When Lexus arrived on the scene in 1989, it was a wake-up call for existing luxury car makers. Toyota was only really known outside Japan for making mainstream cars, and the company wanted to prove it could build a better luxury car than anyone else. The LS400 made a convincing case that it could. Not only was the car cheaper and faster than its German rivals, but it was also quieter and more refined, as well as lighter and more efficient. It was well-built, too. (It even made a cameo in Street Fighter II.)
Thirty-two years later, Lexus is a well-established option if you’re looking for a luxury car. And despite shrinking demand for flagship sedans as drivers continue to display a bad case of SUV-itis, Lexus still offers a flagship sedan. The current LS is in its fifth generation, first introduced at the end of 2017 and then face-lifted recently for model year 2021. After spending a week getting to know one, I can say that Lexus still knows how to craft a beautiful, well-constructed car. At the same time, the LS is starting to show its age in places.
At its core, the LS500 uses one of Toyota’s new global architectures, in this case TNGA-L, for the biggest rear- or all-wheel-drive luxury cars. Although the numerals in the name used to refer to engine displacement, like BMW and Mercedes-Benz, they are no longer accurate: the 2021 LS500 is actually powered by a 3.4 L twin-turbocharged V6. A decrease in capacity over the previous naturally aspirated V8 is no real downgrade, as the V6 is silky in its delivery of 416 hp (310 kW), and the 442 lb-ft (600 Nm) of torque arrives as a broad plateau from 1,500 rpm. Lexus builds both rear-wheel-drive (MSRP: $76,000) and all-wheel-drive (MSRP: $79,250) LS500s, but regardless of how many wheels are driven, all come with a 10-speed automatic transmission.
You can launch a rear-wheel-drive LS500 to 60 mph (97 km/h) in 4.6 seconds if you’re in a hurry, followed by a top speed of 136 mph (219 km/h). (That’s a fair bit less than the original LS400’s 155 mph/250 km/h, but it’s all academic outside of some stretches of the German Autobahn.) If you can avoid mashing the throttle like every day is drag racing day, the big sedan will average a combined 22 mpg (10.7 L/100 km), broken down into 18 mpg (13.1 L/100 km) in the city and 29 mpg (8.1 L/100 km) at highway speeds.
Those figures aren’t atrocious considering that the LS500 is 206.1 inches (5,235 mm) long, 74.8 inches (1,900 mm) wide, and 57.1 inches (1,450 mm) tall. It has a curb weight of at least 4,740 lbs (2,150 kg) when riding on air suspension. Despite a pretty slippery drag coefficient (Cd: 0.28), there’s still a lot of frontal area to push through the air and a lot of mass to get moving. Opt for AWD and you’ll lose 1 mpg in the city and combined (and 2 mpg on the highway). That’s because the AWD version rides a little higher, is slightly draggier (Cd: 0.3), and weighs at least 200 lbs (91 kg) more. (If this still sounds absurd to you, take comfort in the knowledge that Lexus only sold ~3,000 LS500s in the US last year.)
The hybrid version, the $90,500 LS500h, gets 25 mpg (9.4 L/100 km) in the city and 33 mpg (7.1 L/100 km) on the highway, for a combined 28 mpg (8.4 L/100 km). Unfortunately, there was no hybrid in the press fleet; otherwise, we would have reviewed that one. (The AWD LS500h starts at $93,750.)
Part of the LS500’s midlife refresh involved some suspension tuning. The spring and damper rates have been tweaked to improve the ride, as have the antiroll bars. There are also larger liquid-filled bushings and new solenoids and valves in the air suspension. That’s not to say the car can’t handle a bit of canyon carving; just set the drive mode to Sport S+ and everything gets taut and responsive. But it’s a big Lexus sedan, so 98 percent of its life will be spent wafting along, which it will now do more comfortably than ever.
Standout interior design
Driving normally gives you more time to appreciate the LS500’s interior, which is undoubtedly its standout feature. The styling makes me think of Art Deco, particularly the dashboard and door cards. I probably shouldn’t admit this publicly, but I spent more time than was healthy just feeling the door cards, which mix leather, Alcantara, and wood in three dimensions. The seats are extremely comfortable in both the front and the rear, and our test vehicle was fitted with one of the best massaging functions I’ve ever encountered in a luxury car.
On the other hand, some of the car’s technology is starting to feel a bit dated. Lexus just changed the infotainment screen—it’s now a 12.3-inch touchscreen you can also control via a touchpad on the center console. Unfortunately, the Lexus Enform infotainment software is still lagging behind the systems you’ll find in the car’s German rivals. At this level in the market, the little details matter, and it’s jarring to see a rather potato-quality rearview camera displayed on what is actually a reasonably pixel-dense screen.
Similarly, the digital main instrument display looks a generation behind competing companies, which all offer big digital screens for their drivers. The LS500 has a smaller digital panel in front of the driver, with analog gauges for water temperature and fuel level on either side, all of them framed in leather.
I have no complaints about the new heads-up display, however. For this model year, the LS can be fitted with a 24-inch color HUD that holds its own against the competition, although unlike the brand-new Mercedes S-Class, the navigation directions don’t appear as augmented reality.
Overall, the overriding impression of the LS500 is that Lexus knows how to screw a car together; the build quality feels impeccable for everything you poke, prod, touch, or stroke. It’s an extremely comfortable car to ride in, and the interior has a lot to recommend it over rivals from Audi, BMW, and Mercedes. But the exterior styling might not be to everyone’s tastes, particularly the Cylon cheese-grater front grille. If it is to your taste, you’ll probably want the LS500h.
Listing image by Jonathan Gitlin