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2019 Lexus LS Pros and Cons: Why (Not) This Car?

Lexus LS 500h front angle
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Introduction

I recently spent a week in the latest Lexus LS for two reasons.

First, my father once owned both a 1991 and a 2009. Although he now drives a Tesla Model S, he sometimes misses the greater refinement of those large Lexus sedans. He helped me cover the 2017 Detroit auto show, where the latest LS was introduced. His initial impression was very positive. What would he think of the car in the real world?

Second, I recently reviewed the latest Lexus ES. This car, $54,450 in loaded F Sport trim, has evolved from a tarted-up Camry to a fully credible luxury sport sedan. Given that the new ES is smooth, roomy, and even fun-to-drive, what does the flagship LS offer to justify pricing that starts above $76,000 and tops out around $120,000?

I also briefly drove the primary competitor of the Lexus LS, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, to see how it compares.

LS Reviews: Lexus LS 500h front angle

So many curves to work with--I greatly enjoyed photographing the new Lexus LS. more LS photos

LS Reviews: Lexus LS 500h interior

Also a lot going on inside the new Lexus LS.

Tested: 2019 Lexus LS

4dr Sedan, ext. 295-horsepower 3.5L V6 Hybrid 10-speed shiftable 2-mode automatic AWD

Compared: 2019 Mercedes-Benz S-Class

4dr Sedan, ext. turbocharged 463hp 4.0L V8 9-speed shiftable automatic AWD

Why the 2019 Lexus LS?

  Compared to the S-Class
Reliability & durability
Reliability & durability: Much better Better Worse

One thing has remained constant since the Lexus LS was introduced as a 1990 model: many people buy an LS rather than a European competitor because they rightfully expect the Lexus to be more reliable, especially once the warranty has expired. No other large luxury sedan has earned a reputation for lasting hundreds of thousands of miles with relatively few problems.


Front seat support & comfort
Front seat support & comfort: Better Better Worse

The original Lexus LS showed the world how quiet and smooth-riding a luxury sedan could be. As long as you avoid the F Sport variant, the fifth-generation LS remains among the quietest, smoothest-riding cars you can buy. But the far less expensive ES is nearly as smooth and as quiet; as are many other current sedans, including some from Hyundai and Kia.

So what sets the latest Lexus LS apart and justifies its lofty price? Perhaps most of all, its seats. I imagine even the 16-way adjustable heated-and-ventilated front seats in an unoptioned $76,475 LS (add $3,220 for AWD and/or $4,510 for the hybrid) are quite comfortable on long drives and properly supportive if the road gets twisty.

But it's hard to imagine anyone getting this car and not opting for at least the Interior Upgrade Package, which with additional options it requires bumps the bottom line to $82,615. This package upgrades the upholstery to quilted, soft semi-aniline leather, upgrades the headliner to synthetic suede, adds heat to the rear seat, and increases the number of driver-seat adjustments to 28. Perhaps most importantly, this package adds a highly customizable shiatsu-like massage feature to the driver seat that's capable of providing the most vigorous rubdown I've ever experienced at 70 mph. My sister judged it "better than the chairs at the salon."

But supreme comfort on long drives need not be restricted to the driver. Opt for the Luxury Package, which bumps the price of a rear-drive LS 500 (no h) to $93,475, and the front passenger gets the same 28-way massage seat as the driver, while the rear passengers get heated-and-ventilated 18-way adjustable seats and their own climate controls.

Desire massage for the rear seat passengers? Then add another $8,000 for the Executive Package, which also includes a recliner with legrest for the right rear spot and "butterfly" headrests for all four outboard seats. As much as the LS isn't personally my sort of car, there's something to be said for cruising mile after mile while the driver and three passengers receive thorough massages from exceptionally comfortable climate-controlled seats. My elderly parents, with many aches and pains between them, loved these seats.

Weaknesses? Even though the new LS is offered in only one length, and is longer than the extended wheelbase version of the previous LS, it does not offer as much rear legroom as the Mercedes-Benz S-Class or BMW 7 Series. The fancy executive recliner can only be used if no one is in the front passenger seat, as the latter must be compacted against the instrument panel. Blame the new car's racier "coupe-like" styling and proportions. (The new LS shares its underpinnings with the LC coupe.)


LS Reviews: Lexus LS 500h rear quarter view

A lot going on. And nearly all of it works.

LS Reviews: Lexus LS 500h instrument panel

Customizable instruments are red in sport model. Awful infotainment interface.

