First Drive: 2018 Lexus LS

SAN FRANCISCO, California — I wasn’t supposed to drive a Cadillac CT6 to the launch of the all-new 2018 Lexus LS, but I did. Automobile’s Four Seasons Genesis G90 was my intended ride, but Murphy and his law had other plans for that car, so the Cadillac it was.

Turns out it was a happy accident, but I didn’t know it at the time. I just thought I’d sacrificed a fair amount of the ride comfort that I’d want over the next two days and 14 hours of driving for a healthy dollop of sport-tuned control that I most certainly wouldn’t have a chance to enjoy on Interstate 5. Bum trade.

Fortunately, what the Cadillac gives up in ride comfort it takes back not just in sporty handling, but also with a brilliant adaptive cruise control system that handles the gas better than most humans. The only thing the CT6 was missing as a road tripper, besides a slightly comfier ride (or perhaps softer seats), is a genuine self-steering system that works at highway speeds.

But the CT6 wasn’t my goal, after all, merely a means to the end: time behind the wheel of the newest version of the car that launched the Lexus brand. Surely this “definitive new-generation luxury car embodying Japanese tradition and culture” would cover all the bases.

Chief engineer Toshio Asahi’s bold claims in the quotation above lay out the LS’s mission: swinging for the fences. Grandiose references to the 1990 LS like this one litter the car’s announcement:

“It is possible that no single automobile has, upon introduction, upended its category as decisively as the first Lexus LS did when it launched the luxury brand 28 years ago.”

It’s uncharacteristically clear that Lexus is throwing some real passion behind its latest projects, including not just the 2018 LS, but also the LC coupe, which shares aspirations as well as architecture with the much larger sedan. That passion shows through most vividly in the LS’s cabin, not only through the design, but through the steering wheel.

The design is unquestionably the first stop with the LS. For many, it’ll be the last, too—both lovers and haters. In person, the exterior comes off well-finished and neatly seamed—this may also be the first truly successful use of the spindle grille—but otherwise the LS feels a bit confused. It’s almost like looking at a superposition of two or three possible designs. As our own resident design critic Robert Cumberford put it, “I see this design as an aesthetic mess, but it’s a carefully executed purposeful mess that achieves almost exactly what I suspect was desired. So despite my misgivings about its beauty (or, rather, its lack thereof), I predict this car will sell well and satisfy its owners.” Fortunately the interior of the 2018 LS has more universal appeal.

Who, after all, doesn’t love fine leather lovingly stitched into rail-straight seams, floating layered door accents, and a myriad of subtle textures woven through a cabin dominated by organic shapes, assembled with care, and designed around the principle of omotenashi, the Japanese concept of hospitality? It’s a treat for the eyes, but, thankfully, the design flourishes never seem to get in the way of functionality. If there’s one complaint about the new Lexus’ cabin, it’s that there’s more wind and road noise than there ought to be—it’s noisier than the already noisy CT6, and markedly noisier than the Genesis G90.

With a 415-horsepower, 442-pound-foot twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V-6 engine behind that funky grille, the 2018 LS 500 never feels underpowered. If anything, it’s a bit more than some will want to handle—and more than they’ll likely ever use, even for that freeway merge between the bingo parlor and the buffet. Lexus says efficiency is up, too, with estimated figures of 19 mpg city, 29 mpg highway, and 23 mpg combined for rear-drive models; with AWD, the numbers slide to 18/27/21 mpg. Lexus says the LS 500 can hit 60 mph in 4.6 seconds with rear-wheel drive—no estimate is offered for all-wheel-drive models.

A hybrid model is also available, badged LS 500h, with 359 combined horsepower from its 3.5-liter V-6 and electric motor system. Lexus claims 5.1-second (RWD) or 5.2-second (AWD) 0-60-mph times for the hybrid, while still estimating gas mileage at 25/33/28 mpg with RWD or 23/31/26 mpg with AWD. Like the gasoline-only model, the hybrid is also plenty quick to move about, though you’ll want to twist the instrument-cowl-mounted stalk to engage Sport or Sport+ modes to liven up the transmission so you’re not caught waiting, perpendicular to fast-moving traffic, for the car to accelerate.

The steering of the new LS is more informative than in any Lexus of recent make except the LC, which is to say it treads a line somewhere between slightly numb and slightly nervous in normal use. Pushed harder, feedback builds and signal strength grows. Computers perform near-quantum magic, balancing dynamic electric-assist steering with four-wheel steering to provide something startlingly close to a natural feel—in a luxury executive sedan that tips the scales at up to 5,093 lb (or 5,225 in hybrid form). The suspension is largely aluminum and has been redesigned for better road feel, the unibody structure is built on Lexus’ stiffest platform ever, and extensive engineering effort was put into lowering the center of gravity and widening the track for even better dynamics. They really went for it.

