First drive: 2018 Lexus LS [Review]

Lexus reinvents its flagship LS sedan for the 2018 model year.

When Toyota launched its luxury Lexus brand nearly 30 years ago, it did so with two vehicles, the most important of which was the LS. The smaller ES was a nice vehicle, but it was the larger LS that took a direct shot at the established luxury brands from Europe.

Offering a smooth ride, good punch from its V8 engine and — perhaps most importantly — the kind of reliability people had come to expect from Toyota, the LS was an instant hit and a thorn in the side of the luxury car status quo. But as the years rolled on, the LS morphed from a smart alternative into a luxo-barge without any personality or real benefits beyond its perceived reliability. In a nutshell, Lexus was trying to out-German the Germans, and it wasn't working.

But with the all-new 2018 LS, Lexus is embracing a new direction. Rather than mimicking what other luxury automakers are already doing, Lexus is blazing its own path with the new LS, which includes thoroughly celebrating its Japanese roots. The question is, will it work?

Takumi brought to lifeDuring its presentation of the new LS, Lexus really hit home the idea that the car was created by master craftsmen known as Takumi, which loosely translates to "artisans.” And after taking just one look at the LS' exterior or interior, it's abundantly clear that skilled hands had an important role in developing the car's styling.

The 2018 LS certainly isn't the prettiest car ever made, but it's striking from nearly every angle with amazing attention to detail. Take for example the LS' front grille — in standard form it has over 5,000 individual surfaces. But that's nothing; the F Sport model's bespoke grill has over 7,000 different surfaces. Seven-thousand!

The shape of that front grille also dictates several of the LS' other design cues. Follow the top corners of the grille and you'll notice they serve as the starting point for the main character line that runs the length of the car. At the rear, those lines flow inward to the trunk over the rear taillights and then back out to the corners of the rear bumper, creating a mirror image of the LS' front spindle grille. In fact, designers were so obsessed with keeping the spindle grille theme that when viewed from above — and I'm not making this up — the LS' outlines resemble the shape of the grille.

But there's a lot more to the LS' design than just the spindle theme repeated over and over. The front of the LS is awash in intricate details and sharp lines that makes it look as though the LS' chassis is about to rip through its sheet metal. The look is similar to that of a body builder in spandex — you can just see every sinewy detail.

The LS' headlights are a moderate deviation from Lexus' current design motif. Rather than a separate Nike Swoosh for the daytime running lights, those LEDs are now closely integrated into the LS' main light cluster, making it look like Zorro had a go at the front of the LS with his sword.

The LS historically hasn't had much of a sporting presence, but that changes a bit with the 2018 model. Lexus designers have given the latest LS a faster-sloping roofline and a kinked-up window line, giving the car a more coupe-like appearance. Helping its sporting credentials, the new LS is lower, wider and longer than the car it replaces.

The rear of the LS isn't quite as daring as its front end, but we appreciate the car's LFA-inspired taillights.

The interior of the LS is even more impressive. Exquisite in both design and materials, the LS is unlike anything else in the segment.

There's a lot to detail inside the new LS, but we'll start with the dash. It's a new design that incorporates a series of flowing, horizontal lines. They start just to the left of the steering wheel, flow over the instrument cluster and then run across the passenger's side of the dashboard. That sweeping line is repeated by the HVAC control panel located in the lower portion of the dashboard. Lexus decided to incorporate a strange illuminated panel on the passenger's side of the dash, but it's at least more interesting than a slab of wood. It's possible Lexus is reserving that space for an LCD screen in future versions of the LS.

A large, 12.3-inch LCD screen is positioned in the center of the dash under a hood, which helps to block sun glare. The infotainment unit is controlled via Lexus' touchpad in the center console. We'll cover that a little later on.

The LS' garage cluster has also gone high-tech and consists of a configurable LCD screen for most vehicle functions. However, it is smaller than LCD screens used in other flagship vehicles. It's flanked on either side by analog gauges for engine temp and fuel level.

The LS' door cards pick up on the flowing lines of the dash with organic shapes of their own. Mixed materials work well together and include wood, leather and metal. Armrests use a "floating” design, adding another layer of quality and detail.

Front seat passengers are spoiled with heated and cooled seats, multi-way power adjustments and several different massage functions. An adjustable thigh cushion would be a welcomed addition, but that's a minor nit to pick.

