2018 Lexus LS 500 Review: Big Sedan’s Twin-Turbo V6 Crushes the Hybrid Powertrain
The latest Lexus flagship shines brighter and drives better with one of the industry’s strongest V6 engines.
Some choices are easy. Formula One over IndyCar. Craft beer, not Bud Light. Nirvana over the Foo Fighters. And when it comes to Lexus four-doors, it’s the LS 500 sedan, by a country mile, over the LS 500h hybrid.
My choice became clear after about 10 minutes in the LS 500 sedan, Lexus’s bid to reinvigorate a flagship four-door franchise that had gone old and stale. I’d already sampled Lexus’s hybrid powertrain twice, and spat out the dubious concoction both times: Once in Spain, in the otherwise-excellent LC Coupe, and again in New York in the LS sedan. These hybrid Lexii subsist on the 3.5-liter V6 from a Toyota Camry, one that’s further neutered to save fuel by running on the Atkinson cycle. To that, Lexus adds dual electric motors; a continuously variable transmission and a conventional four-speed gearbox combine to create the illusion of 10 forward gears. But no amount of engineering magic or cabin soundproofing can completely obscure the Walmart roots of the Camry V6, or the clunky, moaning operation of the hybrid system. Both are sadly out of place in a luxury sedan that starts around $80,000 and can soar to nearly $120,000.
But the standard LS 500 adjusted my attitude, and the car’s, in a big way. It even managed that feat not with the burly 471-horsepower, 5.0-liter V8 that powers the pretty LC Coupe, but with a mere V6 engine. Ah, but what a V6: This long-stroke, 3.5-liter, twin-turbo beauty pumps out 416 horsepower and a bountiful 442 pound-feet of torque—44 more pound-feet than the Coupe’s naturally aspirated V8. Compared with the 4.6-liter V8 with 386 hp and 369 lb-ft that powered the previous-gen LS460 sedan, the new direct-injected V6 brings 30 additional horses and 73 additional pound-feet to the party.
Fuel economy soars along with the power, from the old LS 460’s 16/24 miles per gallon (for city/highway) to a frugal 19/30 mpg; note, in particular, the remarkable 6-mpg jump on the highway. (Adding AWD to the Lexus drops the EPA rating to a still-solid 18/27 mpg). That mileage rating tops every non-hybrid sedan in the flagship class, including a 2-mpg highway edge over Mercedes’s V6-powered S450. And that Mercedes brings just 362 horsepower, versus 416 for the Lexus.
Credit Lexus’s well-designed 10-speed automatic transmission for some of those mileage gains, and for keeping the V6 in its sweet spot for discreet operation and eager forward progress. Lexus’s claim of 4.6 seconds to 60 mph might be a touch optimistic—that’s 0.8 seconds quicker than the V6 Mercedes—but the LS hustles very well for a nearly-5,000-pound, V6-powered sedan, whose 206.1-inch length virtually matches the big Benz.
And where the distracting hybrid system seems to exacerbate the Lexus’s flaws, the V6 model amplifies its strengths. Those include a well-engineered chassis and precise, capable handling that’s rarely been associated with the LS, which has traditionally been the sedan equivalent of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. The new platform drops its center of gravity, and adopts riveted cast aluminum shock towers front and rear, along with sophisticated double ball joints on the upper and lower front control arms for more secure handling inputs. As before, there’s a self-leveling air suspension system (a $1,500 option), and adaptive dampers with a broader range of driver-selectable responses. Lexus touts its proprietary Laser Screw Welding for boosting the rigidity of panel joints. And the body panels themselves—hell, the entire car—shows the exacting fit-and-finish the brand is known for.
Pointed north from Manhattan, this LS 500 gobbled the miles in relaxed, ultra-confident fashion. Dialed into its Sport Plus setting, the LS shined on some of my favorite shakedown roads north of New York City, including the rollicking Route 301 that links the towns of Carmel and Cold Spring. Tire grip in corners is noticeably stronger than before, and the body stays much flatter. There’s even—dare I say it—some real feel coming through the steering wheel.
