It seems so long ago now. But once upon a time, the Lexus LS revolutionized luxury cars; establishing a blue-chip brand, shaking Mercedes-Benz to its core, and becoming, almost overnight, the best-selling flagship sedan in America. By kneecapping the Mercedes S-Class on price, the LS400 captured not only sales, but the public’s imagination. The name “Lexus” became synonymous with unparalleled quality and dealership service that made German showrooms seem as welcoming as a DMV office.
Lexus sold a remarkable 42,000 LS sedans in the car’s first full year of 1990, and as late as 2007, the Lexus still managed to recruit 35,000 buyers—but it’s been a brutal slide since the last all-new model arrived for 2008, including a record low of 4,094 units last year. And if the standard, blandly-styled LS found it increasingly hard to make friends, don’t forget the disastrous LS 600h L hybrid: Between its insanely inflated price—at $105,000, a $32,000 premium over the V8 version—and invisible fuel economy gains, the LS 600h hybrid became an industry punch line. As such it, was the perfect car for a certain bumptious, image-conscious Hollywood type, including Larry David's character on Curb Your Enthusiasm.
With marching orders from Toyota Motor President Akio Toyoda—whose mantra became “no more boring cars”—Lexus is on a well-publicized mission to spice up its designs and add a performance pulse. One major mea culpa was the new 2017 LC 500 coupe—the chassis mate of this all-new LS sedan—whose stun-gun looks and sophisticated performance bowled me over during a test in Spain. But even then, I was utterly allergic to the hybrid version of the coupe, as opposed to the excellent 5.0-liter V8 model with a stonking 471 horsepower.
Alas, the LS 500h hybrid sedan is the one I’ve tested first. (I’m eagerly awaiting a shot at the LS 500 sedan, which skips the coupe’s V8 in favor of a new, twin-turbo V6 with 416 horses and 442 pound-feet of torque). And I wouldn’t wish this Lexus hybrid on my worst enemy, despite its ample mileage gains: An official 25/33 miles per gallon in city and highway, respectively, versus a still-solid 19/29 mpg for the basic gas-only LS500 or 18/27 for its AWD and F Sport versions. (The AWD hybrid loses 2 mpg in both city and highway, turning in 23/31 mpg.)
It’s too bad. Because the new LS, despite its controversial spindle grille (which still looks better on the coupe), is a major upgrade in style, luxury, and handling versus the old one. Pictures don’t do it justice: This Lexus looks rich and imposing at the curb, and drew admirers everywhere it went. Stretching 206.1 inches, it’s just 0.4 inches shorter than a Mercedes S-Class. But its visual vibe is lean, low and sporty, more in the vein of a Jaguar XJ than the typical conservative luxobarge.
Stepping inside, my first reaction: This Lexus is definitely not boring. But it is almost crazily rococo and of questionable taste, especially in Executive Package trim. Lexus might consider a post-Olympics licensing deal, and calling that one the Johnny Weir edition. (More on that later). Some of it is fairly spectacular, from optional semi-aniline leather to fat-and-sumptuous seats and ribbed metal trim spanning the dashboard. And it’s all very roomy, quiet and comfy, including with an optional, height-adjusting air suspension.
But issues sprung up immediately, beginning with Lexus’s Remote Touch pad controller. Let’s be frank: This remains the single worst, most distracting, downright hazardous interface in the entire industry. And its Camry-esque graphics just suck. Despite improved haptic response, fingering the console touchpad is like trying to play "Operation" while attempting to drive. Illogical, impenetrable screen menus will have you tearing out hair like a barber at Marine boot camp. Too many critical functions, including seat controls, require multiple punches and swipes. Adding insult to injury: as if to thumb its nose at confused occupants up front, the center console touchscreen in the back seat (part of that Executive Package) couldn’t be easier to use.
Clearly, Lexus designers never heard this timeless fashion advice, often attributed to Coco Chanel: Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take off the last thing you put on. Here, the most egregious bit of over-accessorizing is a backlit dashboard panel that faces the passenger. I seriously assumed it was a cool secondary screen, as on some new Ferraris. Nuh uh: Like some piece of art-fair junk, it’s just a busy, permanent graphic that looks like intersecting track-and-field lanes. Consider it a billboard for Lexus. Yet unlike an actual billboard—in Ebbing, Missouri or otherwise—you can’t drive past this one and put it out of your mind.
Another bit of gratuitous weirdness is the pair of knobs (for drive modes and stability control) that stick out of the driver’s gauge binnacle like bolts in the Frankenstein monster’s neck. But for sheer, sparkly, Johnny Weir-in-a-tiara spectacle, nothing can touch the “Kiriko” cut-glass door panels, paired with “hand-pleated” fabric door trim. Lexus informs us that “design aficionados may recognize kiriko as the Japanese cut-glass technique that stretches back to the 19th Century Edo period.” You don’t say? Funny, I thought it looked more like Barbie’s Magic Makeup Mirror. Ditto for the door trim that’s meant to evoke origami forms, and was originally rendered in paper during the design process. Lexus says the fabric trim was four years in the making. Four years to come up with these vaguely tacky curtain ruffles? Lexus should ask for its overtime money back.
