That Lexus is arguably the greatest success story of Japanese automakers creating stand alone luxury brands is no mystery to most, but for those of us who witnessed the birth of this now iconic brand, it’s almost hard to believe that there are millions of adults out there who have never known life without Lexus. Over a period of six years and costing Toyota $1 billion in development costs, the 1989 Lexus LS400 was the result of their best engineering, best design, best everything.
Thirty one years later, and now in is fifth generation, the LS continues to carry that mantle for Lexus. While that hasn’t changed, something of great significance has-what kind of cars people like to buy. The invasion of the crossover has affected nearly every segment of autodom, and luxury cars are no exception. Taking a look at the sales of the LS since 1989 tells the tale. 1990 was the best ever year for the LS, with nearly 43,000 cars sold in the US. In 2019, Lexus sold a fraction of that-around 5,500 cars. The current LS arrived in showrooms in 2018, which usually guarantees a sales bump, which it did, but a year later sales dropped by half. While there is no escaping this reality, I just cannot see Lexus quitting this car. Like Mercedes with its S-Class, the Lexus LS represents the latest and greatest engineering and technology. It is, and always has been, the flagship sedan.
The appearance of sophistication is apparent the moment you lay eyes on the car. Admittedly, the trademark Lexus spindle grill is not to everyone’s taste, but no one can say it is not imposing or aggressive. The side profile, and rear three quarter view are the best angles to appreciate the LS for the elegant car it aims to be. The sinuous, curvy flanks are a joy to behold. This is without doubt the most athletic looking LS yet. Yet it is lithe, and make no mistake, this is one leviathan of a car, and Lexus intentionally went for a true six window treatment (three aside) to emphasize that. In the past, Lexus has traditionally offered the LS in standard and long wheelbase versions, but not so with the current car. Which is no matter, as the new LS has a longer wheelbase than the outgoing long wheelbase model.
From its inception, Lexus has committed itself to coddling its passengers in luxury. And all the hallmarks are present-exceptional build quality, roominess, and high grade materials. Stepping into the LS, you are reminded this is a modern interpretation of luxury. Yes, there is wood, but its use is muted. Buyers seeking a more traditional Lexus interior would do well to forgo the F-Sport package that emphasizes aluminum over wood. In an age where gauge clusters are essentially just computer screens, designers are free to make them look anyway they want, and this is evident in the absence of the typical speedo/tach arrangement, with one large tach and speed shown digtally. Which is no matter, since the majority of the time you are reading the speed from the perfectly clear head up display.
Our F-Sport features their own seats with enhanced side bolsters. I found the seats to be quite comfortable and supportive, though perhaps a little moreso than the typical LS buyer would expect. Everyone will appreciate all the room they could want to get comfortable, and I appreciated the airy, easy to see out of cabin. Basic controls for audio, navigation and climate are fairly straightforward, but you need to use a pad on the center console to get to different menus to control what you want. You are forced to take your eye of the road to get to what screen you need, so you are strongly advised to have everything just as you want it before getting underway. Even when parked, you need to go from menu to menu to menu to get what settings you want. It’s elaborate, complicated and even at times aggravating-something I have never experienced in Lexus cars.
One of the biggest shocks of the fifth generation LS is that, for the first time, there is no V-8 under the hood. Instead, the LS features a 3.5L twin turbo V-6, good for a healthy 416hp, paired to a 10-speed automatic. Buyers can choose between rear and all wheel drive. Off the line the LS spirits away with little drama, but easily and effortlessly building momentum. The LS is in its element thundering down the interstate, as I was making my way to a mostly empty Atlantic City. A careful eye needs to be kept on speed as you storm your way along, and cars ahead part like the Red Sea when that aggressive front end fills their mirrors. It is in these moments where you are reminded these cars are constructed for titans of industry, and this driving experience is what they demand, and expect from a car of this caliber.
When not inhaling miles on the highway, the LS is a remarkably easy car to drive around town. It does not feel nearly as large as it is, but you are without question helped by various cameras and sensors. In sum, the LS is as effortless as ever to drive. However, there is one aspect I did not appreciate: our F-Sport package included sharp looking 20″ wheels, but those short, stiff sidewalls are no friend to the city streets of the Northeast US. Even setting the suspension to its softest setting (once I eventually found the screen to do that) was of no help; no amount of suspension tuning can make up for the lack of sidewall to impact all the potholes and uneven pavement that is a part of daily life here. If it were me ordering this car, I would make certain my LS came with the standard 19″ wheels.
As one would expect, any LS500 is a well equipped car out the door. There is only one model, but different packages will play a role in your LS experience. Our test car had the F-Sport package, and I seriously struggled in trying to figure out who wants a full size Lexus but with sporting pretensions. Apart from the F-Sport package and all-wheel drive, options on our car included 24″ head up display, 23 speaker Mark Levinson premium audio (exceptional), and panorama glass roof. Including delivery, our LS500 cost $89,855USD. That’s a princely sum, and I was exasperated when I noticed that doesn’t include heated rear seats-that’s an option, whereas that’s standard equipment on a top-spcec Honda Accord. Yet, even though we are well past the days where the LS needs to prove itself to belong in the same conversation as a Mercedes S-Class, the Lexus continues to undercut the Benz on price by thousands.
I wanted to love the LS500 much more than I did, and I suspect the F-Sport package is the culprit. It comes across as an unusual situation where by adding in extras, you are taking away from the purity, and inherent goodness of the original, intended product. The LS never was, and no matter what Lexus does, never will be a sport sedan, and I don’t know what focus groups told Lexus they demand that from this car. But I can see this is an inherently good car, and the good news is, Lexus has the LS500 buyers expect and is ready to sell.