full 206.1 inches overall, it’s actually longer than ever before. The sole wheelbase option is 1.3 inches greater than that of the previous L model (as distinct from the discontinued and shorter, non-L version), and overall length is up an inch, too. The new car is also an inch wider and an inch lower.
So the new LS500 and LS500h hybrid are big mothers. They are still a smidge shorter than the U.S.-market S-class, but the smidge has tightened to less than an inch. The new LS is the largest car any Japanese manufacturer has dared sell in the United States. And as is increasingly common in this class, both versions are available with either rear- or all-wheel drive.
Whereas every previous-generation LS has relied upon V-8 engines for propulsion, the new one is a V-6–only proposition. The standard engine is the new V35A-FTS direct-injected, twin-turbocharged DOHC 24-valve V-6. With a relatively long 100.0-millimeter crank stroke, this 3.4-liter V-6 is tuned for torque production, and it slugs out a seamless 442 lb-ft from 1600 to 4800 rpm. Meanwhile, the 416-hp peak occurs at 6000 rpm, which is an area of the tachometer that the silky-shifting 10-speed automatic transmission prefers to keep the engine away from.
The 416 horsepower represents a 30-hp bump over the previous LS460’s 4.6-liter V-8. But it’s the increase over the V-8’s 367 lb-ft of peak torque that is more significant. Although the V-8 delivered good low-end wallop, its torque peak was up at 4100 rpm. The turbo V-6’s additional 75 lb-ft not only is greater in quantity but is delivered over a lower, broader rev range.
The 500h’s hybrid powertrain is similar to that of the LC500h coupe and uses a different, naturally aspirated, Atkinson-cycle 3.5-liter V-6, the 8GR-FXS. A member of Toyota’s GR family of V-6s that appears in everything from the Tacoma pickup to the Camry and plenty of other Lexus models, it has a shorter, 83.0-millimeter crank stroke. In this application, Lexus rates it at 295 horsepower before adding in the whirring electric motors.
In Lexus-speak, those electric motors are Motor Generator 1 and Motor Generator 2. Both are water-cooled, permanent-magnet units responsible for both propulsion and regenerative braking, and they’re fed by 84 lithium-ion cells. Combine Thing 1 and Thing 2 with the V-6 and total system output is 354 horsepower.
The trick element in the hybrid system, however, is the transmission that Lexus rather humbly describes as a Multi Stage Hybrid. The dauntingly complex transmission uses a four-speed planetary gearbox coupled with the elements of a hybrid’s continuously variable transmission. The two halves are effectively programmed to make a 10-speed automatic transmission while still allowing for some all-electric motoring.
Lost in the Spindle
Put your eyeballs within a few inches of the grille and the pattern of the mesh is either hypnotic or mesmerizing, depending on your state of mind. It’s like a kid’s Spirograph design that has been computer-modeled in 3D during a beer bust at Pixar. In all its intricacies, it is fascinating. Choosing the F Sport version of the LS brings with it a grille that’s just as detailed, though not as interesting to contemplate as one loses touch with reality.
All that texture exists within Lexus’s controversial “spindle” design. The massive maw of the spindle defines the front of the LS, and there are plenty of other neat details in the styling—the side-view mirrors are kind of glorious little sculptures on their own—and they all combine to produce a vehicle that is half-Maserati, half-Mercedes, and with a third half that’s advanced Venusian. It doesn’t look quite like anything else.
But the best use of design is inside the LS. While the regular LS interior is all leather-and-wood-trimmed conventional luxury car, the available Executive interior package tries something different. Instead of the usual leather-upholstered door panels, there’s pleated, origami-inspired fabric that looks both elegant and very Japanese. And in place of fine-grain wood, the doors are accented with cut Kiriko glass panels with cast etching and facets that push the definition of luxuriousness. Yeah, there’s all sorts of wood and leather and carbon-fiber options available with other packages, but it’s the stretch to incorporate these new ideas that makes the Executive interior a worthwhile option. The dashboard design is a mix of art deco striations, nicely textured knobs, LED displays, and two knobs poking out from either side of the gauge hood (reminiscent of controls in the LFA supercar). Lexus has taken some design chances in here, and it all works.
With prices for the LS starting at about $75,000 and topping out at nearly $100K after stuffing in all the options, Lexus naturally includes all the equipment and technology expected in this class of vehicle. The seats are massive and comfortable, everything works with precision, and every display is vivid. Longer exposure may find some ergonomic hiccups, but at least initially this seems to be a completely logical luxury liner.
Luxury, on Mute
No matter the trim or the powertrain, the LS offers an insulated, muted driving experience. The steering feels weighted a touch heavier in the F Sport, and the 245/45RF-20 front and 275/40RF-20 rear tires may be a bit stickier than in other models that employ 245-width rubber at every corner (on either 19- or 20-inch wheels). But that’s going to take track time to verify.
First impressions of the V-6 are that of an easygoing companion that overdelivers on thrust. Lexus claims a zero-to-60-mph time of only 4.6 seconds for the rear-drive LS500, and that’s in a dreadnought that weighs nearly 5000 pounds. We think Lexus’s claim is too quick, considering 4.6 seconds is all we could get out of the more powerful and lighter LC500. The EPA has yet to sign off on fuel-economy ratings, but we surmise that Lexus’s estimates of 19 mpg in the city and 29 mpg highway for the rear-drive LS500 and 18/27 mpg with all-wheel drive are on target. It would be nice if the turbo V-6 had a discernible voice, though.
The LS500h does have an exhaust note—which is a lot like a Tacoma’s. But otherwise it is hard to determine that anything exotic is going on with the hybrid system or with the magically complex transmission. Lexus claims the LS500h with rear-wheel drive will glide to 60 mph in 5.1 seconds (again, probably optimistic), with the all-wheel-drive version taking another tenth. Fuel-economy estimates are 25 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highway for the rear-drive LS500h. Knock 2 mpg off each number for the all-wheel-drive version.
The LS has long been a stalwart, beautifully built, and often boring machine. Lexus has taken a few more design chances with this latest version, and that may pay off in getting it noticed. That is, if anyone cares about big sedans with trunks anymore.
VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, rear- or all-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan
ESTIMATED BASE PRICES: LS500, $75,000;
ENGINE TYPES: DOHC 24-valve Atkinson-cycle 3.5-liter V-6, 295 hp, 257 lb-ft + 2 permanent-magnet synchronous AC motors (combined output, 354 hp; 1.1-kWh lithium-ion battery pack); twin-turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 24-valve Atkinson-capable 3.4-liter V-6, 416 hp, 442 lb-ft
TRANSMISSIONS: 10-speed automatic with manual shifting mode, continuously variable automatic with 4 fixed ratios and manual shifting mode
Wheelbase: 123.0 in
Length: 206.1 in
Width: 74.8 in Height: 57.1–57.9 in
Passenger volume: 97–99 cu ft
Trunk volume: 14–17 cu ft
Curb weight (C/D est): 4700–5100 lb
PERFORMANCE (C/D EST):
Zero to 60 mph: 5.0–5.5 sec
Zero to 100 mph: 11.0–11.6 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 13.7–14.4 sec
Top speed: 136 mph
EPA FUEL ECONOMY (C/D EST):
Combined/city/highway: 21–28/18–25/27–33 mpg