2018 Lexus LS500 Dissected: Powertrain, Styling, Platform, and More!
Designers tell us it took six months to perfect the design of the grille’s matrix, which has 5032 facets.
Japan is a unique place. Where the Japanese see a delightful bowl of raw sea urchin and salmon roe, most Westerners see a slimy pile of bug and guts. And for the really fancy meals, you take off your shoes and sit on the floor.
It’s understandable, then, that Toyota strove for familiarity with the first-generation LS400, which introduced the Lexus brand to the world in 1989. It was, in the words of one company representative, an attempt to “out-German the Germans.” In pursuit of this goal, Lexus went so far as to mimic the processes and chemicals used to treat leather in European tanneries to ensure that its interior smelled “right.” However, 28 years later, Lexus is now intent on distinguishing Japanese luxury from its European forms, and it’s betting the all-new LS can do it without boguing anyone out.
In an apparent effort to make Prius owners feel at home, Lexus adopted the hybrid’s dopey shift pattern. But the shifter itself is a lovely palm-sized leather nugget.
When you think Japanese luxury, you should think of plump sofas. At least, that’s the message LS buyers will get, because the design team’s goal with the seats was to create the impression of sinking into a big, comfy couch or easy chair. They paid close attention to the relationship between the padded center-console lid and the door-mounted armrests, the latter seeming to float apart from the door panel with ambient lighting tucked behind to further the illusion. And if you happen to be sitting opposite the chauffeur in the right-rear easy chair, Lexus claims best-in-class legroom with the seat fully reclined and the front-passenger seat leaned up against the dash.
Seats aren’t the only place where the LS departs from other Lexus designs. The interior as a whole is warmer, more welcoming, and more organic in its forms than other Lexuses. Six thin bands of magnesium span the dash, beginning at the driver’s door before bunching up as they bend up and over the instrument panel, then fanning back out as they continue their stretch across the dash to the passenger door. Contrast-stitched leather is de rigueur in a modern luxury car, but the LS is the first that we can recall to have it around the gauge faces.
Designers kept the windshield rake close to that of the LC to emphasize sportiness. This also means a 57.1-inch height, among the lowest in its class, and lower, even, than the ultraslick Jaguar XJ.
The LS will share more than its position at the top of the company hierarchy with the LC coupe. Both ride on versions of the same platform, the LS’s stretched a foot and a half over the coupe’s. Like its two-door sibling, the LS uses aluminum for much of the suspension and its mounting points, as well as the bumper beams. The two cars share a multilink front suspension and a five-link rear assembly, though Lexus made sure the LS’s dampers and bushings would supply more comfort than the LC’s.
As with the outgoing LS, the new sedan has adaptive stabilizer bars but now adds rear-wheel steering. Coil springs will be standard, with air springs optional. Like other manufacturers of air-sprung crossovers and SUVs, Lexus has programmed the LS with an “entry” height. Here, though, as opposed to those relative high-riders that kneel to let occupants in, the LS’s entry mode raises the body up on its tippy-toes. It’s a simple and clever accommodation that we appreciate even more since it erodes a cornerstone of the crossover’s success: its easy, slide-sideways ingress.
Taillights that look like the slashed flesh of a beast with hellfire for blood are now a signature Lexus styling element.
From the outside, it appears as though Lexus thinks Infiniti and Mazda do Japanese style well. Aside from lesser Lexuses, it’s the form language of those brands that the LS emulates most, with its flowing compound curves juxtaposed against sharp creases. Lexus’s spindle grille again rivals a largemouth bass for maximum maw-to-face ratio and, as on the new LC coupe, the spindle shape repeats on the trunklid and rear fascia. Also shared with the LC is the dramatic rake of the LS’s windshield. Overall, the LS is rather low and sleek for such a large car. Lexus stylists sought a middle ground between the traditional sedan silhouette and the burgeoning four-door-coupe aesthetic. In profile, the LS is a sedan with a slightly swoopy D-pillar, but viewed more from the front, the car’s tapering haunches mean the trunklid disappears and the car takes on a distinct hatchback crop, like a Japanese Porsche Panamera.
At its launch, the LS will be powered by an all-new twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V-6. The 60-degree block and heads are aluminum, and a pair of turbos developed in-house are integrated into the exhaust manifolds. The engine’s signature, however, is an exceptionally long stroke—100.0 millimeters in an 85.5-millimeter bore—that Lexus claims enables the engine to achieve new levels of thermal efficiency. It also allows it to make 414 horsepower and 443 pound-feet of torque.
Backing up the six is an all-new Aisin 10-speed automatic. Like the Ford/GM 10-speed that recently made its debut in the F-150 and Camaro ZL1, it’s aimed more at packaging CVT-like flexibility into a traditional automatic than stretching the overall ratio spread—though, of course, it does achieve the latter as well.
Those wounds might have come from the chrome lower-body strip, the rearmost extent of which is meant to evoke a katana blade.
Rear-wheel drive is standard on the LS, while all-wheel drive will be an option. A hybrid will join the lineup shortly. And with the Germans all packing V-8s and even V-12s in their full-size sedans, Lexus would be foolish to cap the LS at six cylinders. We do not believe Lexus is foolish. Nobody at Lexus will cop to it, but, seeing as Lexus’s current V-8s all date fairly deep into the last decade, we suspect they’re working up a new one to take on the smaller, higher-output Teutons—perhaps like the 600-hp V-8 reportedly bound for the LC F.
Our preview of the Lexus LS included a short drive of some early engineering mules. Engineers were still finalizing powertrain calibrations, so we can’t comment on the twin-turbo six at this time. But with the optional air springs, the ride is excellent, and the rear-wheel steering helps the LS feel surprisingly nimble without compromising straight-line stability. The steering is satisfyingly hefty and the brake pedal progressive. The original LS won the first comparison test we threw it into in 1989; we’ll find out in another year or so if its latest descendant can repeat that feat.