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A gnat drifts across my view, as if I were enjoying a relaxing summer day in a park. I'm actually cruising down the highway at a comfortable 55 miles per hour, but the stillness and quiet in the 2018 Lexus LS 500's cabin seems to have put the little bug at ease.
I heartlessly open the window, though, letting the gnat get sucked outside where it can admire the incredibly graceful design of Lexus' fifth generation top luxury sedan.
This all-new iteration of the LS sedan meets you with an incredibly complex take on Lexus' signature spindle grille, slashy LED headlights casings and a long body with a rear roofline borrowing from coupe design.
I like the exterior, but the interior impresses me even more. Koichi Suga, chief designer for the LS, talks about the inspiration for some of the cabin elements, such as Andon lamps for illumination, Kiriko glass on the door panels, and the shape of a calligraphy brush for the dashboard woodwork. It all comes together very nicely, making the LS' cabin a comfortable and beautiful place to ride.
At this Lexus-sponsored event in Northern California, I drive the new LS 500 and LS 500h, the gasoline and hybrid gasoline-electric versions of this large, luxury sedan, set to compete with big rollers such as the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, BMW 7-Series, Audi A8 and newcomer Genesis G90. You can also throw the Model S into the competitive set, as Tesla's electric luxury sedan has grabbed significant market share in the segment.
Lexus built the 2018 LS on a new platform, gave it a huge design update inside and out, refined the drivetrains, and gave it collision prevention technologies. However it merely inched the infotainment system forward. The new LS doesn't exactly swing for the fences, but makes a compelling argument for itself, especially when you consider a base price that will come in around $75,000, according to a Lexus spokesman.
When I get behind the wheel of the LS 500, I find more than a few elements taken from Lexus' recent performance cars, such as the LFA and LC 500. The LCD instrument cluster graphic consists of a single tachometer gauge, with a digital speed read-out in the middle, while engine temp and fuel gauges sit off to the sides. I like its compactness and readability. Two physical knobs stick out from the dashboard, right over the steering wheel, with the one on the right letting me choose from Eco, Normal, Sport and Sport Plus drive settings.
A small, ergonomic shifter sits on the LS 500's console, and it takes me more than a moment to figure out I have to pull it to the left to engage drive.
For this generation, Lexus rides the economy trend, so dropped the former V8 in favor of a twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V6 engine in the LS 500, using Lexus' unique fuel system that chooses between direct and port injection for different driving circumstances. That engine manages 416 horsepower and 442 pound-feet of torque, which moves this 4,700-pound plus luxury sedan well. The automatic transmission boasts a whopping 10 gears, and it shifts seamlessly, so that I don't even feel it.
During this event, I drive a few version of the LS, including one with the standard adaptive coil suspension and another with air suspension. The ride in the former feels mediocre, communicating bumps and roughness in the road similar to much less expensive cars, but an example with the air suspension makes a huge difference, bringing the LS 500 closer to the ride quality of the benchmark Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
As the LS 500 includes Sport and Sport Plus modes, I hit the twisty bits with enthusiasm, but quickly realize the car's weight and understeer inhibit any real performance. Likewise, it's too slow to downshift for engaging throttle response. Unless Lexus can make the LS substantially lighter, it probably shouldn't waste too much time tuning for sport performance.
The LS 500h shows off all the style of its gasoline-only sibling, but uses a much more energy-efficient drivetrain. Although using the same 3.5-liter V6 with combination direct and port injection, it drops the twin turbochargers in favor of its complementary electric drive system, making for a total output of 354 horsepower.
Given the LS sedan's luxury mission, I don't mind the reduced horsepower in the LS 500h. It feels virtually the same in normal driving. Borrowing a trick from the performance-oriented LC 500h, the hybrid LS uses a unique transmission that combines four fixed gears with a planetary gearset, the latter piece common to all Toyota and Lexus hybrids from the first Prius. The addition of the four gears may account for the satisfying acceleration feel.
Between the LS 500 and LS 500h there is a half-second gap in zero to 60 mph acceleration, 4.6 versus 5.1 seconds. And the LS 500h pulls in fuel economy of 25 mpg city and 33 mpg highway, an average of 5 mpg better than the LS 500's 19 mpg city and 29 mpg highway. Shave off a gallon or two for all-wheel-drive versions of either model.
What really stands out for me in the LS is the view through the windshield, when equipped with the optional head-up display (HUD). I've come to love HUDs in cars, as you always have the most important info in view in a format that doesn't distract. The LS gets the best HUD I've seen yet, at 24 inches wide and 6 inches high, this full color display appears to hang in the air just above the hood. It shows the car's speed, the speed limit, tachometer, route guidance and adaptive cruise control information.
Lexus' HUD is a real triumph that other automakers will need to emulate.
One area where Lexus lagged behind the competition was in advanced driver assistance features, but the new LS catches up nicely. I set adaptive cruise control and lane departure, and was able to keep a very light touch on the wheel as the LS kept pace with slower traffic ahead and twisted the wheel to maintain lane position. My limited drive time didn't let me try it out at really slow speeds, but Lexus insists it works at all speeds.
The LS' infotainment system, showing on a wide LCD in the center dash, basically carries over from other recent Lexus models. It includes navigation, digital audio, hands-free phone system and a number of integrated third party apps, such as Yelp, Pandora and NPR One. The car includes a built-in data connection to power its online features, which include cloud support for better route calculation.
As with other recent Lexus models, the LS relies on a touchpad on the console, which let me move a cursor on screen to select menu items. I find this system better than the joystick controller of the Lexus RX, but it's still easy to miss hitting a menu or icon.
To cap off my day with the LS 500 and LS 500h, I get to ride in a car equipped with the rear seat executive package. Tapping on a center touchscreen, I recline my seat and fire up a relaxing massage. If all my trips were this comfortable, I wouldn't mind letting someone else do the driving.
The Lexus LS 500 and LS 500h will become available February, 2018.
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