First Drive: 2018 Lexus LS 500Oct 25th, 2017
Lexus’ redesigned grand dame makes its own statement as a flagship luxury sedan
SAN FRANSISCO, Calif. – Twenty-seven years ago, Toyota served notice to the leading European automakers that a Japanese company could indeed build a world-class luxury sedan. That car was the Lexus LS 400, which went on to win numerous awards as a result of its comfort, smoothness, power and reliability.
“With the first LS,” says Shinji Kishida, assistant chief engineer for the flagship sedan, “our goal was to balance the performance, interior capacity and luxury image into a new level of execution in this class. That … philosophy remains the DNA of the Lexus LS today.”
Yet Kishida also admits that when starting development of the new fifth-generation LS, he had to deal with customer criticism that Lexus cars were boring to drive. After many heated discussions within the engineering department, Kishida says the end result was a new platform with a responsive steering feel. Along with the car’s new powertrain — a 416-horsepower, 3.5-litre twin-turbo V6 — the LS 500’s dynamic capability has been raised.
Considering the LS’s formidable and more successful competition — Mercedes-Benz S-Class, Porsche Panamera, BMW 7 Series, Jaguar XJ and other European full-sized sedans, and with Hyundai’s Genesis brand rattling its chains — a little more verve from the Lexus grand dame would not go unappreciated. Overall sales in this large luxury segment are tiny, yet the halo effect these cars generate is huge. The LS was designed to be Lexus’s global ambassador, available in about 90 countries. As such, it embodies a staggering amount of technology along with elements within representing Japanese traditions and culture.
Longer (now 5,235 millimetres) and lower than its predecessor, the new, long wheelbase-only, all-wheel-drive LS displays plenty of urge when its twin-turbo V6 is called on, negating any thoughts that the V8 engine powering the previous four generations would be missed. Proving invaluable in its assistance is the 10-speed automatic transmission, a first, says Lexus, for a luxury sedan. Though a conventional torque-converter automatic, its shift times rival those of dual-clutch transmissions, says Lexus, with a wide bandwidth afforded by the 10 closely spaced ratios providing an optimal gear for all conditions. Several wide-open-throttle applications confirmed the imperceptibility of the upshifts.
The ability to hustle the big sedan con brio on the serpentine roads of Marin County, north of San Francisco – like Larry the wheelman from Ronin was driving – was determined by the knob on the side of the instrument panel, the one that altered powertrain response and feel by the selection of Normal, Sport or Sport+ mode. Bumping up to Sport+ altered the weight of the steering from somewhat remote to a solid heft without deadening the feel or seriously compromising the sedan’s comfortable ride, which takes a bit of a hit due to the run-flat tires. Air suspension is a packaged option on the LS 500 and standard on the LS 500h hybrid, which itself gets a different, non-turbo 3.5L V6 as well as two electric motors, together delivering a maximum system output of 354 horsepower.
Helping to fine-tune ride and handling is something Toyota calls Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM), the latest generation of chassis control technology. This system controls all vehicle subsystems — braking, steering, powertrain and suspension — to control longitudinal, lateral and vertical motion as well as yaw, roll and pitch. In creating the new LS, Toyota engineers used lightweight materials including ultra-high-tensile steel sheet and aluminum to remove some 90 kilograms from the current LS platform and body. That said, the sedan still tips the scales at around 1,900 kilograms; exact figures are unavailable.
Design-wise, the new LS boasts a stretched out, sleeker look than the current model, with a more ground-hugging appearance. The spindle grill, still a polarizing feature on Lexus models, features a very complicated mesh pattern. Other details include a six side-window design — a first for a Lexus sedan — with the flush-surface windows smoothly integrating with the side pillar, plus an outer slide-type sunroof to preserve headroom while maintaining the lower profile.
Items such as the Mark Levinson sound system, 12.3-inch-wide navigation display, sumptuous stitched leather, four-zone climate control system, optional heads-up display and the active noise control to quiet the cabin only touch on the features found.
The seats alone define hedonism in the best possible way. The available 28-way power front seats feature heating, cooling and massage. The information displays in the instrument cluster are at uniform height to support the “seat-in-control” layout that emphasizes the driver’s ability to operate all systems without the need to change posture.
Rear-seat passengers don’t get short shrift, either. Options include heating, cooling and Shiatsu massaging, as well as a raised ottoman, part of a wider rear-seat luxury package, and more legroom than previous-generation versions. In addition, the seat behind the front passenger in this optional package can be reclined up to 48 degrees, and can be raised up to 24 degrees to help assist the passenger to exiting the car.
The available air suspension also comes with an access function. Activated by unlocking the car, access mode automatically raises the car and opens the seat bolsters to smooth driver ingress when getting behind the wheel.
Lexus says its goal with the new LS is to exceed expectations of luxury customers, a notoriously fickle lot. That means producing a sedan that is extravagant with its features and comfort, yet also caters to the driver’s demands for greater handling agility and performance — a balancing act difficult to achieve.
This newest LS safeguards Lexus’s reputation for luxury while furthering the driver’s needs. Not a sport sedan — though the F Sport edition moves a little closer to that mark — the flagship makes its own statement as the platform for a uniquely Japanese approach to pleasing its audience.
The LS 500 and 500h will arrive in dealerships sometime during the first quarter of 2018. Pricing will be finalized closer to the vehicles’ availability. The base price of the current long-wheelbase LS is $130,750.