SAN FRANCISCO, California—The story goes like this: One day at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, Akio Toyoda – president of Toyota Motor Corp, world’s largest car company – was having lunch or dinner with some high-flying guests.
Pebble is the world’s most exclusive car show, a place where the point-one percent go to show off the rarest collectible cars and the largest hats. Anyway, Mr. Toyoda asked someone in the group to tell him, honestly, what they thought of Lexus. This person said Lexus is boring.
This comment, the idea that Lexus, the crown Jewel in Toyota’s lineup, is boring, shocked Mr. Toyoda. Being the boss, he took immediate and drastic action. The LF-LC coupe would go into production, and it must look like just like the concept car.
It was a near-impossible order, but Lexus engineers delivered with the LC 500. Mr. Toyoda sent other projects back to the drawing board: the new RX SUV, a best-seller, had to look edgier; the new NX had to be more aggressive.
Even the flagship sedan – the LS, the car that made Lexus – didn’t escape Mr. Toyoda’s anti-boring crusade.
Since its introduction in 1989, the Lexus LS has been an anonymous-looking luxury barge. Soft with rounded corners and the traditional three-box design of any large sedan. Until recently, when the Lexus spindle grille got transplanted onto its face, the old LS could’ve been mistaken for just about any other big luxury sedan.
But not anymore. The fifth-generation model has a fastback roofline that stretches nearly to the back of the trunk. The new model is longer, wider, and lower, making it noticeably more aggressive. The spindle grille is made up of 5,000 different surfaces, each modeled by hand. On the F-Sport version, the grille has 7,000 individual surfaces.
Koichi Suga, the designer responsible for the new LS, wanted to make it stand out. The aim was to make a vehicle with unique proportions that would be distinct from its rivals. Mission accomplished, we’d say.
While the exterior of the new LS may divide opinion, splitting old and new Lexus customers, the interior is undeniably high-quality.
The lines that streak across the dashboard, neatly hiding the air vents, were inspired by a traditional Japanese whisk. Around the door panels is Kiriko-style cut glass. The wood parquetry is so lovely it’s a shame to hide it under all that lacquer. The front-seat armrests are at the same height for maximum comfort. These kinds of intricate, thoughtful details abound in the new LS.
Only the long-wheelbase version is coming to Canada this time. It gives the option of executive rear seating, which has a fully-reclining seat with leg rest. If there’s nobody in the front seat, it automatically moves forward and folds the headrest to give rear-seat execs a clear view out the front window and space to stretch out after a hectic board meeting.
There’s a full suite of active safety tech, including lane-keeping and auto emergency braking. But let’s focus on the big news.
The engine in the LS 500 is a 3.5-litre twin-turbo V6. It’s an all-new block, not yet found in any other Lexus. With 416 horsepower and 442 lb-ft of torque, it outperforms the old V8.
Ah, yes, the V8: there isn’t one, for the first time in LS history. All of its German competitors offer twin-turbo V-8s with more power, too. Will this deficit hurt the LS, or does Lexus have a sportier LS F in the works? We’ll see.
Some advice: avoid the hybrid. We’re all for eco-friendly big sedans; they make a lot of sense. But the LS 500h is down on power and much heavier compared to the non-hybrid. So it feels slower and sluggish. It will also probably cost more than the 500, so unless you only drive around the city in rush-hour, don’t get the hybrid.
The chassis is based on a version of the LC, but with more die-cast aluminum bits to stiffen up the rear suspension mounting points. The body panels are aluminum, but the chassis itself is steel, which explains why the hybrid weighs over 2.3 tonnes. It doesn’t use any carbon-fibre in the structure like BMW’s 7 Series does.
The main reason to buy the outgoing LS was because it was like driving a La-Z-Boy. So soft, you sank right into its pillow-y embrace. It gave no steering feedback, provided no road feel. It was not at all engaging to drive. And that, of course, was the point. It was a luxury car, meant to isolate the driver and passengers from the world outside.
Mr. Toyoda’s anti-boring crusade extends to handling, too, not just style. So the new LS is going after the Germans – the BMWs, Mercedes, and Audis – where it hurts, handling and performance. The new car couldn’t be boring to drive.
And it’s not! Get in and pull away and your first thought will be all this anti-boring stuff was all talk. But that’s because you won’t have found the driving mode dial yet.
It’s on top of the instrument cluster, and it’s confusing. One click up, one click down, but eventually you find Sport S or Sport S+ mode. Even the names are needlessly complicated, but these modes do sharpen up the LS.
It tips into corners with glee. The body stays relatively flat thanks to the optional air suspension. It’s amazingly agile for such a big car. It weighs well over two tonnes, but it hides the weight pretty well, so long as you keep to legal speeds.
The main issue that cropped up on our test drive was that the improved handling has come at the expense of comfort. We miss the pillow-y ride, and some buyers might, too.
Because the new LS is only going to be available in all-wheel-drive long-wheelbase form, expect the price to go up. The old model started at $94,600. The LS L AWD stated at a whopping $130,750. Hopefully the base price for the new model is considerably lower than that.
By comparison, a long-wheelbase S-Class starts at $124,000. The newer BMW 7 Series LWB hybrid is $110,400. Audi’s all-new super high-tech A8 is coming early next year.
The big question is, will Lexus customers accept this new, non-boring LS sedan? Will they accept it without a V8, with less power than the competition? Are they willing to sacrifice some comfort for a sportier experience?
The 2018 Lexus LS handles nicely, and the interior is ultra-luxe. But on the other hand it no longer trumps the German competition for all-out comfort, and we’re not quite convinced it handles any better. That said, If you want to stand out in the parking lot, the LS is worth a look.
Disclosure—This writer’s travel and accommodations were provided by the automaker for the purposes of this first-drive review.