If you're looking for the ultimate in luxury and comfort, look no further than the LS' rear seat. Like the LS' front seats, the rear seats can be equipped with things like ventilation and massaging air bladders, but they also benefit from more leg room (the front passenger's seat can be moved all the way forward by the rear-seat passenger) and power sunshades all around. Sticking with the high-tech angle, the center armrest in the rear console houses a touchscreen LCD screen to control all functions.

Overall, we quite like the design of the LS' cabin — it's unique and forward-looking without feeling gimmicky. But what's even more impressive is the LS' quality of materials and attention to detail. Every surface you can lay your hands on wouldn't feel out of place in a vehicle double the LS' price. Even the LS' A-pillars, an area an owner will never touch, are padded and covered in premium fabric. And, just like a proper high-end luxury sedan, the LS offers dozens of different interior combinations and choices, including a model with glass trim accents and a fabric door treatment, inspired by origami, that took about four years to develop.

And that attention to detail extends to the LS' virtual world. Move the wheel for temperature control and the digital readout doesn't merely flash to the next number, but rather rolls over like a mechanical slot machine. Take a deep dive into the LS' vehicle settings menu and you'll find a screen that allows you to change the color of the car displayed when using the backup screen. And the list goes on.

LSportyThe LS has never been considered a driver's car, but Lexus is hoping to change that with the fifth generation of the sedan. To that end, Lexus used an all-new platform for its 2018 LS that boasts a longer wheelbase, lower center of gravity and a near-perfect 50/50 weight distribution.

Under hood the gas-only 2018 LS500 loses two cylinders, but its all-new 3.5L V6 is actually more powerful than the V8 it replaces. Thanks to a pair of turbochargers, power now stands at 416 horsepower and 442 lb-ft of torque; the outgoing 4.6L V8 was rated at 386 horsepower and 367 lb-ft of torque. Rear-wheel drive is standard, but all-wheel drive can be added as an optional upgrade. No matter the drive configuration, the LS employs a 10-speed automatic transmission, which is a first for the segment.

Lexus will also offer the LS as a hybrid in the form of the LS500h. The LS500h uses an older Lexus 3.5L V6 design without any turbos, but total system output stands at a respectable 354 horsepower. The LS500h uses what Lexus calls a "four-stage shifting device” that actually simulates 10 forward speeds, which makes for a more normal driving experience. Like the LS500, the LS500h comes standard with rear-wheel drive but can be optioned with all-wheel drive.

Lexus will also offer the LS with an F Sport package, which includes 20-inch wheels, bigger brakes, Variable Gear Ratio Steering, active stabilizers and active rear steering.

The LS500 is the athlete of the two with a claimed 0-60 time of 4.6 seconds. That's as quick as the 530 horsepower Maserati Quattroporte GTS. The LS500h isn't too far behind with a 0-60 time of 5.1 seconds.

Fuel economy ratings for the LS are decent for a large car — the LS500 can return up to 19mpg in the city and 29mpg on the highway, while the LS500h is capable of 25mpg around town and 33mpg on the highway.

Drive timeEven after spending just a few minutes behind the wheel, it's plainly obvious that the 2018 LS is a deviation from the four generations that came before it. Whereas those previous cars coddled occupants with a soft and supple ride, the 2018 LS feels taut and hunkered down. In fact, Lexus is so serious about making the LS more of a driver's car that they've even include a Sport+ setting. Those madmen!

The amazing thing is, they kind of pulled it off. The 2018 LS500 feels surprisingly confident on winding backroads. Obviously a vehicle as large as the LS is never going to feel like a sports car, but it behaves like a bona fide sports sedan. That's thanks in large to a re-engineered Adaptive Variable Suspension system that now offers 650 levels of damping; in comparison, the outgoing version of the system had just nine levels of damping.

Lexus' new twin-turbo V6 also appears to be a peach of an engine. Peak torque comes in at a low 1,600rpm, meaning the LS has plenty of low-down grunt. And, unlike some turbocharged engines, the LS doesn't seem to lose any steam in the upper portion of the rev band, so there's available power all the way to redline. It even sounds darn good when you really start to whip it.

