Lexus LS: Brushstrokes, Ballyhoo and Bravery

Luxury utility vehicles are all the rage, but the Lexus LS reminds us that sleek beauty and a road-hugging stance are what make cars special. A technological showpiece, the LS features a spectacular interior and an all-new twin-turbo V-6.

August 22, 2018

8 Min Read
Lexus LS 500 blue
Fifth-generation Lexus LS shaking up large-luxury-car segment.Tom Murphy

Considering, the outgoing fourth-generation Lexus LS flagship sedan was plying American highways for 10 years (with modest facelifts along the way), the extremely long gestation period for a replacement couldn’t be half-hearted, warmed over or incomplete in any way whatsoever.

Thank goodness the bosses at Toyota’s luxury brand understood this reality and set out to upset the fullsize-luxury-sedan segment, in which Lexus hasn’t been a factor for years. Traditional heavyweights Mercedes-Benz and BMW now are facing pressure from relative newcomers such as the Porsche Panamera, Audi A7 and Genesis G90.

And, of course, the all-electric Tesla Model S absolutely owns the Upper Luxury car segment, outselling the No.2 Mercedes S-Class in 2017 nearly 2-to-1, according to Wards Intelligence data.

But the all-new Lexus LS 500 and LS 500h hybrid have been coming on strong. Since arriving in U.S. showrooms in February, the LS has been outselling most of its rivals.

Through July, LS sales in the U.S. reached 5,081 units (in line with corporate expectations to sell 1,000 units per month), behind the Model S and S-Class and putting it neck-and-neck with the Panamera for the No.3 slot. In the month of July, the LS was No.2, trailing only the Model S.

The Lexus brass admit they got tired of hearing complaints that Lexus makes boring, conservative cars with predictable interiors and suitable only for sedate cruising.

So they did something about it, creating a design language (which has no name, according to one of the brand’s top stylists) relying on sheet metal that appears tightly stretched, grilles that appear angry and interiors embracing drama. Inside and out, sensuous, flowing lines abound.

The LC coupe that launched last year was the best execution to date, but now the LS assumes this mantle and takes even more aesthetic chances, especially inside the cabin of a car less expensive than the LC and yet much better equipped. That takes steely resolve and more than a little corporate courage.

Beyond its good looks, the LS is a technology showpiece, with an outstanding all-new twin-turbo V-6, available air suspension, first-rate aerodynamics (0.27 drag coefficient), standard run-flat tires, available dynamic rear-wheel steering, executive power rear seat with ottoman for the napping boss, massaging seats, standard hands-free trunk, a neatly arranged 12.3-in. (31-cm) high-resolution multimedia screen and the sector’s largest full-color head-up display, occupying 24 ins. (61 cm) of the windshield in front of the driver.

In its F Sport variant of the LS, Lexus claims another first in the segment: anti-skid vehicle stability control that manages six types of vehicle movement: longitudinal, vertical, lateral, yaw, roll and pitch.

New GA-L Platform Relies on Aluminum, Adhesives

Springing from Lexus’ all-new Global Architecture for Luxury vehicles (GA-L) alongside the LC coupe, the LS has a stamped aluminum hood, trunk lid, front fenders and doors, while most of the unibody is constructed from high-tensile steel with special adhesives and proprietary laser screw welding.

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Toyota’s luxury brand builds the new fifth-generation LS at a plant in Tahara in Japan’s Aichi prefecture.

Aluminum is used extensively in the suspension to reduce unsprung weight, and an air suspension is available. The hood is more than an inch lower than the previous LS, contributing to a lower center of gravity and sleek look.

The standard adaptive variable suspension responds to G-force, yaw-rate and speed sensors by adjusting damping force continually depending on road conditions and driver input.

Lexus previously used step motors to achieve nine levels of response from the suspension system, but the new LS employs linear solenoid actuators capable of 650 distinct levels.

On the road, the driver never detects the sophisticated calculations that keep the car flat in corners, stable under hard acceleration and sublimely confident and smooth on the highway, regardless of potholes.

This is a nimble car for its size, but let’s not ignore the obvious: At 4,707 lbs. (2,135 kg), the lightest version of the rear-wheel-drive LS weighs more than a Dodge Durango while the heaviest all-wheel-drive Executive-grade cruiser tips the scales at 5,225 lbs. (2,370 kg).

Top-Notch Powertrains But No V-8

The 3.5L V-6 (codename V35A-FTS) was designed specifically for the engine bay of the LS 500, rated at 416 hp and 442 lb.-ft. (599 Nm) of torque – all of it available as early as 1,600 rpm.

