First Drive: All-new 2018 Lexus LS aims to surprise and delight a new generation of premium luxury buyers

Lexus is introducing an all-new generation of its range-topping LS sedan. It’s a car that steadfastly embodies the virtues that got the brand where it is today, with a sumptuous, roomy and quiet cabin, ample power and great reliability. But in the stratosphere of premium luxury where ownership or lease terms seldom outlive the factory warranty, long-term dependability may not be quite as important as having the latest style and tech. According to Brian Bolain, General Manager of Lexus marketing, research shows that luxury buyers are looking for something different. LS Chief Engineer Toshio Asahi adds, “We wouldn’t turn their heads with a conventional premium product.”

First Drive: All-new 2018 Lexus LS aims to surprise and delight a new generation of premium luxury buyers

With a larger-than-life spindle-shaped grille and a coupe-like profile, the 2018 Lexus LS500 embraces “brave design.”

(Ron Sessions)

One head turner is the latest rendition of the Lexus spindle grille. Seemingly growing larger with each new Lexus model the LS’s gaping embouchement will not be ignored, now with an eye-catching computer-generated hatch work of 5000 individual facets, according to Lexus. Yet the larger-than-life grille just looks more simpatico on the LS than perhaps any other current-model Lexus save the gorgeous new LC coupe. On the new LS, the top corners of the spindle cascade along the hood and fender lines and down the sides of the car in a seamless organic sweep. The Big Spindle appears to be an integral part of the design, not just tacked on for effect.

First Drive: All-new 2018 Lexus LS aims to surprise and delight a new generation of premium luxury buyers

With big 19- or 20-in tires stuffing the wheel wells, a low-slung hood and fast roofline, the 2018 Lexus LS is strikingly sleek.

(Ron Sessions)

In profile, the 2018 Lexus LS is longer and lower with a body that looks to have been shrink-wrapped over a slightly bulging musculature, drawn in at the waist and thrusting out a bit over the wheel wells. It’s not unlike a larger, updated version of the midsize GS or entry-luxury IS sedans—the family resemblance is obvious and no doubt intentional. The look is certainly more athletic than past-generation LS models. Despite the fast, head-turning coupe-like roofline, the rear door opening is no head-banger—the aim was to keep decent ingress and egress to and from the aft compartment.

The 2018 LS shares GA-L global luxury platform bones with the new LC coupe. There’s just one wheelbase now, the long one. Last year’s short-wheelbase LS version is dropped. At 123 inches between wheel centers, the new LS slips in between the slightly shorter Cadillac CT6 and incrementally longer Mercedes-Benz S-Class. In profile, the LS’s front wheels are pushed forward for a classic long dash-to-front-axle perspective and the rears moved back for better rear seat legroom—a gain of 2.2 inches for aft patrons.

And the new LS just looks more ground-hugging thanks to a hood that’s 1.2 inches lower, a deck that’s slammed 1.6 inches and a roof that’s 0.6 inch lower. Overall, the new LS stretches 1 inch longer overall than last year’s long-wheelbase LS460L. In the Lexus hierarchy, the new LS is about a foot longer now than the midsize GS, and most of that space is lavished on the flagship’s interior.

First Drive: All-new 2018 Lexus LS aims to surprise and delight a new generation of premium luxury buyers

The new LS mixes high-quality materials, artistic touches and the latest technology, including standard 4G LTE in-car Wi-Fi and an optional 24-inch wide head-up display. No Apple CarPlay or Android Auto just yet, however.

(Ron Sessions)

Lexus has been producing sumptuous, artfully crafted interiors for most of its existence but the luxury carmaker, perhaps feeling the heat from upstarts such as Tesla, really turned up the wick for the 2018 LS. Open a door and there’s a lot to catch the eye. The instrument panel is an artful mix of digital and analog elements (including a standard 12.3-inch wide center display) draped across a rich expanse of asymmetrical horizontal lines that sweep into the doors.

All major surfaces are soft-touch and primary contact points such as the sides of the console and door armrests are generously padded. The armrests, which Lexus says were inspired by its favorite armchairs, are backlit with small LEDs reminiscent of theater-aisle lighting and appear to be free standing from the doors. Soft overhead lighting is suggestive of Japanese Andon lamps. Available interior upgrades include door trim with handmade origami-like cloth pleats, and interior trim-panel pieces fashioned from hand-cut herringbone-pattern wood or intricate laser-cut and polished Kiriko glass. All in all, there are 11 interior color choices and nine cabin trim variations to choose from.