We were concerned that the 10-speed auto in the LS could be its Achilles heel, but it proved well behaved during our daylong drive around northern California. Shifts were fast and smooth, and we didn't notice any hesitations, despite the multitude of gears on offer. Moreover, the LS' gearbox has been equipped with a form of artificial intelligence that learns your driving habits the more you drive. That AI works in all transmissions modes, so you don't have to set the car to Sport or Sport+ to benefit from the technology.

The LS500h feels less dynamic than its gas counterpart. That shouldn't come as a huge surprise as the LS500h comes with a less potent drivetrain and a weight penalty of about 150 pounds. And to be honest, the LS500h feels more than 150 pounds heavier than the LS500. Around corners it just feels more ponderous, although not to the point of feeling floppy or out of sorts. We suspect the LS500h's handling defect could be the result of the hybrid system throwing off the car's center of gravity. The LS500h's transmission does an admirable job of imitating a 10 speed automatic, but it doesn't feel fully authentic with some moments of CVT-like behavior.

For years Lexus has been knocked for a lack of driving dynamics in its vehicles. The 2018 LS overcorrects for that perceived deficiency. While there's no denying that the 2018 LS is the best handling LS Lexus has ever made, it does so at the expense of ride comfort. Unlike the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, you seem to feel every bump and crack in the road in the LS. There's even a bit of flex that we weren't expecting from a brand new vehicle architecture.

Onboard techBeing a flagship luxury vehicle, Lexus has stuffed the LS with the latest automotive technology. That includes the newest version of Lexus' Enform infotainment system with a trackpad-like controller in the center console. Although more refined than previous versions, we still found the system tricky to operate with less-than-intuitive menus. Making matters worse, the LS isn't capable of running Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, so you're stuck with what Lexus gives you. We do at least like some of the trackpad's features — you can pinch-to-zoom on maps and a simple swipe on the pad can adjust the intensity of things like the cooled seats or massaging function.

The LS is available with an innovative head-up display system that measures 24 inches in width and appears to be three meters in front of the vehicle. Thanks to that massive footprint, the LS can display a plethora of information directly in the driver's line of sight, reducing the need to take your eyes off the road.

In addition to the technology you can see, there's a bunch that's working behind the scenes. For example, the LS has an available four-zone climate control system that uses 16 different infrared sensors to ensure the temperature in each quadrant is just right. There's also a noise canceling system that uses the car's speakers to eliminate any unwanted noises. For more accurate navigation, the LS utilizes a cloud-based system that continually updates the integrated maps.

Every LS model comes standard with Lexus Safety System+ which includes a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, dynamic radar cruise control, automatic high beams, lane keep assist and lane departure alert. Buyers can also select an available Advanced Package that includes pedestrian alert, active steering assist (which can steer the vehicle around a pedestrian or object if it detects an imminent crash and has adequate room to maneuver) front lateral side collision warning, front cross-traffic alert, road sign assist and a lane trace assist system that can follow the vehicle ahead if no lane markings are present.

In order to prevent bumping a wall or curb while parking, the 2018 LS ushers in Lexus's new Panoramic View Monitor. The camera system projects a view as if you were standing at the rear of the car looking forward, giving a clear view down the side of the vehicle. A bird's eye view is also available via the system.

Recognizing that a lower LS might be an issue for some of the car's traditional buyers, Lexus has fitted the 2018 version of the sedan with an optional trick air suspension that automatically raises the car 30mm (making the driver's seat the same height as the current LS460) when the vehicle is unlocked. When you park, the suspension raises by 10mm to aid egress.

Value storyLexus hasn't announced official pricing for the 2018 LS, but the company says the big sedan will retail from about $75,000. That means the LS will be about $8,000 cheaper than the BMW 7 Series and $15,000 less expensive than the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Moreover, Lexus expects 70 percent of LS sales to be at or below the $80,000 mark. The automaker is eying 1,000 LS sales per month.

Leftlane's bottom lineThey say history always repeats itself, and that could just be the case with the 2018 Lexus LS. Three decades after the original LS shocked the luxury world, the all-new 2018 model is once again making waves by offering something refreshingly different in the segment.

The LS' interior design is second to none, and its attention to detail is nothing short of astounding. We like that the 2018 LS is more of a driver's car — especially in LS500 form — but we'd gladly trade off some of its sport for a tad more comfort. We'd also like to see the integration of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. But other than those complaints, it's hard to find fault with the 2018 Lexus LS.

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