Although snarling supercars can be totally exhilarating to drive for an hour on a winding country lane, for longer road trips a luxury sedan is a much more relaxing ride: The 2020 Lexus LS 500 F Sport, for example, is pretty much the last word in state-of-the-art distance cruising.
When the then-brand-new Lexus launched the LS 400 in 1989, it was a revelation—a Japanese luxury sedan to compete with Europe. Toyota spent US$1 billion developing the LS, and it showed. The contemporary LS 500 (all new in 2018) is that 30-year-old car’s spiritual descendant, and it’s grown enormously in power and prestige.
Rolls-Royce has sold a lot of cars on quietness, but the LS 500 makes that a prime virtue, too. Ensconced in the hushed, spacious cabin, which in F Sport trim includes a special perforated-leather interior and ultra suede headliner (plus a very welcome heated steering wheel) travel time seems to be cut in half.
The luxury sedan has been losing ground to the upscale SUV, but big cruisers like this Lexus, Mercedes S-Class, or Audi A8 deserve consideration. Generally, the Lexus is going to be the cheaper option compared to the Germans. For a bottom line of US$89,855 as tested, it’s a lot of car. And is Lexus the only automaker to still put CD players in its high-level models?
The CD comes with the car, but Lexus does charge extra for some things that should be standard at this level, such as the 24-inch heads-up display (US$1,220) and the two-part panoramic glass roof (US$1,000). Adding $1,940 for the upgraded Mark Levinson stereo with 23 speakers is perhaps fair enough, since only 12 are included in the standard package.
In the LS 500, many functions are controlled from the touchpad, which turned out to be a mixed blessing. The pad itself worked well enough, but the settings tended to be confusing and the screen itself wasn’t touch-sensitive. I managed to get the seat heaters on, but I’m not sure how. Luckily, the LS 500 was upgraded with an easier-to-use 12.3-inch infotainment touchscreen for 2021.
Powering the LS 500 is a twin-turbo 3.5-liter V6 with 416 horsepower, coupled to a 10-speed direct-shift transmission with paddle shifters. That sounds like a lot of horses, but this is a 6,095-pound car and not a drag racing candidate. It doesn’t leap off the line, but relentlessly delivers steady, creamy power in a linear fashion for passing and other maneuvers.
It’s very easy to drive this car too fast, and if that’s the case the all-wheel drive gives confidence in inclement weather. Given the whole package (including the AWD), 21 miles per gallon combined (18 in town, 27 on the highway) seems very reasonable, especially the latter number.
If fuel economy is a big priority (not likely for buyers of this model), there’s always the LS 500h hybrid (starting at US$81,450), which gets 28 miles per gallon combined. But that’s not a huge gain, and reviewers have complained about its unrefined performance and choppy continuously variable transmission (CVT).
After three days in the 2020 F Sport, I changed to a rear-wheel drive 2021 LS 500. Changes are not extensive—there are new headlamps and some trim, as well as the aforementioned new screen—but also an even-quieter cabin, due to upgraded active noise cancellation. The powertrain is unchanged.
The tester had the luxury package (US$12,710), which is expensive but well worth the extra investment for maximum comfort. It includes a four-zone climate concierge, 28-way power adjustable front seats with massage and a cushion extender, a panoramic view monitor, UV- and infrared-fighting window glass, a power rear window sunshade, and adaptable variable air suspension with rapid height function. The heated wood-and-leather-trimmed steering wheel is US$410 extra.
Little things in the 2021 stood out, such as the auto-dimming mirrors inside and out, the auto door closer, the rear seats with 18-way reclining and a screen between them, and the hands-free trunk power opener that came in handy moving heavy boxes for a Goodwill run. In the form tested, the 2021 LS 500 was US$98,080, including more than US$20,000 in options.
The LS 500 is a big, imposing car. The styling, especially that huge so-called “spindle” grille, isn’t immediately appealing. But like the idea of high-end Japanese luxury cars, it grows on you.