by Jared Rosenholtz
The first Lexus LS debuted in 1990, taking the world by storm as Japan's first legitimate answer to the dominant German options like the BMW 7 Series or Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Not only was the LS properly luxurious, but that luster didn't fizzle out over the course of its ownership period. Unlike the German cars, which required heavy maintenance and expensive parts, the LS was built to stand the test of time.
30 years on and the LS now lives in its fifth generation. Called the LS 500, it arrived on the scene for the 2017 model year and remains mostly unchanged for 2020. Even though not much is new, the LS now faces stiff competition from a new Audi A8, facelifted BMW 7 Series and Genesis G90, and the looming threat of an all-new Mercedes-Benz S-Class. We tested a 2020 LS 500 AWD to see if Lexus remains competitive in the world of full-size, executive luxury sedans.
Lexus' flagship luxury sedan arrives in the new decade with only a few updates to keep things fresh, the biggest change being the addition of a new Inspiration Series to the LS 500 lineup. Limited to just 300 units, Inspiration Series models get a unique Deep Garnet exterior paint, standard white leather upholstery, unique interior trim, 20-inch alloy wheels (now optional on other LS trims), and a 23-speaker Mark Levinson sound system as standard. Also new for 2020, the LS 500 F Sport gets new brake pads as well as the options of a white interior. Autumn Shimmer has been cut from the exterior paint palette, with Liquid Platinum and Satin Cashmere to follow suit in February.
The current Lexus design philosophy is nothing if not bold, with the massive spindle grille design up front rivaling the BMW 7 Series for sheer real estate coverage, even if the black mesh finish on the F Sport model does make it seem a little less Lil Wayne and a lot more Al Capone. The F Sport also gets black grille surrounds and black embellishments on the F Sport design front and rear bumpers. LED headlights are equipped as standard, with sharply angled LED daytime running lights and LED combination taillights with signature 'L' design elements. A pair of tailpipes with chrome surrounds are standard on all models, as is a power sunroof with the option to go panoramic. 19-inch wheels are equipped on the standard LS 500, while the F Sport gets a set of 20-inch Dark Graphite finish wheels with summer rubber. The Inspiration Series gets Black Vapor Chrome wheels, 20 inches in diameter.
It's a full-size luxury sedan, alright, and the Lexus LS' dimensions back that up with an overall length of 123 inches and a 206.1-inch wheelbase making it only marginally shorter than a Mercedes-Benz S-Class. At 74.8 inches wide with the mirrors folded, the LS 500 will still slot neatly into a standard parking bay. How high the LS stands depends entirely on two things - your choice of drivetrain and your choice of suspension. All-wheel-drive models with coil springs stand 57.9 inches tall, while RWD models on air are the lowest at 57.1 inches. RWD with coils and AWD with air stand the same 57.5 inches from the tarmac. Those same variables affect the curb weight of the LS, with the lightest combination of RWD and coil springs tipping the scales at 4,740 lbs while AWD and air will see the figure swell to 4,971 lbs. Just the AWD system adds circa 200 pounds, while if you opt for the Executive Package, you can expect around 210 lbs of mass gain over a base model.
If you're looking at a 2020 Lexus LS early in its tenure, up to 11 exterior hues can be chosen from, but at the end of February 2020, we'll see Liquid Platinum and Satin Cashmere cut from the palette, joining Autumn Shimmer that was done away with at the end of the 2019 model year. Most colors are cost-inclusive, with staples such as Atomic Silver, Caviar, Obsidian, Eminent White Pearl, and the stunning Nightfall Mica available at no cost, although the latter pair can only be had on the base LS 500. The F Sport misses out on these two, as well as Satin Cashmere, but instead gets exclusive access to Ultra White. Fancy yourself a redhead? Well, then the Inspiration Series is right up your alley. Provided you can lay hands on one of the 300 being produced, it gets an exclusive Deep Garnet exterior paint. The only paint option requiring extra outlay is the $595 Manganese Luster found on our tester, available on both the LS 500 and F Sport derivatives.
