2018 Lexus LS 500 review: Craftsmanship that impresses, tech that depresses
If there's one thing Lexus has perfected over the years, it's the luxury experience. Its cars are incredibly quiet and comfortable and set high benchmarks for the Japanese luxury set.
But if there's one area where Lexus continues to fail, it's with infotainment. Whether it's the company's new touchpad or previous mouse-type contraption, Lexus' infotainment offerings have struggled with clunky interfaces for years, and it doesn't appear that'll be changing anytime soon.
Both of these attributes come to a head in the 2018 LS 500. Lexus' latest big-body sedan is so good in so many ways, but I feel it's being held back from its full potential. I can't lay all the blame on the infotainment, mind you -- just most of it.
Polarizing outside, plush inside
While its German competitors continue to err on the side of conservative design, Lexus continues to double down on its love-it-or-hate-it approach. The 2018 LS 500 has a front end that's mostly grille, the back end is mostly creases and the sides are all wavy-gravy lines. If you want a large car with character, the expressive design will work in your favor.
But the properly good stuff lies inside. The LS 500's interior is the best of any Lexus yet. Fresh style abounds, from the quasi-floating armrests and the layering on the door panels to the way every line on the dashboard heads somewhere with purpose. I don't even mind the weird little art installation thing going on in front of the passenger seat, even if it feels a little chintzy when you touch it. The F Sport trim brings a unique type of seat, one that I find to be endlessly comfortable and supportive.
A wide variety of materials are on offer in a few different colors, and I especially enjoy the brown-leather getup with herringbone wood trim -- something you can't get on F Sport models. The Kiriko glass trim option, which adds perhaps the most visually impressive trim of any car on the market, requires a $23,000 option package that includes an executive rear seat setup. As much as I love that glass, I can't say it's worth that price.
Sacrificing softness for sport
If the Lexus F Sport trim were merely an appearance package with bigger brakes, that'd be fine. But it also adds sport-tuned adaptive dampers that actually prevent the LS 500 from showing off its max potential.
The ride isn't bad, not by a long shot. Even with the F Sport trim, the LS 500 is plenty plush, soaking up bad roads with nary a peep making its way through to the occupants -- Lexus' noise isolation is second to none. I find that the best way to drive the LS 500 is to ignore the sportier drive modes and just leave it in Comfort all the time. That's where it feels most at home. I just never feel rewarded driving the car in a sporty manner, so why bother with stiffer dampers?
Gone are the days of the V8-powered LS. Now, every LS 500 packs a twin-turbocharged V6 putting out 416 horsepower and 442 pound-feet of torque. It's not the best-sounding engine on the planet, but its 10-speed automatic is programmed to swap cogs quickly and smoothly, so the revs stay low and the experience remains hushed. The EPA rates the LS 500 at 18 mpg city and 27 mpg highway with all-wheel drive, but I came up short by about 2 to 3 mpg on both fronts.
Good tech, bad tech
There are many good things to say about the LS 500's complement of in-car technology. There are four USB ports, two up front and two for rear occupants. The optional 24-inch head-up display is big, bright and generally just impressive to behold. Lexus continues to strike gold with its Mark Levinson sound systems, too -- the 23-speaker arrangement in the LS has excellent fidelity and is worth every penny of the $2,000 premium.
The infotainment system, however, is abhorrent. The trackpad never feels natural, and it's very easy to accidentally swing the cursor past the intended target. It's nearly impossible to use while driving the car, and it's still pretty frustrating to use while stationary. The heated seat controls are also infuriating. The only way to turn them on is to wade through two menus that require use of the trackpad. Why does something this simple have to be so complicated?
If you've been driving Lexus vehicles for years, you might have a grasp on the Remote Touch system, but new buyers will have a hard time getting comfortable. Even a simple touchscreen interface would be a huge improvement, but Lexus offers no such tech.
How I'd spec it
Skip the F Sport trim. Doing so opens up additional trim options and it permits the LS 500 to revel in its soft, stately existence. Dropping the F Sport trim also slices the starting price from $85,000 to $78,000 if you retain all-wheel drive.
To start, I would stick with rear-wheel drive, since a car of this size is plenty stable without four driven wheels. I would opt for a brown leather interior with gorgeous herringbone wood trim to make up for the F Sport's monochromatic getup. This has the added benefit of requiring an interior package that includes massaging front seats. I'd keep the base 19-inch wheels to add a bit more softness to the ride quality.
Adding Lexus' suite of safety systems brings the price up $3,000, and it requires the addition of air suspension, LED headlights, a surround-view camera system and the head-up display. That brings us to $87,715 for what I think is a much more cohesive package than the $88,000 test car you see here. Dropping the extra $2,000 on the Mark Levinson system is optional, but worth it. You're still well under six figures either way.
Down to brass tacks
While the Lexus LS is not cheap, it's less expensive than its competition. Base versions of the Audi A8 and BMW 7 Series kick off around $80,000 and standard options aren't exactly plentiful. A Mercedes S-Class doesn't get off the ground for anything less than $90,000 -- and again, the good stuff is hidden away behind even more cost.
The Lexus LS 500, then, presents a value play in its segment. Its ride quality is still one of the best in the class and it can be spec'd just as luxuriously as any of its more expensive competitors.
You'll have to be cool with the look, and you'll really have to be cool with one of the most frustrating infotainment systems in the entire automotive industry. But if you are, the 2018 Lexus LS 500 won't let you down. Just make sure you set your heated seat before driving away.