by Jared Rosenholtz
As a kid, summertime was often spent in Florida visiting grandmother and her trusty 2001 Lexus LS430 she had purchased new at the turn of the millennium. She loved this car. So much so that when the LS 460 came out in 2007, she refused to trade it, preferring to hold on to her LS 430 for its higher ride height and overall simplicity.
The LS 430 remains one of my all-time favorite cars, but how does it stack up against the 2018 model? I had the chance to find out on a recent vacation and needless to say, my expectations were rather high. Could the new 2018 LS 500 live up to the lofty legacy set by previous generations?
A lot have things have changed since the LS 430 came out in 2000. The Japanese marque no longer targets retirees - now, Lexus wants to be cool like Audi and BMW. To this end, the carmaker has dramatically changed its design language, as accented by the large spindle grille on all of its new models. While it looks good on sedans like the LS 500, it can overwhelm large SUVs like the LX 570. The new LS 500's design is a far cry from the simplicity of the old LS 430, though Lexus has managed to maintain an essence of authority we've come to expect of the LS.
My tester was a standard LS 500 with all-wheel-drive, so it wasn't saddled with the overly aggressive F-Sport package. The LS has historically been an understated car, so I was happy to test a standard LS in a lovely shade of grey called Manganese Luster.
As with the exterior, the interior of modern Lexus machines has changed dramatically over the past two decades. Step inside the LS 500 and you will be greeted by one of the most elegant interiors in the business. There are so many cool accents including the floating design for the window switches and the streaks running down the length of the dashboard. Every material in the LS feels incredibly premium and the attention to detail is tremendous. For example, when you first sit in the car, the seat belt buckle rises so it's easier to fasten, retracting back into place once buckled. Little touches like this make the LS feel a class above.
My test car was fitted with the Luxury Package, a $12,270 optional package. Yes, that's a ludicrous sum of money but it does include a ton of awesome features including quilted leather seats with 28-way adjustment, multi-function massage (in the two front seats), suede headliner, power front seat buckles, 18-way reclining rear seats, four-zone climate control, side window shades, and a touchscreen for rear seat passengers.
Opting for the Luxury Package may cost as much as buying a used LS 430 but it is worth every penny, transforming the LS 500 into an ultra-lux cruiser. Especially for rear-seat occupants who get a seven-inch touchscreen hidden in the central armrest that can be used to control the radio, climate, rear seat adjustment, rear moonroof, side and rear sunshades, and even the front passenger seat to allow for maximum leg room in the rear.
If you plan to spend most of your time in the back seat, Lexus offers an even pricier Executive Package for $17,080 which provides rear seats with 22-way adjustment, massage function, and a reclining function complete with with an ottoman. Take it one step further and the executive package can also be ordered with a special Kiriko glass interior trim for $23,080. Instead of wood, this glass trim gives the LS a very distinct look. The Kiriko glass also includes hand-pleated fabric on the doors, which can only be fabricated by master origami artists.
While the interior is incredibly cohesive, the entertainment system needs some work. The Lexus Enform system is still controlled using a touchpad controller, which can be frustrating to use while driving - my grandmother would have never deciphered how to use it. Acura has recently figured out how to make this setup work in the RDX but the Lexus system, by contrast, required me to take my eyes off the road to see where my pointer was on the screen. The LS also lacks any Android Auto or Apple CarPlay compatibility, though CarPlay is starting to arrive on certain Lexus models.
Luckily, many of the basic functions for radio and climate controls can also be adjusted using physical buttons on the dashboard and I particularly loved how Lexus cleverly wrapped the tuning knob around the volume knob, so the two were in the same place. My only other gripe with the interior was with the shifter, which like the Toyota Prius, defaults back to its resting position after you've selected a gear. When you select reverse, it beeps constantly to remind you, which becomes irritating very quickly. Hopefully, the dealership can turn this off.
When Lexus first debuted the LS 500 at the 2017 Detroit Auto Show, we were skeptical about the smooth V8 engine being replaced by a twin-turbo V6. Let me assure you this V6 leaves nothing to be desired. The engine displaces 3.5-liters and produces 416 horsepower and 442 lb-ft of torque. Power is sent out through a buttery smooth 10-speed automatic to rear-wheel-drive or optional AWD like my test car. 0-60 mph takes 4.6 seconds regardless of drivetrain and the quarter-mile is dealt with in 13.7 seconds with AWD or 13.8 seconds with RWD - though we doubt too many people will take their nearly 5,000-pound sedan to the drag strip.