We've lost count of the number of times we've argued how pointless it is for a full-size luxury sedan to be chasing down 0-60 mph sprint times when they're meant to focus on outright comfort and luxury, and still, the manufacturers persist in their pursuit for tenths of a second over their rivals, and stiff suspension. So the LS is truly a breath of fresh air in this regard, forgoing big V8s and ultra-stiff suspension for a magic carpet-like ride instead. It's still quicker than it has need to be - it'll reach 60 mph from a standstill in just 4.6 seconds and top out at 136 mph - but Lexus doesn't make speed the foremost pursuit of the LS. Like most rivals in the full-size luxury realm, rear-wheel-drive is the standard drivetrain, but those in states frequently visited by Jack Frost can take solace in the availability of all-wheel drive.
We've come a long way since the days when the numerical suffix on a model had any indication of the engine's size or displacement. Despite the '500' on the trunk of the Lexus LS, under the hood you'll find only a 3.5-liter V6, albeit with a couple of turbochargers strapped on for good measure. Fed the necessary diet of premium unleaded gasoline, it'll churn out 416 horsepower and 442 lb-ft of torque, and regardless of drivetrain choice, it'll send these outputs through a ten-speed automatic gearbox.
Do we miss the V8? Not at all. This V6 is sumptuous and never feels overstressed, aided by one of the best ten-speed automatic transmissions around. Passing power is positively effortless and the transmission never needs to hunt down for the correct gear. The engine is a powerhouse, but it never growls or shouts like a sports sedan. Think of it more as Clark Kent than Superman. Yes, the two share the same unyielding strength, but Clark Kent is far more mild-mannered than his superhero alter-ego. Those looking for a more aggressive engine note will have to wait for the rumored LS F, which may use a twin-turbo V8.
Let's not mince words, the LS is a big beast. It weighs just under 5,000 pounds with AWD, but it never feels quite so portly. The steering is shockingly direct and the adaptive variable air suspension settles down when you chuck it into a corner. Yes, there will be plenty of body lean, but once the suspension settles, the LS hustles around corners as if it were a much smaller sedan. Lexus has included an abundance of drive modes ranging from Eco to Sport+, most of which feel nearly identical to each other. Sport+ unlocks some piped-in engine noise, which provides some additional thrill to the driver.
If we are being honest, it feels like Lexus was confused with what it wanted the LS 500 to be. Every LS prior to this felt like they had one purpose only: to provide unmatched luxury and comfort with no regard for driving pleasure. With the LS 500, it feels like Lexus took a turn to the German side by trying to engineer in some driving enjoyment. And while this helps the LS 500 feel like less of a snoozer from behind the wheel, we aren't sure if it was worth the trade-off.
Don't hear what we aren't saying. The LS 500 is still an exquisitely quiet and comfortable car. But taking it over some of Florida's torn up highways, we could feel the chassis and suspension struggle to keep our and our passenger's heads from bouncing around. This would be fine in a BMW or a Mercedes. Those are supposed to be somewhat sporty. But the LS is supposed to be a sofa on wheels - a bastion for drivers who'd prefer all traces of road feel be erased from existence. This is by far the most "fun" LS Lexus has ever built, but we aren't sure if that's such a good thing.
There are a couple of obvious upsides to dropping a pair of cylinders and using a V6 engine in the LS 500, the most obvious being improved gas mileage. The fruit of this is most evident on RWD models, with EPA estimated gas mileage of 19/30/23 mpg city/highway/combined, dropping to 18/27/21 mpg on AWD derivatives. Among its peers, only the BMW 740i is capable of besting these figures, and only by a single unit on the combined cycle. Still, there's a price to pay for power and efficiency all wrapped up in a turbocharged package - the LS requires premium unleaded gasoline, 22.2 gallons of it in order to fill a tank. In theory, this means the LS is capable of returning up to 510 miles in mixed conditions. At the end of our week with the LS 500, our fuel economy gauge read 18.7 mpg, falling short of the EPA-estimated combined rating.
The Mercedes-Benz S-Class is often seen as the benchmark in the full-size luxury sedan segment, but if you're looking for a truly grandiose interior, the LS takes the cake. Sumptuous leathers and open-pore wood are standard for the segment, but where else will you find herringbone wood trim inlays and Kiriko glass detailing that reeks of art deco inspiration? You may need to give up a modicum of space compared to rivals - though only the tallest of NBA professionals will notice - but fine details like hand-pleated door paneling and color combinations ranging from Japanese Shiro to 1920s smoking lounge in feel are grand enough to distract you from the minor faults; plush, reclining seats with Shiatsu massage functionality will send you to sleep before you've even had a chance to figure out what each of the ideally laid out buttons on the dash is for. That's, of course, if you can worm your way through the complex infotainment system to access the heating, ventilation, and massage, as Lexus hides these functions behind a digital veil when we'd rather have had hard buttons for the same tasks.