Nestle into one of the highly supportive and all-day comfortable multi-adjustable front buckets and you may notice that you are sitting lower to the ground than in the previous model. It imparts a lower center-of-gravity feel that’s central to the new LS’s improved over-the-road dynamic control. What’s that, you are not as limber as you once were? A new access mode (available with the optional air suspension) raises the car 30mm (about 1.2 inch) for ingress and 10mm (0.4 inch) for egress. How it knows whether you are getting in or getting out when you open a door is fascinating.

First Drive: All-new 2018 Lexus LS aims to surprise and delight a new generation of premium luxury buyers

These days it’s more about the software than hardware. But nestled under this unassuming cover is a 416-horsepower twin-turbo V6 and 10-speed automatic drivetrain that offers bristling performance.

(Ron Sessions)

The 2018 model is the first iteration of the Lexus LS to feature V6 power and turbocharging. Under the long hood is an all-new long-stroke 416-horsepower twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter DOHC V6. It shares nothing with the 3.5-liter V6 Lexus has used for years in other models. There’s a lot of new technology here: dual VVTi intelligent variable valve timing, electronic wastegates, high-flow laser-clad intake valve seats, D-4ST direct fuel injection combined with port fuel injection, and so on. But aside from the 30-horsepower boost over last year’s 4.6-liter V8, what you need to know is the new twin-turbo V6 tops the V8 with another 75 lb.-ft. of torque that’s on tap over a broad midrange of engine operation from just-above-idle 1600 rpm to a hearty 4800 rpm.

On rear-wheel-drive versions, 0-to-60 mph improves to a crisp 4.6 seconds, according to Lexus, about a second and a half spritelier than the 2017 LS’s performance. But even more impressive is the enhanced response. Turbo lag is practically nil and midrange part-throttle tip-in delivers satisfying thrust that minimizes the need to select a lower gear for acceleration. A high-flow exhaust adds a touch of character. Active noise control working through the car’s audio speakers takes care of the unwanted noises such as low-frequency booming when cruising along at low rpm.

Augmenting the turbo V6 is a new wide-ratio 10-speed automatic with a lower first gear for quicker acceleration from rest and taller top gears for relaxed cruising and improved highway fuel economy. Lexus calls it a Direct Shift transmission, but it uses a torque converter and planetary gears and is not a dual-clutch automatic as found in many European competitors. Standard steering-wheel paddle shifters enable manual shift control, but except for really aggressive back-road blasts or steep mountain downgrades, the 10-speed automatic’s programming predicts what gear you’ll need for a given situation so well that you can concentrate on steering, accelerating and braking. The quick-shifting gearbox is shared with the LC500 coupe.

EPA estimates for the rear-drive LS500 are 19 mpg city/29 mpg highway/23 mpg combined. Over roughly 60 miles of driving a RWD LS in congested downtown San Francisco traffic, busy freeways and some interesting twisty canyon roads, I managed 20 mpg.

Available all-wheel drive makes the LS usable year-round for snow-country denizens. It features a Torsen limited-slip differential that can send as much as 48 percent of the drive torque to the front wheels. On dry roads, it typically sends up to 69 percent of the power to the rear wheels. AWD EPA estimates drop to 18 mpg city/27 mpg highway/21 mpg combined.

First Drive: All-new 2018 Lexus LS aims to surprise and delight a new generation of premium luxury buyers

A flagship wouldn’t be a flagship without an executive-worthy rear seat. This optional package adds a pair of heated, reclining and massaging rear chairs, the right one with a built-in ottoman.

(Ron Sessions)

As the new LS is a member of the Toyota family, of course there’s a hybrid version. My time driving the hybrid was limited but long enough to ascertain that it’s no slacker. Combined output of the 295-horsepower, naturally-aspirated 3.5-liter V6 (a completely different engine than the new 3.5-liter turbo) and two electric drive motors is 354 horsepower. Rear-drive models get a 25 mpg city/33 mpg highway/28 mpg combined EPA label with a 600-mile range, while AWD hybrids are rated at 23 mpg city/31 mpg highway/26 mpg combined, and 60 mph arrives in 5.1 seconds. That compares to 19 mpg city/23 mpg highway/20 mpg combined and 5.5 seconds to 60 in last year’s AWD-only V8-powered LS600h.

