2018 Lexus LS 500 first drive: an ambitious remake

September 26, 2017

Cars get heart transplants all the time, but whole brands? It doesn't happen very often.

When Lexus launched with its LS sedan in the 1990 model year, its success hinged on the flawless replication of the Mercedes model. That first sedan was an homage to Benz titans like the W123, and it was a resounding hit. Its clinical competence shone especially brightly with a $36,000 price tag and a sales and service experience better than any other.

MORE: Read our 2018 Lexus LS review

Since then, it’s been the RX crossover SUV that’s given the Lexus brand life. Across the board, sedan sales have slumped while SUVs have gobbled up high-end buyers.

The 2018 Lexus LS 500 and LS 500h bows with a mission: to hang to as many of the 78,000 prestige sedan buyers in the market every year as possible. Lexus thinks the way to do that is to embrace its own heritage with a car that drops the Euro party manners and ventures deeply into expressive design.

2018 Lexus LS 500h Executive Package (Lexus LS Hybrid)

2018 Lexus LS 500h Executive Package (Lexus LS Hybrid)

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2018 Lexus LS 500h Executive Package (Lexus LS Hybrid)

2018 Lexus LS 500h Executive Package (Lexus LS Hybrid)

Enlarge Photo
2018 Lexus LS 500h Executive Package (Lexus LS Hybrid)

2018 Lexus LS 500h Executive Package (Lexus LS Hybrid)

Enlarge Photo
2018 Lexus LS 500h Executive Package (Lexus LS Hybrid)

2018 Lexus LS 500h Executive Package (Lexus LS Hybrid)

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Louboutins on the brain

With the new LS, Lexus has drafted some of the daring cues it applied to its new 2018 LC 500 coupes, but modesty is still a keyword. A huge hourglass-shaped grille fills nearly all the space in front, and Z-shaped headlights bracket it with LED flair. Teardrop-shaped side glass lifts at the rear to disguise a tall roofline, and LED taillights cap the rear end. It’s a compelling look, if not purely beautiful.

The same holds true for the cabin, with its biometric lines, the smoky-eye stitching on the door panels, the purposefully imbalanced shapes. Lexus dazzles with some trim; the red-and-black leather option grabs our eyes like the most stylish stilettos. Other choices are more region-specific, which is to say the pleated cloth and cut glass trim might be the epitome of luxury in one place, a prom-night flashback in another.

2018 Lexus LS 500 F Sport

2018 Lexus LS 500 F Sport

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Closing the performance gap

With the 2018 LS, Lexus brings the hybrid back to the flagship sedan (it had skipped the 2017 model year). It also has narrowed the performance gap between the gas-electric and gas-only versions.

Gas-powered LS 500 sedans sport a new twin-turbo 3.5-liter V-6 with more low-end power and a wider powerband. Output totals 416 horsepower and 442 pound-feet of torque, good for a 4.6-second 0-60 mph time and a top speed of 136 mph. Hybrids pair an older, non-turbo V-6 with motors and lithium-ion batteries for 354 hp, and a 0-60 mph time of 5.1 seconds.

Fuel economy rises to as much as 33 mpg highway on hybrid models.

Both engines offer a 10-speed automatic transmission. While gas-powered cars have a straightforward set of gears, hybrids combine a 4-speed automatic with a 3-stage electric motor to simulate 10 forward speeds, all available through shift paddles, just like the gas-powered car.

As of yet, Lexus doesn’t field a true rival to cars with AMG or M initials, but it has closed some of the performance gap with F Sport trim. Some, not all: the LS, even with adaptive shocks and air springs and rear-wheel steering and active sway bars, still puts its weight into comfort. Even in Sport driving modes, the LS 500 F Sport has a loping, cushy ride on unchallenging roads. The screws tighten along with the curves, and the LS grows more assertive and firm in its responses–but its variable-gear steering and run-flat tires don’t deliver the kind of feedback found in more engaging rivals.

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