When the original Lexus LS came out in 1989, it was so undeniably brilliant that it changed the game forever.
It forced panicked dissections by engineers at Cadillac and Mercedes and led to higher vehicle quality standards across the board. Most importantly, it showed the world that Japan's upstart luxury brand could bludgeon the best Germany had to offer, introducing Toyota's Lexus as a true alternative to the established automakers.
Now, three decades later, Lexus is an established brand. As Cadillac has slipped and Infiniti and Acura have struggled to be seen as true luxury automakers, Lexus has continued making comfortable luxury cars that offer industry-leading quality and reliability. So while the redesigned Lexus LS — now in its fifth generation — won't change the world like the original one, it's still a comfortable, luxurious, competitively priced high-quality alternative to cars like the Mercedes S-Class and BMW 7 Series.
In the 30 years since the brand's debut, one thing that Lexus has developed is its own identity. The original LS was essentially a Japanese Mercedes, with styling and interior trimmings that mimicked the class leader. Today, though, the LS offers a unique proposition.
That's obvious from the outside, where Lexus' dramatic spindle grille dominates the front of the car. The flowing bodywork emphasizes the wheel arches and the length of the big sedan, while angular creases and L-shaped distinguish it from more anonymous competitors. It's stately and has a presence befitting the $107,950 price tag of our loaded up tester.
Inside, it's another well-executed departure from luxury norms. Unlike Hyundai's Genesis luxury arm, Lexus isn't doing budget versions of BMW interiors. The LS is distinctly Lexus, with flowing vent work, machined aluminum inlays and creamy white quilted leather. Every knob and switch is well weighted to provide smooth operation and an unshakeable feeling of solidity. Just like the cars Lexus built its name on, the LS 500h feels built to last.
That "h," by the way, means that this is the hybrid model. BMW may offer you a choice of V-6s, V-8s, V-12s, diesels and hybrids, but Lexus gives you two options. You can have a conventional twin-turbocharged V-6 or a naturally aspirated V-6 linked to an electric motor. Total system output is 354 horsepower.
The car has a traditional four-speed automatic transmission feeding into the hybrid's electric continuously variable transmission, a complex arrangement that simulates a ten-speed automatic transmission. Like we said, Lexus does things its own way.
On the road, power is ample and the adaptive suspension is well suited to executive sedan business. The ride is refined and composed. That makes it more athletic and agile in cornering than you might expect from a full-size luxury barge, though it's still not particularly exciting to hustle.
You'd be better off being driven in it than driving, as our tester had the incredibly expensive and modestly named $12,250 luxury package which brings a slew of upgrades. In addition to upgrading the upholstery and adding massaging front seats, the luxury package completely overhauls the rear seats. A fold-down center console with an integrated touch screen allows you to fully recline the rear seats, control your heating and ventilation, manage your music and deploy electronic shades to block out the people you're too busy to look at.
In any seat, then, the LS 500h's interior is truly fantastic. It's not quite as gizmo-filled as the best Mercedes can offer, but the LS is also cheaper and has an unbeatable record for reliability and quality.
Unfortunately, the fussy drivetrain saps a lot of refinement out of the experience. The transmission struggles to find the right simulated gear and power can be unpredictable. Between the befuddled transmission and the integration of the electric and gasoline power sources, it's hard to predict the 500h's reaction to any given throttle input. That means that it's hard to drive smooth, which isn't what you want for an executive car.
It also feels overtaxed at times. Under hard acceleration, the V-6 is prone to unpleasant groaning and never provides the luxurious wafting that you might expect in a $100,000 executive car. Maybe 354 horsepower isn't enough in a segment where BMW will give you 600 horsepower, but it seems more likely that they didn't focus enough on quieting down the powertrain and nailing the interaction between the electric and gas motors.
And while the suspension and interior quality are up to the standards of the best in the business, the technology is lagging behind. Lexus' lane-keeping system, for instance, isn't nearly as confident as the ones offered by Mercedes, Audi, BMW, Tesla and even Genesis.
The instrument cluster is digitized, but it's nearly as sleek as what you get in other flagship luxury sedans. Fonts, animations and menus look at least a generation behind the Germans. That probably sounds nitpicky, but details matter. For the same reason that Lexus sweats the weighting of knobs and the feel of every button, modern and clean implementations of technology show that the automaker is working hard to give you the best experience.
All of that can be ignored, especially if you aren't often driving other flagship luxury vehicles. What can't be ignored is the Lexus infotainment system, which is still impossibly difficult to use. It's all controlled by a touchpad that's infuriating to operate, even for tech-savvy users. We're thankful that Lexus has finally lamented and included Apple CarPlay, but forcing buyers to use the terrible touchpad to use a system so clearly designed for tapping a touch screen feels almost mean.
As per usual, the best part of Lexus' infotainment is how little you have to use it. Set a playlist or radio station before you set off, use hard buttons for climate control and try to ignore that even downmarket Toyotas have more usable center screens. So if your idea of luxury is cutting-edge tech, you're better served by an Audi, BMW, Mercedes or Tesla. If you prioritize quality and value, though, we'd still recommend the LS.
Skip the F-Sport package, as your gigantic luxury sedan isn't a sports car and never will be. We'd also skip the hybrid as, despite the impressive fuel economy of the hybrid, the turbocharged V-6 is smoother and more luxurious. All-wheel drive is worth the money, so you'll be spending at least $79,695 with destination charges.
On top of that, we'd add the luxury package for $12,270. It's a crazy price tag, but if you don't want a ton of space and luxury features in the back, you'd probably be better served with a smaller sedan like the Lexus ES 350 or Mercedes E-Class. Optioning this also requires the $1,500 air suspension that you should get anyway, $1,200 wheels, an $800 panoramic view monitor, $800 herringbone wood trim and a $410 heated wood steering wheel. There's an even more expensive executive package for $17,000 or that same package with Japanese Kiriko glass trim, but we'd skip those as the LS with the luxury package already has an amazing back seat.
Finally, we'd spend $1,940 on the phenomenal Mark Levinson premium audio system and $1,000 on the panoramic glass roof. Our total comes to $99,615.
The Mercedes S-Class starts at $91,250 without a single option. That you can get a positively loaded LS for under $100,000 is great, especially when you factor in that the LS has a reputation for being one of the most dependable and high-quality nameplates ever built.
If you're a buyer that prioritizes that kind of quality and value, the LS is easy to recommend. The only competitor that can come close is the Genesis G90, which is also worth checking out. But while the Genesis still exists as a budget German clone for now, the LS has truly come into its own.
Driving Experience: 3
Price as tested: $107,950