Materials & workmanship
Materials & workmanship: Better Better Worse

With the fifth-generation LS, Lexus has clearly sought to leave any lingering associations with Toyota well behind. Especially in an well-optioned car the interior materials are clearly a few cuts above those in the ES and rival those in a designo S-Class. Options include 11 different interior color schemes and nine different interior trim options. The latter include herringbone and "Laser Special art wood" trims.

These trim options also include the Kiriko Glass trim fitted to the tested LS. This precisely cut and polished glass plus hand-pleated door inserts add another $6,000 to a car with the Executive Package--which they require. With all of the boxes checked, the tested LS 500h AWD listed for $119,210. But do not despair--you can probably save at least $6,000. Nearly everyone who sat in the car felt that the glass and the pleats were over-the-top, and not in a good way. They were too much, and work at cross-purposes with the otherwise relaxing interior. They made my father long for the simpler interior styling of the previous-generations he owned.


Exterior styling
Exterior styling: Much better Better Worse

For its first four generations the Lexus LS resembled the Mercedes S-Class. With the fifth iteration, though, they've finally struck out in their own direction. While Lexus's designers probably should have exercised a tad more restraint--the "spindle" grille in particular remains controversial--the dramatic curves they crafted make a distinctive statement worthy of the car's price. The less expensive ES isn't in the same ballpark here. It doesn't have nearly as much presence.


Quietness
Quietness: About the same Better Worse

When cruising, the Lexus LS is among the quietest cars you can buy.

I say "when cruising" because when accelerating either engine (the turbocharged conventional V6 or the hybrid V6) evokes more oddly synthetic noises than many luxury sedan buyers will desire. The hybrid engine in particular sounds odd. Call for it to really move the car, and it will, but with much noise to communicate how hard it is working. The powertrain of a top-of-the-line sedan should sound and feel more relaxed.


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Why Not the 2019 Lexus LS?

  Compared to the S-Class
Controls and instruments
Controls and instruments: Much worse Better Worse

As in other Lexus models for the past generation or two, the touchpad-based controls for the infotainment and HVAC remain far too complex and frustratingly difficult to operate. Nearly everyone who has to deal with these controls hates them.


Handling
Handling: Much worse Better Worse

Even compared to the equally large and heavy Mercedes-Benz S-Class, the Lexus LS feels unwieldy. Its steering and suspension can be set to Comfort, Normal, Sport S, or Sport S-Plus. In Comfort the LS floats and wallows far too much. In Normal it does so only now and then. Body motions are better-controlled in the sport modes, at the expensive of a bumpier ride. There is no mode in which the ride quality is neither floaty or bumpy.

The steering and suspension modes cannot be set separately. If you want (relatively) firm steering, you'll have to endure a bumpy ride.

I briefly dove the non-hybrid in F Sport trim about a year ago, and it felt even less cohesive and less polished. In Comfort mode the F Sport seemed to shudder and shimmy. In Sport mode it felt far bumpier than an LS ought to be. My notes concluded with "firmly suspended boat."

And no matter which model or which mode, the LS never stops feeling bulky. The big sedan will faithfully go where you point it--it has some skills--but when hustled it never feels in its element the way an S-Class or 7 Series does. Not only that, but I found the much less expensive Lexus ES a more thoroughly pleasant car to drive, with ride and handling that rarely calls attention to itself.


LS Reviews: Lexus LS 500h front view

Large spindle grille arguably works here. Also arguably does not.

LS Reviews: Lexus LS 500h rear recliner

Best seat in the house.

Cargo capacity
Cargo capacity: Worse Better Worse

A basic Lexus LS has a 17 cubic-foot trunk. Opting for the hybrid reduces the cubes to 15, at which point my mother's Rollator was a tight squeeze. A car of this sort should have a larger trunk, especially if it might be shuttling people to and from airports.


Other features of the 2019 Lexus LS

  Compared to the S-Class
Powertrain performance
Powertrain performance: Much worse Better Worse

Even in hybrid form the new Lexus LS can get from zero to 60 mph in just five seconds and change if you need it to. But especially in hybrid form the 3.5-liter V6 engine (295 horsepower alone, 354 horsepower with the electric motors) sounds out of place in a large, ultra-luxurious sedan. In the new LS, Lexus has augmented the planetary-gearset CVT at the core of Toyota's hybrid system with a four-speed transmission to minimize performance, efficiency, and driveability compromises inherent in the CVT. These compromises are most minimized in relatively casual driving. Push the hybrid and the non-linear, frenetic thrust-and-noise production typical of Toyota's hybrids re-emerges.

