Large sedans are disappearing from some luxury brand lineups. Cadillac’s CT6 and Lincoln’s Continental are on their way out, while the Q70 was culled from Infiniti’s showrooms after the 2019 model year. With the Acura RLX ending production after 2020, that leaves the Lexus LS as the only Japanese flagship we get stateside. The remaining big-baller sedans are from either Korea—from Genesis and Kia—or Europe.
This is the segment that the original LS, launched for the 1990 model year, was successful at disrupting. That car’s clean lines, uncompromised quality, and stately appearance set the Lexus brand up for decades of success. This latest generation LS, launched in 2018, hasn’t garnered the same praise. Which is why, just three years in, Lexus is making some changes in an attempt to boost the car’s relevance (read: sales).
While updates to the exterior are subtle, the LS sports a redesigned front fascia, an updated front bumper, and a dark mesh insert for the grille. Drawing inspiration from the LC coupe and convertible, the LS adopts revised LED headlamps and a darker surround, while taillights swap chrome elements for glossy black. Similarly subtle updates to the interior include thicker padding for the armrests and seat cushions as well as revised steering wheel and center console buttons. An update to the active noise-cancellation feature more effectively drowns out road and engine noise, resulting in a quieter cabin per the automaker.
Lexus has mercifully updated the LS’s infotainment system to include a touchscreen display, giving the driver and front passenger reprieve from the infuriatingly fussy touchpad controller on the center console. Unfortunately, the new system continues to run the older version of Lexus’s software interface, which is neither as responsive nor as intuitive as rival systems in the Audi A8, the BMW 7-series, or the Mercedes-Benz S-class. The touchscreen was moved closer to the driver by a few inches relative to the prior screen’s location, but we still found it tough to reach—forcing us to choose between leaning forward to jab at the screen or to continue to fuss with the console-mounted touchpad.
The LS500’s secondary functions are likewise too complicated for easy usage. For example, although Lexus added a shortcut button to the infotainment menu that controls the heated seats and steering wheel, the user must still interact with the infotainment system itself to access those features or adjust the temperature. A single physical button, mounted on the center console, the door, or even the seat itself, would be easier to use.
Like a middle-aged man donning a hypebeast wardrobe in a desperate attempt to appear more youthful than he is, the LS500’s overtly aggressive appearance doesn’t match what’s underneath. Opting for the F Sport model exacerbates the issue, adding bigger dark-gray wheels, black grille inserts, sport seats, and a more aggressive front spoiler. Why?
The twin-turbo 3.4-liter V-6 is smooth and amply powerful. The last time we tested an LS500 F Sport, it was a 2018 model with all-wheel drive. That car delivered a 5.0-second zero-to-60-mph time and completed the quarter-mile in 13.4 seconds at 106 mph. Lexus recalibrated the car’s 10-speed automatic transmission for 2021 to keep the engine spinning at a more optimal part of its powerband, and the company claims that a rear-wheel-drive LS500 is capable of getting to 60 mph in just 4.6 seconds. We couldn’t verify that, since we were unable to make it to our test track during our brief time with the car.
In Comfort and Normal driving modes, throttle response is muted and the LS delivers an effortless, easygoing type of luxury. Switching into one of the car’s two sport modes (Sport S and Sport S+) dials in some sharpness, but the difference is trivial. The LS500 is a big softie. The steering is calibrated for the sedate life of a large luxury sedan, and the LS serves up a serene ride and a whisper-quiet cabin.
And it’s a relative bargain. The cabin offers plush seating for both front and rear occupants, generous legroom, and high-end materials and features. Long-haul road trips would undoubtedly be dispatched with nary a whiff of fatigue. A well-equipped all-wheel-drive F Sport model, with the optional panoramic sunroof, 23-speaker Mark Levinson stereo system, and 24-inch head-up display rings in at $88,460—which is about where pricing begins for rivals from Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz. While it is possible to run up a more expensive tab, the LS500 always represents a decent value proposition when compared to similarly equipped German competition. An all-wheel-drive Genesis G90 3.3T Premium, though, starts at $76,475. Genesis wants to be Lexus—not current Lexus but 1990 Lexus, rocking the foundations of the old-world luxury hierarchy.
On paper, the LS500 seems like it might have the recipe to rekindle that original LS400 mojo, but an exterior design so out of step with a car’s driving dynamics leads to an incoherent overall picture. The touchscreen retrofit to the infotainment system didn’t much help matters there, either. It might be time for the LS to finally abandon the value play and go for full-on extravagance. Lexus certainly knows how to do it. Just look at the LC coupe and convertible, both of which better exemplify the role of a flagship for the brand.
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