2019 Lexus LS 500h AWD review: Full-size hybrid offers luxury with tradeoffs
Fun fact: The Lexus LS was the first full-size luxury sedan to offer a hybrid drivetrain when the 600h L model launched more than a decade ago. Fast forward to today and the field has grown a bit; the LS 500h now competes with plug-in hybrids like the BMW 745e and upcoming Mercedes-Benz S560e. But unlike the plug-in hybrid Germans, Lexus attempts to win people over with a multistage hybrid drivetrain, not to mention sleek exterior styling and an absolutely gorgeous interior. The result is a car that easily stands toe-to-toe with its German rivals, but still has a few notable flaws.
Standout styling inside and out
The 2019 LS wears a distinctive yet polarizing exterior. The majority of the front is occupied by the automaker's spindle grille that I've actually warmed up to in recent years. Around back there's no shortage of creases that, combined with flowing body sides, give the LS plenty of visual pizazz.
Open the driver's door and you'll discover the best attribute of the LS: the cabin. The layout is attractive and fresh with a flowing dash and floating-look of the armrests on the doors. The overall craftsmanship is exceptional, and you'll find really nice materials like super-soft stitched leather covering the seats and dash panels, and ultra suede fabric on large swaths of the door panels and headliner.
Front and rear passengers won't complain about space, as the LS offers oodles of room for all occupants. There's no lack of creature comforts, either, with heated and cooled front seats, and heated rear outboard perches that'll surely come in handy in the dead of winter. As spacious and luxurious as the back row is, the best seat in the house is the driver's, which is equipped with a massage feature that I gleefully fire up every time I climb aboard.
Unfortunately, the worst part of the LS is also found inside the cabin. The Lexus Enform infotainment system with its dreaded Remote Touch controller is still its lousy, cumbersome self. Since the 12.3-inch center display isn't a touchscreen, controls primarily fall to the center console pad. It's very distracting to use when rolling down the road -- you constantly have to make minor adjustments to select the right icon. At least the screen is high-res and bright.
Thankfully, the Lexus multimedia suite packs a hearty helping of features, including an embedded navigation system, satellite radio and a Wi-Fi hotspot. For 2019, Amazon Alexa integration and Apple CarPlay are added to its capabilities list, but Android Auto disappointingly is still absent. For tunes, a 12-speaker unit comes standard on all LS 500h models, while my test car is outfitted with an available 23-speaker Mark Levinson setup that simply sounds fantastic.
Like any good premium luxury sedan, the active safety technology lineup is sizeable, with adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, lane-tracing assist, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, road sign assist, and auto high beams coming equipped on every hybrid LS. Customers can also add forward collision warning with automatic braking, pedestrian detection, front cross-traffic alert, a massive 24-inch head-up display and lane-change assist as options.
Hybrid heart for a cushy ride
The LS' hybrid drivetrain pairs a 3.5-liter Atkinson cycle V6 engine with two electric motors, for a net system output of 354 horsepower. Rear-wheel drive is standard, but my tester is equipped with all-wheel drive, which tacks on an additional $3,220 to the bottom line. Lexus says the 5,100-pound sedan can accelerate to 60 mph in 5.2 seconds, which makes it a smidge slower than the BMW 745e, which does the same sprint in 4.9 seconds.
If you feather the throttle, an EV mode is capable of getting the electrified LS moving around at slower speeds without using gasoline. But the minute you dig into the right pedal, the V6 wakes up, and delivers a seamless rush of power.
But it's not all great. The gearbox is a continuously variable transmission mashed together with a four-speed automatic that, together, do their best to simulate a 10-speed gearbox. With the LS in Normal mode, throttle response is sluggish and gear swaps are slow, the transmission often having a hard time deciding what to do. Things do get better in Sport and Sport Plus modes, with slightly more decisive shifts. Still, you can tell that there's a lot going on underneath the hood with these oddly timed, laggy gear changes. The 745e that I recently tested uses a conventional automatic gearbox, and felt noticeably better by comparison.
Fuel economy, of course, is the benefit for dealing with LS hybrid's wonkier drivetrain. A normal gas LS with all-wheel drive returns an EPA-estimated 18 miles per gallon in the city and 31 mpg on the highway. The hybrid does a little bit better, with 23 mpg city and 31 mpg highway ratings.
When equipped with the available air suspension, the LS swallows up almost all bump you'll encounter. The steering is light, but responsive enough, and the well-tuned, regenerative brakes aren't overly grabby or squishy, providing a smooth and relaxed driving experience.
Sport and Sport Plus settings tighten up the chassis some, but performance is still far from enthralling. There's a lot of body roll and overall, the LS' reflexes aren't all that great. Of course, a sporty driving experience probably isn't at the top of the wish list for most LS hybrid buyers. On the other hand, comfort likely is, and this Lexus definitely delivers that in spades.
A greener luxury sedan
An all-wheel drive LS 500h starts at $83,180, not including $1,025 for destination. For maximum ride comfort, the $1,500 air suspension is a must-have, as is the $3,730 Interior Upgrade Package for the 23-way power massaging driver's seat. And to spoil my ears, I'll throw in the $1,940 Mark Levinson audio setup. All in, a nicely spec'd LS 500h comes in at $91,375, which undercuts the $97,645 car pictured here.
What would I do if I was in the market for a big, plush sedan with a hybrid powertrain? If I had the means, I would go with the BMW 745e, which begins at $95,000. It isn't quite as comfortable or well-trimmed as the Lexus, but the smoother drivetrain and more composed handling win me over.
Lexus may have been first to the game with the original LS hybrid, but until its wonky transmission and bad infotainment interface get an upgrade, it's no longer the leader of the pack.