My father much prefers the nearly silent, ultra-smooth acceleration in his Tesla.

The non-hybrid LS 500 pairs a 416-horsepower turbocharged 3.4-liter V6 with a ten-speed automatic. This powertrain accelerates the sedan more vigorously--with a zero-to-sixty int he mid-fours--and sounds less strained in the process. But the synthetic throaty engine noises Lexus has seen fit to pipe into the cabin (in the F Sport, anyway) sound overly synthetic. They're the song of trying too hard to eliminate an undesired reputation for boring cars.

If you do happen to want mind-blowing acceleration in an XL sedan, Lexus offers nothing like the Mercedes-AMG S63 or the BMW M760i. With a 601-horsepower turbocharged V12 and a well-tuned suspension, the latter remains the most fun large sedan I've driven. Unlike the Lexus LS, the BMW feels much smaller and lighter than it actually is when driven con brio. But it also starts near $160,000, and ascends from there with options.


Fuel economy
Fuel economy: Better Better Worse

In most of my suburban driving the LS 500h AWD barely managed to crack 20 mpg. It only occasionally attained its EPA city rating of 23 mpg (25 mpg with RWD). In steady cruising at 70 mph the car nearly managed 38 mpg. But throw acceleration and deceleration into the mix and highway mpg ended up around the EPA highway rating of 31 (33 with RWD).

The non-hybrid Lexus LS 500 manages 19/30 with RWD and 18/27 with AWD. A Mercedes-Benz S450 similarly achieves 19/28 with RWD and 18/28 with AWD in the EPA tests.

Comparing the AWD cars, the hybrid uses 22 percent less fuel in the city and 10 percent less fuel on the highway. While you won't find another large gasoline-powered luxury sedan with EPA ratings as high, are these differences large enough to compensate for the hybrid's performance shortcomings?

Good luck convincing a Tesla owner like my father that the LS 500h is a credible alternative to an EV from a fuel efficiency standpoint.


Price or payments
Price or payments: Better Better Worse

It's hard to justify the high prices of any of the flagship sedans compared to those one rung lower, and the LS is no exception. With an ES you get a car that's near as good in most ways and better in a few for about $30,000 less. The market realizes this, and flagship sedan sales are a fraction of what they used to be.

That said, if a flagship sedan is what you desire, the LS is priced above the Koreans but below the Germans.


Conclusion

Large luxury sedan sales have collapsed, and it's not hard to see why. People seeking the largest and heaviest vehicle they can buy now buy SUVs. And those who want a smooth, quiet, and roomy sedan often find that a midsize model like the Lexus ES is more than good enough.

But there remain some things the LS flagship does better than the ES. It has far more presence on the road or pulled up to a curb. In its fifth generation the LS finally has distinctive styling. The newfound drama continues inside. With some trim options it can even be a bit much. But your eyes won't question where all the money went. Materials are clearly a few cuts above those in the ES. Beyond aesthetics, the optional massage seats provide the most comfort I've experienced in a car. I cannot imagine a better place to spend a full day on the Interstate.

Even in hybrid form, though, the new LS isn't nearly efficient enough to win back EV converts like my father. I'd personally skip the hybrid, as the regular LS performs much better while being reasonably efficient. Handling isn't a forte of any LS, not even the F Sport. If you want a huge sedan that doesn't feel huge, you want a Mercedes-AMG or a BMW M-tuned 7 Series. The Germans also have easier-to-operate infotainment interfaces.

Yet some people would prefer the Lexus LS over the Germans even if it wasn't so stylish or comfortable. After three decadees it remains the large luxury sedan to buy if long-term reliability is a priority.

LS Reviews: Lexus LS 500h engine

The hybrid engine, though innovative, delivers neither effortless performance nor outstanding mpg.

LS Reviews: Lexus LS 500h trunk

A tight trunk for such a large car.

See more 2019 Lexus LS photos

Lexus provided insured cars with full tanks of gas. Gil Lee at EuroMotorcars in Germantown, MD, briefly provided a Mercedes S-Class for a comparison drive.

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2019 Lexus LS pros and cons, according to Michael Karesh: the best reasons for buying (or not buying) the 2019 Lexus LS. Join TrueDelta to post your own impressions.
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