Thankfully, you can select less-baroque interior treatments, including quite-lovely faux-suede panels and woods ranging from open-pore walnut to a funkier herringbone pattern. But annoyingly, the overwrought Kiriko glass and door fabric is a must-have if you select the $23,080 Executive Package that cranks up luxury features to nearly-S-Class levels. That package includes the Lexus’s signature reclining ottoman seat in the right-hand rear position, with shiatsu massage to boot. A wood-and-leather trimmed rear console houses a seven-inch touchscreen. Other key Executive features include four-way climate control, 28-way power front seats, 22-way rear seats with knee airbags, and butterfly retractable headrests all around. That package, in turn, requires you to select 20-inch polished alloy wheels ($2,450), the outstanding 23-speaker, 2,400-watt Mark Levinson audio system (a square deal at just $1,940), the adaptive air suspension ($1,500) a 360-degree camera monitor ($800) and a heated, wood-and-leather steering wheel for $410.
The LS 500h’s hybrid system brought its own headaches, most brought on by its overbearing operation. Its power is ample, with 354 total system horsepower and a 5.2-second surge to 60 mph (versus 4.6 seconds for the non-hybrid model). Its complexity might make Elon Musk’s head spin: The transmission encompasses dual electric motors, a CVT with multiple planetary gears, and a conventional four-speed automatic that all combine to create a virtual 10-speed gearbox.
That is, a very bad 10-speed transmission, one which serves up the disconnected, rubber-bandy feel of a CVT. It feels like there’s a hapless committee making decisions inside the whirring cogs of this corporate powertrain: Push the gas, and they’ll get back to you when they figure out how to respond. The powertrain also boosts the Lexus curb weight to a porky 5,220 pounds, despite this being Lexus’s first lithium-ion battery hybrid system. The main electric motor emits a bothersome whine when the engine is shut down, and the car shudders when your right foot awakens those cylinders from their fuel-saving slumber. Ultimately, the hybrid system just doesn’t read as luxurious. And its intrusiveness—including the 3.5-liter V6 that moans and moos in bovine fashion—is at odds with a flagship sedan that’s otherwise zen-like and naturally calming.
I definitely wasn’t calm when I returned to the Lexus on two separate occasions to find headlights on and the engine running, once after three hours of parking, however. (I have no idea how long that gasoline engine, which had turned back on to heat the cabin, had been running). I was certain I’d shut the hybrid powertrain down with the dashboard button—but apparently not. Yet during one drive on a mildly rainy day, a message flashed on the center screen, asking if I’d care to view a weather map. I voted “No” and shut it off. That same weather alert then interrupted me another half-dozen times over the next hour. In other words, the Lexus felt no urgent need to warn me that I was walking away from a switched-on car, but fairly demanded that I stay updated on the weather.
Now, the good stuff: Lexus has dropped the extended-wheelbase version, but the backseat in the standard model carves out an additional 2.2 inches of legroom. It’s not S-Class roomy, but it’s still awfully good. And as the LC coupe proved, there’s actually a great chassis lurking inside this sedan, despite the familiar, cushy suspension tuning. This LS isn’t sporty like a Jaguar XJ, but the handling is decisively more confident and sophisticated than any previous LS. Dial up sportier driving modes, and there’s even some heft in the steering, with excellent body control as you swing this big sedan into fast corners. Bravo, Lexus.
The brake pedal is a mite soft, but the transition between regenerative and friction brakes is seamless and satisfying. But I’d definitely skip the optional 20-inch wheels, which I suspect were responsible for some unwanted harshness on my cobbled Brooklyn street and other tortured surfaces. And while the price is right to start, the numbers can go up fast. This LS 500h starts from $79,510—about $10,000 less than Mercedes’s starter-model S450—or $82,730 with AWD. But mine went out the door nearly loaded (including that deluxe Executive Package) for $116,168.
If all this negativity is harshing your mellow, let me be clear: I suspect that, as with the LC coupe, this LS sedan will feel infinitely healthier with this hybrid tumor surgically removed and a thumping engine transplanted in its place—even if that's the twin-turbo V6, rather than the coupe’s naturally-aspirated V8. That engine won’t solve the maddening puzzle of the Lexus Remote Touch interface, so if you dig the LS anyway, you’ll have to live with it. And if you happen to adore those curtain ruffles and twinkly art glass—or Johnny Weir—who am I to argue?
Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at Lawrence@thedrive.com.