The LS has long been lauded for its comfortable seats and the 2020 LS 500 does not disappoint in this area. Front seat passengers are treated to 16-way (optional 28-way) leather chairs with heating, ventilation, and massage functionality. Rear seat passengers can also have these features (optionally) and are even treated to some additional massage modes. Unlike most "ordinary" cars, the outer seats in the rear can be electronically adjusted using a touchscreen in the center armrest.
Our tester featured the $23,080 Executive Package, which adds the ability to fold the front passenger seat forward as far as it will go. This allows the rear passenger on the right to activate the built-in ottoman, giving them room to stretch out their feet. We highly recommend this option for anyone who plans to be chauffeured around in their LS 500. But ignoring this flashy feature, the LS 500 only offers 38.9 inches of rear legroom, which isn't great by full-size sedan standards. You actually get more legroom in the Lexus ES 350.
When you're paying this much for a car, you expect to be blown away by the number of interior color options and trim choices. Lexus doesn't disappoint here. Our tester came with black leather with intricate stitching, but other options include Parchment, Flaxen, and Chateau, all with different corresponding wood choices. If you opt for the F Sport trim, Black, Circus Red, and White leather become options matched with Naguri Aluminum trim.
Our tester was equipped with the Executive Package with Kiriko glass. A $23,080 option, it replaces all of the car's wood trim with beautifully hand-cut Kiriko glass, a special glass cutting technique from Japan. Everyone who steps into the LS 500 will be blown away by the intricacy of the Kiriko glass, making this a must-have option in our eyes.
Despite their sheer size, full-size luxury sedans typically don't boast the largest of trunks, as all their extra length is generously donated towards the rear occupants of the cabin. The LS stays true to this, but still plates up an impressive 15.2 cubic feet of trunk space in its most generous configuration. This figure is still some way below the 18.7 cubes offered by the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, and as the rear seats are the most important, there's no split-folding functionality to increase the trunk volume. Still, you'll easily fit in a few sets of golf clubs, or two large suitcases for you and the missus on your way to the airport. The aperture is large, too, and there's standard power operation of the trunk lid with hands-free operation.
Inside the cabin, there are standard door pockets on all doors, two cupholders up front, two in the rear center armrest, and a large storage bin beneath the front center armrest. It's not a massive amount of space, but it'll suffice for most needs.
As the most luxurious vehicle in the Lexus lineup, there's little that isn't at least available on the LS, although the standard complement of features will blow the toupees off the heads of most luxury sedan aficionados. A power glass sunroof, rearview camera, automatic LED headlights, dual-zone automatic climate control, adaptive cruise control, auto-dimming rearview mirrors, a rear window sunshade, and keyless access with a hands-free trunk are all standard, but buyers can opt for four-zone climate control, upgrade the heated seats from just the front pair to all four corners, and equip ventilation and even a Shiatsu massage to the seating, adding up to 28 ways of adjustment in the process. Delve into the options list further and there's a driver head-up display, power-reclining rear seats, a heated steering wheel, adaptive air suspension, and even a power-adjustable ottoman for rear-seat passengers. The Lexus Safety System 2.0 incorporates a range of collision avoidance assistance systems including traffic sign recognition and automatic emergency braking, as well as blind-spot monitoring and a parking assistant. Also available is a 360-degree camera and the Lexus Safety System A+ to bolster things further.
The LS 500 is filled to the brim with cool tech toys but, sadly, the infotainment system isn't one of them. There are some physical controls to make life easier on the driver, but many of the car's functions can only be accessed using the Remote Touch Interface. Housed on a large, 12.3-inch display, the controller of the Enform Infotainment system is a laptop-style touchpad that is infuriating to use while on the move. It constantly misses menu items, forcing the driver to look over at the screen even more, and it regularly misses quick inputs. Lexus has reverted back to a touchscreen starting with the 2020 RX but it may take a few model years before this change makes its way to the LS. In our eyes, it couldn't come sooner.
Without the silly controller, the Lexus interface isn't too confusing and finally features Apple CarPlay compatibility, but still no Android Auto. The base sound system is a 12-speaker affair called Lexus Premium Sound, but our tester was equipped with the 23-speaker Mark Levinson system, a must-have for $1,940.