Fuel economy for the AWD model is a rather acceptable 18/29/21 mpg city/highway/combined. During my time with the car, I averaged 18.5-mpg combined. With RWD, the LS can achieve 19/30/23 mpg city/highway/combined. Compare this to the old LS 460, which could only achieve 16-mpg city and 24-mpg highway, and Lexus's decision to switch to a V6 starts to feel justified. Lexus also sells the hybrid version LS 500h, which only has 354 hp but can achieve 25-mpg city and 33-mpg highway.
Despite its 206.1-inch length, the LS 500 offers just 16.9 cubic feet of trunk space, which is not exactly cavernous but enough to haul several suitcases. The less expensive Lexus ES350 features nearly identical trunk space. With the LS, Lexus has clearly decided to focus on providing as much space as possible in the cabin with 41.0-inches of front and 38.9-inches of rear legroom.
Amazingly, the ES 350 actually provides more front and rear legroom than the LS 500 with 42.4 and 39.2-inches respectively. The LS 500 does provide far more luxury than what you'll find in the ES, but at half the price, the ES will suit most people's needs extremely well.
The LS 500's biggest problem is how good the new ES 350 is at such a lower price point. Of course, massaging seats and a twin-turbo V6 aren't available on an ES, so the LS does still have its advantages.
I didn't miss the two extra cylinders. Power delivery from the LS500's twin-turbo V6 comes on like a freight train, while passing other cars on the highway rarely even requires a downshift. Even when the transmission does need to drop a gear, you can barely feel it from behind the wheel. The new ES 350 with its smooth 301-hp V6 and eight-speed automatic can't approach the impressive performance of the LS.
My test car was also equipped with the $1,500 variable air suspension. On the highway, the car was whisper quiet and astonishingly smooth, though it did bounce around a bit on the pot-hole-ridden back roads, a consequence of the $1,200 20-inch chrome wheels. I'd opt for the smaller 19-inch rollers, personally. The adaptive suspension can also quickly raise the car up to ease ingress and egress, though when I attempted to have my grandfather test this function, it was still difficult for him to get out - no wonder why he drives a Subaru Forrester.
The steering is surprisingly quick for such a large vehicle, enabling the LS 500 to feel more nimble than it actually is. Lexus has also included a host of drive modes, selected via a dial to the side of the digital gauge cluster. Picking between normal, custom, comfort, eco, sport, and sport + triggers an appropriate change from the digital gauge cluster and a noticeable change in the throttle mapping and suspension stiffness. After testing each of the drive modes, I felt Lexus could have simplified a bit here with a normal, sport, and eco mode because some of the modes felt too similar to each other from behind the wheel.
My test car was also fitted with an optional head-up display for $1,200, which may have been the best and largest HUD I've ever tested at 24-inches. The information displayed is extremely clear and well-rendered. At an intersection, the HUD will even show when traffic is coming from either side ensuring you don't get t-boned by pulling out too quickly.
The safety technology doesn't end there, as the LS is chock full of standard and available features. Even a base LS 500 includes pre-collision alert, adaptive cruise control, lane departure alert with lane keep assist, automatic high beams, and intuitive park assist. My car was fitted with the $3,000 Lexus Safety + Package, which rolled in active pre-collision braking, active steering assist, pedestrian alert, and road sign assist. A panoramic 360-degree camera is also available for just $800, which makes parking this large vehicle much simpler. The 360-degree camera can even stitch together multiple views to give a full rotational look around the car, complete with an on-screen LS 500 with changeable colors.
My test car was a 2018 model, though 2019 models are starting to arrive at dealerships. Lexus hasn't changed much for 2019, though pricing has gone up by around $200. The 2018 LS 500 AWD starts off at $78,220, which undercuts all of its German rivals like the Audi A8, BMW 7 Series, and Mercedes S-Class but is pricier than the Kia K900.
If you want to load up on options such as the extra safety features, adaptive air suspension, HUD, luxury package, Mark Levinson 23-speaker audio, premium paint, panoramic roof, premium wood trim, and heated steering wheel, the price quickly balloons up to over $100,000. This is more than double what the LS 430 cost back in 2000, though it is still less than the similarly optioned German equivalent.
Unless you live in a cold weather climate, I could live without the AWD system to save $3,000, lose the $1,200 20-inch wheels, and forgo the $1,940 Mark Levinson audio, which just didn't sound worth its price tag. Taking off these three options will help keep the car below the $100,000 mark, which is the perfect place for a Lexus LS.
The LS 430 will always hold a special place in my heart, but the LS 500 has quickly nestled its way in there too. There are some faults. Lexus Enform can be tough to get used to and I would like to sample an LS with the smaller 19-inch wheels to see if it improves the handling over rough pavement. Still, the LS 500 continues to hold a price advantage over its German rivals and should hold its value when you go to trade it in. Factor in Lexus' legendary reliability and the LS 500 is clearly a Great Buy. With an easier-to-use infotainment system, it may even be a Must Buy.