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Variable-valve timing on both the exhaust and intake sides of the engine make for easier breathing and reduced fuel consumption. More than a decade ago, Lexus pioneered the incorporation of both port and direct fuel injection, and an updated version of the D4-ST system is found on the new LS.

Technology runs deep on this new 3.5L: laser-clad intake valve seats, high-efficiency water-cooled intercooler, six-hole direct fuel injectors, redesigned engine mounts, lightweight pistons and high-strength forged connecting rods. (See Chief Engineer Toshio Asahi with all-new 3.5L V-6 at left.)

This is the first Lexus engine to deploy twin turbochargers, and the forced-induction system was designed and produced in-house rather than outsourced. A complex, proprietary system controls an electric wastegate valve to manage turbocharger boost, output, fuel economy and emissions, while a motorized actuator is used to control the opening and closing of the valve, Lexus says.

It all works together marvelously: The turborchargers exhibit not even a hint of lag, and drivers with a trained ear will struggle to hear the turbos working at all.

The engine, paired with a smooth-shifting 10-speed automatic transmission, is supremely quiet and eager to spring into action when pressed hard.

A V-8 no longer is available in the LS 500, nor is it missed. The twin-turbo V-6 handily outguns the V-8 at both ends – in output and fuel economy, rated at 29 mpg (8.1 L/100 km) on the highway with RWD.

Environmentally minded shoppers – as many in the Toyota family are – will want to consider the LS 500h, which incorporates the highly sophisticated Multi-Stage Hybrid system that first appeared in the LC 500h hybrid a year earlier.

The heart of that system is Lexus’ familiar 8GR-FXS naturally aspirated 3.5L V-6 mated to an ingeniously complex package of two motor/generators and two transmissions – a 4-speed automatic and a continuously variable unit.

Motor generator 1 will start the engine and restart it at stoplights, where it will shut down if the lithium-ion battery pack has enough juice.

Motor generator 1, by itself, will never turn the wheels. But it recharges the accessory battery, helps the CVT select gear ratios and produces electricity to drive motor generator 2.

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In normal driving conditions, motor generator 2 will turn the wheels, so long as there is enough electricity in the Li-ion battery. If the driver needs more power, the gasoline V-6 will turn on immediately and begin working in tandem with the CVT, the 4-speed automatic and both motor generators.

From a standstill, the hybrid launches in the first of the four mechanical gears in the 4-speed automatic, which is always engaged. At that point, the first mechanical gear works in tandem with three additional gear ratios as selected by the CVT. The same thing happens with the second mechanical gear to achieve gears four, five and six with the CVT. Likewise, the third mechanical gear yields gears seven, eight and nine.

The meshing of the two transmissions, motor/generators and engine is an engineering marvel, and it all functions seamlessly, capable of a combined 354 hp and up to 33 mpg (7.1 L/100 km) on the highway.

Interior With an Artist’s Touch

Our affinity for the LS interior was cemented with this year’s awarding of a Wards 10 Best Interiors trophy for a passenger compartment that is visually striking and groundbreaking for its material selection and swooping lines across the instrument panel, door trim and even a lighted acrylic panel on the passenger side of the IP.

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As innovative as a concept car, the LS interior is all brushstrokes and ballyhoo.

WardsAuto editors rave about the soft microsuede covering the headliner, pillars and doors; the meticulously machined knobs; the excellent voice-activation system; the clean and sparse array of buttons along the lower end of the center stack; the confidence-inspiring driver-assistance systems; and the climate vents hidden within the brushed aluminum horizontal slats that taper toward the passenger door.

Some editors find the central infotainment touchpad to be occasionally fussy and complex to navigate, while others note the improvements Lexus has made.

But none of us quibble about the spot-on fit-and-finish or the artistic flair slathered on every corner of the interior, from the finely trimmed steering wheel and gorgeous veneer options to the door trim adorned (in certain models) with hand-pleated fabric or breathtaking Kiriko cut glass that shimmers in daylight or evening ambient light.

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And true to Lexus’ mission to push boundaries, the new LS F Sport comes available with scintillating Rioja red interior leather.

With content this rich, we don’t mind that the base price for the LS is $75,000 and actually find it a bargain.

The LS is sold in 90 countries, and Lexus expects 40% of customers to be conquested from rivals. In the U.S. model mix, brand managers expect 20% to be F Sport variants and 10% hybrids, as well as a 35% take-rate for AWD.

Luxury SUVs and CUVs are all the rage, but the Lexus LS correctly reminds us that sleek beauty and a road-hugging stance are what make cars special. A utility vehicle could never look this good.

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