DETROIT – Lexus has come full circle. In 1989, the automaker chose this city for the world debut of the LS 400, its first luxury sedan. Over the years, the brand has grown regarding models offered, it has introduced hybrids, and it has become the industry benchmark for quality and service.
Still, Lexus cars were void of personality. The Lexus flagship was so quiet, the engine so rhythmic and the ride so smooth that many complained that the car lacked character. In fact, that blandness became its character. Not anymore.
Lexus continues to shed its conservative nature in favor of some panache. The latest example is its new LS flagship. The design was somewhat evolutionary, but the car was lower, longer, and wider; it just looked smoother.
The 2018 Lexus LS 500 was about a half inch lower overall, while the hood was 1.2 inches lower and the trunk was 1.6 inches lower. The new LS had a 123-inch wheelbase. That move lowered the center of gravity and improved handling.
The spindle grille narrows next to a “slit-like” three projector lamp setup on each side. There was an L-shaped LED light under each headlight that wrapped around to each side to give the LS a distinctive face. A coupe-like silhouette enhances the fastback roofline.
The doors are tapered in, and the front and rear fenders flared away from the central position of the occupants. A front to back shoulder line enhanced the low stance. The axes of the flared front and rear fenders were slanted forward. What’s more, the moonroof was of the outer slide variety which preserved interior headroom.
In effect, the 2018 LS 500 was much sleeker than the model it will replace when it goes on sale next February. But the change was not necessarily in the way it looked; it was under the hood. The automaker dumped its legacy V8 for a V6 power plant.
Lexus engineers developed an all-new 3.5-liter V6 and coupled it with twin turbochargers. What’s more, they mated the engine to a new 10-speed automatic transmission. This new powertrain made 416 horsepower and 442 pound-feet of torque at 1,600 rpm. Lexus said the LS 500 RWD could get from a standstill to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds.
This engine was responsive, it was quick, it was quiet, and it was civil at low speeds. We took surface streets to climb up to the last entrance on the San Francisco side of the Golden Gate Bridge before heading north into Marin County. The LS, though a full-size car, handled well in the tight confines and the narrow lanes of the streets here. There were sharp turns and steep inclines getting up to the entrance to the bridge but the LS handled the closeness of city streets adroitly, much like a midsize sedan.
Gone were the buttons and the clutter that come with them. The interior of the 2018 LS 500 divides into control and display areas with the latter embedded in the face of the dash in the form of a 12-inch information and infotainment screen. Underneath the middle vents are horizontal flowing lines camouflaged by unobtrusive climate controls.
It was a smooth calming horizontal interior layout. Even the 24-inch heads-up display lent itself to the ambiance of the LS. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to learn how to adjust the HUD so that we could see the whole display or test its offerings. Expansive is the way to describe it.
The seats were comfortable, the audio system had a profound rich sound, the car had six flush side windows, three on each side, so there was plenty of light, and the sight lines were clean. The LS just didn’t have the claustrophobic feel especially around the C pillar that comes from a lack of light or thick pillars.
Craftsman used to cut glass, pleated fabric as well as cut wood to form herringbone or what they called Art Wood Organic and Laser Special Matte that had a bolder contrast between light and dark. All of this was available for the doors. We could have spent a day finding out about the interior design and the materials used.
Heck, available were 28-way power front seats that used both electric motors and pneumatics. The rear seats had optional heaters located in the shoulders and lower backs so as not to warm the entire body and they worked in conjunction with the massage function.
Once we came off the Golden Gate Bridge, the character of the LS slowly appeared. We departed the onto U.S. 101 N all the way to Olympia, Washington. However, before you get there or even to Napa Valley, it runs through Sausalito, Rafael and other small communities abutting each other.
The highway opens to four sometimes five lanes as it widens coming off the bridge. It is twisting, and it is descending through what amounts to San Francisco’s suburbs. It was a great driving stretch of road with sharp curves and undulations before the 101 slims down to two lanes in either redirection. In other words, there was way too much traffic, despite it being the middle of the day, to even think about turning the LS loose.
