Quick Take: 2018 Lexus LS 500h
A good design effort hobbled by a questionable powertrain
As a former owner of a 2001 Lexus LS 430, I was excited to drive the Japanese luxury marque's latest—and presumably greatest—offering, the 2018 Lexus LS 500h. At face value, the hybrid version of the fifth-generation luxury sedan sounds pretty tasty—its hard not to like the idea of a 354-hp powertrain good for a 0-60 mph time of 5.1 seconds that achieves a combined 26 mpg. Sure, Lexus' current spindle grille design language leaves something to be desired aesthetically, but it's executed well on the large sedan, and the biggest styling complaint I can muster is that the whole thing is a bit busy—especially compared to that slabby '01 LS that briefly served as my daily driver while I pushed electronic paper around at a law firm.
The cabin is a pretty nice place to be, too—even if you're among those who don't like the touchpad infotainment interface. I think it works pretty well once you get used to it, at least while stopped, but it takes away too much attention while in motion. More problematic is the menu organization, with often-accessed functions like turning the AC on or off without also turning off the fan hidden multiple taps away. The graphics could use an upgrade as well, and the lack of Apple Car Play is annoying, but the 2,400-watt Mark Levinson reference audio system and its 23 speakers earn the $1,940 premium. My only other gripe with the interior is directed at the LFA-inspired above-dash knobs and gauge cluster. These work in the RC and LC, and would fit well in an LS F, but here, the supercar-sourced details feel decidedly out of place.
Not out of place, however, is the Parchment/art wood choice of upholstery on our tester, which adds to the air of fanciness. Though the trim adds $800 to the bottom line, it's a worthwhile upgrade for the finely crafted cabin. Another option that's worth the money is the $3,730 interior upgrade package. That hefty sum grants a massaging driver's seat, heated rear seats, semi-aniline leather upholstery (perforated, too) and leather-trimmed door armrests, and an Ultrasuede headliner. Our tester also had the $410 heated steering wheel and $800 panoramic view monitor system as well as the $1,500 air suspension.
All these options push the price of the LS 500h from just above $80,000 to just under $90,000, but keep in mind that $90,000 is where the Mercedes-Benz S-Class starts
On the road, the new hybrid LS does a good job of isolating the occupants from noise and bumps. Though it's not as cushy a cruiser as the LS of years past, it's good enough to not be a buzzkill for anyone in the segment. What is a buzzkill, however, is the poorly configured hybrid system that seems unable to make up its mind as to how much power it wants to give you. This surprised me given that parent company Toyota knows better than most how to do the whole hybrid car thing, but the LS 500h is an unusual and rare misstep. Sometimes the powertrain jerks when you add throttle; other times, it jerks when you let off. Bury the throttle and the engine emits a pained howl as it attempts to satiate your demand for quicker acceleration. But even if you drive it stodgily, it doesn't feel happy. Don't bother trying to adjust the mode dial—while swapping modes changes how fast the powertrain tries to adjust along with the settings for the suspension and steering, there isn't a single one that smooths out the throttle response.
In its launch announcement for the LS 500h, Lexus claimed that its new Multi Stage Hybrid System "enriches the hybrid powertrain performance experience" and offers "more direct response to driver inputs while maintaining the characteristic smoothness and efficiency for which Lexus hybrids are renowned." Instead, its four-stage shifting device, which is designed to provide the feel of a ten-speed automatic, provides the feel of a rather poorly programmed one. Lexus would have been better off using a more conventional CVT.
The powertrain does make for impressive fuel economy, however. Its EPA rating of 25/33 mpg city/highway is a solid 4-5 mpg above those of a traditionally powered 4,850-pound luxury sedan. Whether the less-than-premium powertrain experience is offset by the savings at the pump depends on your driving style and your tolerance for weird on/off-throttle behaviors.
Instead of rolling those dice, however, if you're feeling the style of the 2018 Lexus LS, consider the conventionally powered LS 500. It swaps the fake ten-speed auto for a real one and the pair of electric motors for a pair of turbos. Sure, you lose those extra mpgs, but you get 415 hp and 442 lb-ft of torque along with a more Lexus-like driving experience (smooth shifts and ample, effortless power with a properly subdued engine note). Less time being annoyed by the powertrain means more time to enjoy the finely crafted cabin. Well, as long as you avoid looking at those two protruding knobs in the dash.
2018 Lexus LS 500h Specifications
|PRICE||$80,535/$89,675 (base/as tested)|
|ENGINE||3.5L DOHC 24-valve V-6/295 hp @ 6,600 rpm, N/A lb-ft|
|MOTOR||Permanent magnet, 2x|
|COMBINED OUTPUT||354 hp, 258 lb-ft|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, RWD sedan|
|EPA MILEAGE||25/33 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||206.1 x 74.8 x 57.5 in|
|0-60 MPH||5.1 sec|
|TOP SPEED||136 mph|