Since the new LS debuted in 2018, just a pair of recalls have been issued, and neither has been for the 2020 model. What's more, the Lexus brand continuously achieves the highest predicted reliability ratings, meaning your LS will last you long into your retirement without trouble. Backing this up, Lexus covers the LS with a 48-month/50,000-mile basic warranty and a 72-month/72,000-mile powertrain warranty.
Neither the NHTSA nor the IIHS has evaluated the newest iteration of the Lexus LS, but a long list of safety features contributes to the notion that the LS can quite competently keep any high-level diplomatic delegate safe in the event that something goes wrong.
In addition to the now customary swathe of safety features like stability control, ABS brakes, and adaptive LED lighting systems that improve safety, Lexus equips no fewer than ten airbags. The standard dual front, front side, and side curtain airbags are joined by dual front knee airbags and rear-seat side airbags, with the option to add two more in the form of rear-seat knee airbags. Hopefully, however, you never need to make use of these, as the standard suite of collision avoidance warning and braking, blind-spot monitoring, and a parking assistant are intent on preventing any incidents before they happen. Additionally, there's all-speed adaptive cruise control, lane change assist, active steering assist, forward cross-traffic alert, and a head-up display, all available as part of the Lexus Safety System+ A package.
Objectively speaking, the 2020 Lexus LS 500 is an outstanding car. It is only when the car is viewed against other high-dollar luxury sedans that you begin to see chinks in the LS's armor. Unlike its predecessors, the LS 500 is not devoid of driving feel and is now one of the more enjoyable vehicles in its segment. We would like to see Lexus introduce a faster version to fully flesh out this experience, and this desire could be rectified with the upcoming LS F.
On the flip side of this argument, we wonder what the LS 500 might have been like if Lexus didn't attempt to make it sporty at all. The LS 500 is, crucially, not so comfortable that it eliminates all imperfections in the road, nor is it so fun that we'd ever want to blast down a canyon road in it. It feels like the engineers were torn with what they wanted the new LS to be and it ended up falling somewhere between plush cruiser and executive sport sedan. Since the LS still has the built-in advantage of Lexus reliability, we would still recommend it as a long-term ownership experience over a comparable German sedan.
With such high levels of standard specification, a potent twin-turbo V6, and all the safety tech you could possibly need, the Lexus LS should surely carry a six-figure asking price? Not so, as pricing for the 2020 model starts at as little as $75,450 for the base LS 500 in RWD guise. Stepping up to the sportier F Sport derivative sees an MSRP of $81,450 while opting for all-wheel-drive on either derivative pushes the asking price up by $3,220. Pricing for the Inspiration Series hasn't officially been published yet - we suspect an 'if you have to ask…' attitude - but it's expected to start at around the $97,665 mark, with the AWD version edging ever closer to the six-figure barrier, before options. Prices exclude Lexus' delivery, processing, and handling fee of $1,025.
The Lexus LS is available in three trim levels: the base LS 500, LS 500 F Sport, and the limited edition LS 500 Inspiration Series. All models are powered by a 3.5-liter twin-turbo V6 with a ten-speed automatic gearbox and the choice of rear- or all-wheel-drive.
Don't call the LS 500 a base model - it comes equipped with some of the best functionality on offer, characterized outside by 19-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights, and a power glass sunroof. Inside, you get 16-way power-adjustable heated and ventilated front seats, dual-zone climate control, a heated steering wheel, and a 12.3-inch infotainment screen with 12 speakers, navigation, a 4G Wi-Fi hotspot, Apple CarPlay, Amazon Alexa, and the Lexus Enform App Suite 2.0. A reverse camera, blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert, and Lexus' Safety System 2.0 make up the bulk of the safety features.
The F Sport gets larger 20-inch alloys and a black mesh grille to complement the F Sport front and rear bumpers, but hiding behind those wheels are a set of upgraded six-piston front brakes and four-piston rear brakes. It also gets F Sport-tuned adaptive suspension, while inside, the instrumentation is influenced by the LFA, the seats get F Sport perforated leather with 28-way power adjustment, and the interior trim is swapped out for aluminum.
Limited to just 300 units, the Inspiration Series wears a special coat of Deep Garnet paint, offset by 20-inch Black Vapor Chrome wheels. Inside, white semi-aniline leather is the default upholstery, while the trim is upgraded to include Kiriko glass detailing. It gets enhanced audio courtesy of a 23-speaker Mark Levinson sound system with 2,400 watts of aural punch, while a bespoke blue LED Kiriko-design passenger-side display panel adds further exclusivity.