The 2018 LS500h Hybrid is now a multi-stage design with power flow working through a continuously variable transmission combined with a 4-speed planetary automatic. The result is a more natural step-shift feel and no real “rubber band” sensation. And because the 2018 LS hybrid uses a more compact lithium-ion battery, it offers considerably more trunk space than last year’s LS600h hybrid with its nickel-metal hydride unit. A plug-in hybrid is not available yet inasmuch as Toyota feels the charging infrastructure remains insufficient at this time.

First Drive: All-new 2018 Lexus LS aims to surprise and delight a new generation of premium luxury buyers

Lexus expects about 30-35 percent of LS sales will be of all-wheel-drive models.

(Ron Sessions)

The 2018 LS’s sleek new body is now stiffer. There’s greatly increased use of high-strength steel, extensive application of structural adhesives—something Toyota was late to adopt—laser screw welding for increased panel joint rigidity and cast-aluminum strut towers at both front and rear. Steering accuracy is improved courtesy of double ball-jointed upper and lower control arms in the front suspension. Toe-control links in the rear add lateral stiffness for greater linearity in response to steering input. Active rear steering aids low- and mid-speed steering response while enhancing high-speed stability.

Standard on the new LS is an adaptive variable suspension featuring active damping linear solenoid actuators with 650 different settings to respond to inputs from G-force, yaw-rate and vehicle speed sensors, compared to just 9 for previous system. This results in greatly improved body control, over bumpy sections of road, in sharp turns, over swells and sharp dips—the LS keeps its cool demeanor. Impact harshness, even over rough pavement, is premium-luxury worthy despite exclusive use of run-flat tires on 19- or 20-inch alloy wheels. All but one wheel design has a hollow-chamber rim section to absorb road noise.

There’s also an F Sport version of the LS offering enhanced handling and interior upgrades including sport seats. An optional active stabilizer bar system minimizes body roll in corners without the head toss usually associated with stiff bars. Summer tires are available and the F Sport comes with larger front and rear brake rotors and calipers as well. In an afternoon of driving an F Sport on twisty Northern California roads, the only faux pas was some brake squeal on initial pedal application due to glazed pads.

Just as with the LC500 sport coupe, the LS offers six drive modes accessed via the stubby handlebar-like knob sprouting out of the top right side of the gauge binnacle. In a nutshell, Eco slows throttle response and trims a/c compressor output, Comfort delivers more of a boulevard-worthy ride, Sport quickens throttle response and opens up a bit more engine “voice” and Sport+ does everything Sport does plus sharpens steering response and firms up the suspension. Custom lets you tailor all the above to individual taste. Normal keeps the factory presets.

As you’d expect of a luxury flagship, the new LS comes with a full array of airbags and the standard Lexus Safety System Plus includes dynamic cruise control, a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection and emergency braking, lane-departure alert and lane-keeping. A new Advanced Package moves the LS further into the semi-autonomous realm with stereo front cameras and side-scanning radar. A front cross-traffic feature can scan up to 164 feet in either direction to help eliminate collisions at intersections.

Lexus CoDrive has a Lane Trace Assist feature that can “trace” cars driving ahead and even follow mild curves in the road when white or yellow lines are not present. New active steering with object avoidance will attempt to steer around a collision with a pedestrian if the car can’t be braked in time, but only if it can stay within the lane. In all cases, the driver can still override active steering inputs—the LS’s are not as strong or annoying as those in some European makes.

With the new fifth-generation LS, Lexus is showing that it’s not enough for the flagship to be powerful, roomy, quiet, luxurious and dead-nuts reliable. It needs to inspire, excite and motivate buyers who now have the means to surround themselves with inspiring, exciting and motivational things that align with their view of a changing world. As of the writing of this review, the 2018 LS base price has not been announced but Lexus expects to bring the Japan-produced flagship in at around $75,000. Fully optioned examples with all the bells and whistles are anticipated to approach $100K. Sales start February 2018.

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