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2021 Lexus LS 500 first drive review: Thanks for the touchscreen

A more intuitive infotainment interface headlines a number of changes to Lexus' full-size LS sedan.

Svelte and sharp.

Steven Ewing/Roadshow

The Lexus LS gets a whole bunch of updates for 2021. Most are minor -- added seat padding here, revised damper settings there -- and none of them really change the LS' positioning as a comfy-as-heck cruiser. Other changes, however, make a much bigger impact. And if there's one thing to truly celebrate, it's the addition of a touchscreen.

Let me put this into perspective: The major Achilles' heel in most new Lexus vehicles is its Remote Touchpad interface. It's meant to function like the trackpad on your laptop but its super sensitive to inputs making it a real pain in the ass to use while driving. On top of that, Lexus' Enform multimedia tech isn't intuitively arranged. Put it all together and you've got what is arguably the worst infotainment system from a mainstream automaker. Yes, really.

For 2021, the LS' 12.3-inch display adds touch capabilities and it's positioned closer to the edge of the dash, making it easier to reach. You'll still find Remote Touchpad hardware on the center console, because some people are masochists, I guess, but aside from the main menu hard button, you can leave this disaster alone.

It's not all perfect, though. The way you interact with the system itself might be better but Enform's menu structure is still kind of a mess. Unless you're married to using the embedded software, I recommend plugging in your phone and using full-screen Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Additionally, when it comes to scrolling, your natural instinct is probably to swipe up or down over a list. But that doesn't work. You have to touch the up or down arrows on the side of each list; if you try to scroll, the screen will just register your initial contact and select whatever's underneath your finger, which is frustrating.

Back to the good stuff: I'm thrilled to see the addition of a hard shortcut button on the console that brings up the screen for the heated/cooled seats and heated steering wheel settings. Previously, you had to open the clime control menu and scroll over to a separate area to turn the butt warmers on or off -- while using the stupid touchpad, too. I still don't really know why these controls aren't just buttons or toggles on the console, dash or doors like in pretty much every other car, but whatever, at least this helps.

Go on, touch the screen.

Steven Ewing/Roadshow

Other changes inside the LS' cabin include softer materials on the armrests, new seat stitching and padding, a redesigned rear-seat control panel and a larger digital rear-view mirror. None of these are groundbreaking, but they also don't detract from an interior that's library-during-a-pandemic quiet and so, so plush. Outside, there are new triple-projector LED headlights, a slightly redesigned grille, a new silver paint option and... that's it. That's fine, though. The LS 500 continues to look great, inside and out -- svelte, sharp, large and in charge. The only thing I'd like to see (literally) is a higher-resolution backup camera.

In addition to the standard LS 500, the electrified LS 500h hybrid will be offered, though it won't hit dealers for a few more months. Lexus says its multi-stage hybrid system has new programming that actually improves acceleration, though I don't ever recall power delivery being a problem. The wonky mashup of a four-speed automatic plus a continuously variable transmission, on the other hand, yeesh.

As for the regular LS 500, it uses the same 3.5-liter twin-turbo V6 as before, with 416 horsepower and 442 pound-feet of torque. Both rear- and all-wheel drive are available, and the 10-speed gearbox has revised shift logic to make it a little smoother. Of course, the LS 500 was already a pretty serene cruiser, and even after driving a 2020 model back to back with a 2021, I can't say the transmission refresh is all that noticeable.

The LS' interior is wonderfully crafted and super comfortable.

Steven Ewing/Roadshow

Beneath the skin, the 2021 LS has slightly different spring and damper settings, new stabilizer bars and lighter-weight control arms. Combined with the standard adaptive air suspension, the LS has an excellent ride quality in its default Normal drive mode, and Comfort is even cushier. Sport and Sport Plus modes are offered, but I don't recommend using them. Stiffer suspension settings and more aggressive transmission mapping don't jibe with the LS' ultra-smooth intentions. This isn't a sports car, and that's fine.

Bolstering those easygoing road manners are a number of standard driver-assistance systems, all bundled into the Lexus Safety System 2.0 Plus package. Pre-collision braking, lane-departure warning, full-speed adaptive cruise control and road sign assistance are all standard. Spend an extra $3,000 for the Safety System Plus A package (what a name) and you get active steering assist, curve speed reduction for the adaptive cruise control, lane-change assist, front cross-traffic alert and a few other goodies.

It's natural to lump the Lexus LS in with Europe's teutonic triplets, the Audi A8, BMW 7 Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class. But the LS 500 is really a half-step behind that trio. The Germans offer more powertrain options, better cabin tech and more advanced safety features. But they also cost anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 more in base form, and that's before you pile on the options.

The LS is priced well below German full-size luxury sedans.

Steven Ewing/Roadshow

These days, the LS' biggest threat comes from Genesis. The updated G90 sedan is absolutely dynamite, and a base V6 version comes about $4,000 less than the LS 500. No, the G90's interior isn't quite as nice, but it has better infotainment tech and it comes fully loaded right from the get-go. This LS 500, on the other hand, starts at $77,025 including destination, but things like a panoramic sunroof, head-up display, digital rear-view mirror, Mark Levinson sound system, heated steering wheel, 20-inch wheels and other add-ons cost extra. The out-the-door price of this car is $98,080 while a top-spec Genesis G90 Ultimate with a V8 and all-wheel drive slides in just under $80,000. Food for thought.

Taken as a whole, the 2021 Lexus LS really isn't any different than before. These minor tweaks just make an already-solid luxury sedan even easier to live with.