3.5-liter Twin-Turbo V6 Gas
|LS 500 F Sport||
3.5-liter Twin-Turbo V6 Gas
|LS 500 Inspiration Series||
3.5-liter Twin-Turbo V6 Gas
Despite the already luxuriant levels of specification onboard the Lexus LS, several packages exist to further improve the offering.
Quilted-stitch, perforated semi-aniline leather interior trim and 28-way power-adjustable front seats with massage functionality, and heated rear seats are included in the $3,730 Interior Upgrade Package, while the Luxury Package adds to this with four-zone climate control, 18-way power-adjustable heated and ventilated reclining rear seats, power rear side-window sunshades, rear knee airbags, and a seven-inch rear touchscreen for between $12,270 and $12,290, depending on the trim you choose. The Executive Package makes the aforementioned options look cheap at just more than $17,000 but includes all those additions, as well as power-retractable butterfly headrests in the rear, and power reclining functionality with an ottoman and Shiatsu massager.
If you'd like your LS to look as luxurious as it makes you feel, the circa $23,000 Executive Package with Kiriko Glass gives you hand-pleated interior door trim and Kiriko glass trim on the doors, in addition to the standard Executive Package appointments.
The RWD F Sport gets access to a $9,700 Performance Package, which adds variable-ratio steering, rear-wheel steering, and enhanced suspension stabilizers.
The final package, and arguably the most worthwhile, is the Lexus Safety System+ A, which, for $3,000, adds lane change assist, all-speed adaptive cruise control, a full pre-collision system with front cross-traffic alert, active steering assist, and a head-up driver display.
Buying a 2020 Lexus LS 500 isn't too difficult because there aren't a baffling number of trim levels, though there is a staggering amount of configurations to choose from. We'd opt for the standard LS 500 without going for the F Sport trim, as an LS is meant to be comfortable and the F Sport package takes away from that without offering a significant bump in performance. We'd also recommend sticking with RWD for better fuel economy, unless you plan to drive the car in a cold-weather state.
With the configuration selected, we'd select most of the options found on our tester: Adaptive Variable Air Suspension, 20-inch wheels, 24-inch head-up display, the Executive Package with Kiriko Glass, Mark Levinson Audio, Panomara Glass Roof, Panoramic View Monitor, and Heated Wood Steering Wheel. The only option we'd omit is the Lexus Safety System+ A. We found the active steering assist to be intrusive and it couldn't keep the car centered in the lane without swaying back and forth. As tested (minus the Safety System+ A), our test car would ring in at $112,970.
Starting at nearly half the price of the Lexus LS, the ES is a more traditional full-size sedan, albeit one riding on a FWD chassis with a shorter wheelbase, and much less tech. It also gets a less powerful V6 engine sans turbochargers, developing 302 hp to the LS 500's 416 hp. However, despite being born of a completely different ethos, the ES is wonderfully plush, rides sublimely, and has masses of rear-seat legroom. It has an almost identical trunk to that of the LS, making it practical, too, while the weaker engine rewards you at the pumps with 26 mpg compared to the 23 from the LS. But for the extra money, the LS is vastly more luxurious, with more comfortable reclining, heated, ventilated, and massaging seats, and more opulence, despite similar legroom in the rear of the cabin. It's better in almost every metric; however, if you can't afford the LS, the ES feels vastly more luxurious than its lowly $40k price tag might suggest. Think of the ES as an LS on a budget.
While the ES is an anomaly in the Lexus lineup, the GS is a more traditional take on being the junior sibling of the LS, riding on a RWD platform with optional AWD, and fitting in more with the rest of the established executive committee made up of the E-Class and 5 Series. But it makes do with a naturally aspirated V6 that only develops 311 hp, it's slower to 60 mph, and it consumes the same 23 mpg as the larger LS. It's substantially smaller, and rear-seat passengers will be far more cramped in the GS, while in the LS they can stretch out and enjoy the ride. That's really the crux of it, as the GS is built for those sitting in the front seats, while the LS is built for those who like to be chauffeured about in utmost luxury. If you'll be behind the wheel more often, then the GS is a much better choice, and one that's $24,000 cheaper, too; but if you've got a personal driver and you like the finer things in life, the LS is leagues ahead of the GS.