But the car powered through sharp curves, it stayed planted in the midst of the lane and every time I got on the accelerator the LS 500 sounded and responded like a V8 was under the hood. Acceleration was instant. But the engine ran dead silent at low speeds.
I didn’t use the paddle shifters, but I did switch the car to Sport S mode. The speedometer turned red, and the air suspension stiffened, while the steering ratio got tighter. There was also Normal and Sports S+ driving modes. That’s when I could sense the strong character of the 2018 LS 500. The handling, the engine, the weight distribution, the balance of the car, if you will; this was not your father’s Lexus LS.
We had the 2018 Lexus LS 500 RWD with LSS+A, with semi Aniline Black/Art wood trim. All-wheel-drive is present in every Lexus LS model, the LS 500, the F Sport and the 500h hybrid. Which in this sense is real. That means power is put to all four wheels all of the time. Normally, the torque split is 31 percent front and 69 percent rear, but the system can send as much as 48 percent of its torque to the front wheels and 52 percent to the rear wheels.
Our test car had excellent grip with rear wheel drive; I can’t imagine the handling possible with all-wheel-drive. Anyway, we had the executive package. It included power rear seats with an ottoman behind the front passenger seat, rear seat massage with heat, butterfly retractable front headrests and power rear butterfly headrests with memory.
Individual options included 20-inch forged wheels, wood, and leather padded steering wheel that was heated, an air suspension, 24-inch heads-up display and Panoramic View which provided an overhead view of the LS at low speeds on narrow roads to check for clearance on either side. A particular note for the Mark Levinson audio system; it was on the first Lexus LS and the company developed a 23-speaker, 2,400-watt surround sound system for this one.
The premium safety system was formidable. Our test car had pedestrian alert, active steering assist, a front pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, front lateral side pre-collision system, and dynamic radar cruise control.
There was lane trace assist which was part of Lexus CoDrive, front cross-traffic alert, road sign assist, intelligent high beams, lane keep assist and lane departure alert. And the car also had other amenities like the navigation system, satellite radio, intuitive park assist, automatic door closer and a smart key with push-button start/stop.
I was particularly impressed with the front traffic alert system. Lexus said when approaching an intersection at low speeds, the radar sensors on the front side of the vehicle can detect approaching vehicles to the left and the right of the car’s front end up to a distance of 164 feet. In this case, the HUD is used to inform the driver if a vehicle is detected. Warnings are issued by a buzzer and the LS’s multi-information display if you continue to proceed regardless of the presence of an approaching vehicle in cross traffic. That can save many an intersection accident.
We got off the 101 at Lucas Valley Road, took a left onto the winding two-lane thoroughfare and stayed on it until we took a right into Skywalker Ranch. Yes, as in Luke. We got a bit of a tour of the ground floor of the house, had lunch, and then we opted to be chauffeured back to the hotel so that we could experience the Executive Package as it should be, from the back seats.
I tested the massage, the ottoman and the comfort of being driven. I think my driving partner enjoyed herself as well. However, I would rather have been behind the wheel. The 2018 LS 500 is a driver’s car.
The F Sport is more of an appearance package, making no enhancements to the powertrain. But it did have larger brakes, a variable gear ratio steering system, active rear steering and an active stabilizer. And it had an exclusive version of the spindle grille. It had special F Sport rocker moldings, 20-inch wheels and a unique F Sports speedometer and tachometer.
The new LS 500h hybrid is no longer ho-hum. Powered by a 3.5 liter V6 working in concert with two electric motor generators and a lightweight lithium-ion battery. As branded, the Lexus Hybrid Synergy Drive was coupled to an all-new four-speed automatic “gear set” at the output stage. The short story is that the engine and electric motors generate 354 horsepower and the LS 500h can get from a standstill to 60 mph in 5.1 seconds.
Lexus has sent a couple of signals of change through the RC and the LC coupes. But the LS clinches the proposition. The design may be evolutionary, but from the use of aluminum mated to steel in the all-new chassis, to the new engine, the car represents a new philosophy. The LS is Lexus, and it has changed – for the better.
Prices are expected to start at about $75,000.