Lexus’s hourglass-shaped “spindle grille” remains a debatable design element, though it works well on the LC Coupe. Controversial schnoz aside, this Lexus brings the distinctive design and extroverted attitude that the oft-generic LS has cried out for. As with the hybrid version, I was surprised at how often people strolled up to the Lexus, or rolled down their own car windows, to rave about the styling. At least three or four people said, flat-out, “That’s a beautiful car.”
Honestly, while the LS's performance is much improved, the striking new body will probably do even more to put the Lexus back on people's shopping lists. This particular LS received a separate style and performance boost from its F Sport package, a $9,700 option whose key features include variable-ratio and active rear steering alike; racier bodywork, including mesh grille inserts, sportier front fascia and rear diffuser; and a hotted-up interior with an ultrasuede headliner, aluminum pedals and trim, 28-way sport seats and perforated leather for the seats, steering wheel and shift knob.
And I'll tell you right now, too many auto reviews of this all-new LS are seriously underplaying its performance and handling gains. It's by no means a sport sedan, but this LS500 F Sport definitely felt more engaging than a typical (non-AMG) Mercedes S-Class, Audi A8, or Genesis G90; I suspect it would acquit itself quite well against a BMW 7 Series. In this flagship class, only the aggressively-tuned Jaguar XJ with the optional supercharged V8 or Cadillac’s CT6 would post any serious edge in dynamic goodness. And the Lexus’ V6 feels every bit as strong, and sounds more extroverted, than the Caddy’s 420-hp six-pot. This V6’s bark could fool you into thinking it’s a small V8, and that rich-and-rorty exhaust tuning is one of the car’s most pleasant surprises. As for sound, the ear-flattering Mark Levinson audio system, with a formidable 2,400 watts and 23 speakers, is one of the more fairly-priced premium audio systems around at an extra $1,940.
Oh, I still had my gripes, beginning with the infernal Remote Touchpad infotainment controller that turns every simple input into a hair-pulling adventure. (I’ve learned a few workarounds for the Lexus system, including by using its knurled-metal dashboard knob to scroll through radio stations, rather than using the touchpad). There’s still some gratuitous design weirdness inside, including the backlit graphic on the passenger-side dash that looks like a tacky art-fair leftover. The new head-up display is the biggest I’ve ever seen, with a 24-inch viewing area, but its potential is diminished by poor priorities regarding what it should actually display. When I pulled up to stop signs and lights in Brooklyn, the HUD often filled with huge animated arrows that had me mystified; did the car want me to hang a right? I soon discovered it was actually a visual front cross-traffic alert, going crazy over passing cars that I had no intention of crossing paths with. Yet on the leadfoot-friendly Taconic Parkway, where I like to keep a close eye on my velocity, the HUD's speed readout was crammed into a corner, with the screen dominated instead by near-useless lane keeping information. As with the notorious touchpad infotainment system, it’s another example of Lexus engineers coming up with intriguing ideas or technologies, but not spending enough time considering how people use them in the real world.
Finally, for all that work on the platform and suspension, the Lexus allowed some unexpected pavement chop into the cabin on especially poor surfaces— such as my cobbled Brooklyn street—that I don’t experience in an S-Class. (My hunch is that the LS 500's optional 20-inch wheels had something to do with that). Yet that interior impresses in other ways. Some of that fashion-forward interior detailing is undeniably pretty, from door trim to stitched leather around driver’s gauges. Seats are plush, roomy and comfortable, and overall, the levels of road and wind noise would impress any German engineer.
All told, put this LS 500 F Sport on the list of underrated sedan performers, along with the midsize Lexus GS F Sport. It starts from $81,995, about $9,000 less than the Mercedes S450; my tester checked out at $101,675. That's still a lot of money for a luxury barge that doesn't flaunt a Benz, BMW, or even Audi badge. But Lexus's sterling reputation for quality and showroom service, along with that new 10-speed transmission and engine—the latter simply one of the best luxury-car V6 motors I've driven—make the price defensible. Which is more than I can say for the hybrid version.
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.