The problem with passion is that it eventually runs up against reality: jilted love, a crooked partner, the screen-door squeal of understeer. The underlying reality of the Lexus LS is that it’s a large luxury sedan, loaded to the gills with creature-coddling features. The laws of physics declare such a car will never be all that sporty, and their corollaries ensure that every step taken toward sporty handling is one away from the butter-smooth ride that’s almost impossible to find on the market these days (almost, but not quite: ride hounds should take a spin in the Volvo S90 and Genesis G90).

That said, the 2018 Lexus LS does an admirable job of trying to find the balance. Ride quality is on par with the Cadillac CT6. Unfortunately, steering and handling come up a bit short of the Cadillac’s benchmark—no doubt a symptom of the Lexus carrying around about 800 lb more than a similarly equipped CT6. Does it hustle like the Mercedes-AMG S63 or even the not-quite-an-M BMW M760i? No, and it used to be that the LS didn’t try to. Now it seems like it is, and that’s the real rub.

Where the first-generation LS swooped in and capitalized on a market ripe for improvement, the fifth-generation LS finds itself facing some of the best vehicles ever built as competition. Instead of tracing its own path through the competitive scene, leading by example, it feels like Lexus is playing catch-up. To be fair, after the fourth-generation LS, there’s a lot of catching up to do.

So sporty driving is a bit less of a chore in the new LS, but still not anything approaching a genuinely sporting experience. That’s not why you bought the car anyway. What about the tech, safety, convenience, and entertainment features? You know, the stuff you’ll actually use every day? That stuff’s pretty impressive, for the most part.

First you’ll have to learn to love Lexus’ infotainment system. It’s pretty easy to figure out and use, but it’s not the quickest, most beautiful, or most intuitive system around, especially in this class of sedan. Some will love the touchpad controller, others will find it frustrating and difficult to use at speed.

Those who’ll have frequent high-value rear-seat passengers will want the executive package, which brings with it a Shiatsu massage function, right-rear passenger seat recline of up to 48 degrees (and an ottoman!), and, when equipped with the optional air suspension, the car will even raise itself from its low-slung cruising height for easier entry and exit. Lexus also claims the largest (virtual) head-up display on the market, with an apparent projected size of 24”x6”. It does seem large, but it’s neither more feature-rich nor more beautiful than those of its competitors.

When it comes to self-driving tech, however, Lexus seems to have deliberately chosen not to lead the fray. The adaptive cruise control works well enough, but it seems a generation behind: in stop-and-go traffic, the system waits too long to accelerate, does so too gently, then waits too long to apply the brakes, and does so too harshly. The end result, for a traffic-laden commute, is that the LS leaves plenty of room for lane-hoppers to jump in front of you, then tries to induce panic and/or whiplash to prevent a collision.

Self-steering is even less committed to lightening the load on the driver. Like driver-assist systems past, the LS’s lane-keeping assistance plays a game of Ping-Pong between the lane markers, straying more and more from a straight trajectory until the system alerts the driver to return their hands to the wheel or it simply loses sight of the lane markers. Unlike the systems of the past, however, the LS’s game of Ping-Pong happens within virtual walls about a foot inside the lane markers rather than directly on top of them.

That’s about what the Cadillac CT6’s system manages, though, again, it’s hard to exaggerate just how good the Caddy’s adaptive cruise control is. But unlike the just-launched LS, the first 2018 models of the CT6 with Super Cruise are being delivered this week.

A word of caution is required here, however: luxury sedans are tough to evaluate over short periods of time. Why? Because so much attention and thought has been put into their design that it takes time and experience behind the wheel to fully appreciate them. I look forward to a more in-depth test of the LS over the coming months, to learn if the LS might be a car that slowly grows on you rather than wowing you at the first corner.

To put it plainly: the 2018 Lexus LS is an excellent car in just about every way. It’s a worthy entry to the flagship battle royale, though not a dominant one, and a remarkable successor to the pablum of the fourth-generation LS. What this isn’t, however, is what Lexus called the original LS in the announcement for the 2018 model: a “luxury disruptor” that will “astonish customers.” Rather, Cumberford’s words about the design can be borrowed to sum the entire car, at least on first impression: Despite my misgivings, I predict this car will sell well and satisfy its owners.

2018 Lexus LS 500 Specifications

ON SALE Late 2017
PRICE $75,000 (base, est)
ENGINE 3.5L twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6/415 hp @ 6,000 rpm,

442 lb-ft @ 1,600-4,800 rpm

TRANSMISSION 10-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, RWD/AWD sedan
EPA MILEAGE 18-19/27-29 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 206.1 x 74.8 x 57.1-57.9 in
WHEELBASE 123.0 in
WEIGHT 4,707-5,093 lb
0-60 MPH 4.6-4.7 sec (est)

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