"LS" is short for "Luxury Sedan" - has any other car lived up to its name as consistently as this one?
In the 1980s, three major Japanese automakers - Honda, Toyota, and Nissan - that had built reputations around reliable, economical compacts all launched luxury divisions. Honda was first with the Acura brand in 1986, with Toyota (Lexus) and Nissan (Infiniti) following in 1989.
The Lexus LS 400 was the most impactful disruptor of the three brands' debut models. In the full-size luxury sedan segment, the LS was so polished that it compelled many Americans who were used to flocking to Mercedes-Benz and BMW to rethink their decision. The design process for that first LS stretched to five years, cost over $1 billion, and involved 1,400 engineers.
Since then, every LS has exemplified what a luxury sedan should be: understated, quiet, and utterly effortless in whisking you to your destination. But which of the five generations of the LS did it best? We'll try to answer that question here.
The fourth-generation Lexus LS is still an excellent luxury sedan and a great used buy - its position on this list merely signifies that other generations did more to progress the LS nameplate. Introduced for the 2007 model year, this LS had cleaner, more agreeable, but also more generic styling than the quirkier third-gen model, being based on the brand's L-finesse design language.
It introduced technologies like adaptive variable suspension, the first infrared body temperature sensors in a car, the first automated parallel parking system of its kind in the USA, and an executive seating package for the LS 460 L. The larger V8 produced 380 horsepower and 367 lb-ft of torque initially, while a new V8 hybrid in the LS 600h L made 438 hp combined.
As with other LS models, the fourth-gen car received comprehensive facelifts, including the first F-Sport for the second of these facelifts.
As for why this LS ranks last, it starts with the rather nondescript styling, even after the second facelift. The F Sport moniker feels out of place on a large Lexus, and this gen introduced the maddening Remote Touch controller for the infotainment system. Finally, while still reliable by luxury sedan standards, a visit to the NHTSA site confirms that this gen racked up the most customer complaints by far for any LS.
Even though it was called the LS 500, the fifth-generation LS went the downsizing route, replacing the V8 with a twin-turbocharged V6 for the first time. Gone was the discreet styling of previous models, replaced with a much larger grille and sharp headlight cutouts that look as if they were designed by Maximus Decimus Meridius wildly swinging his sword. This change gave the LS far more presence and a better chance of being noticed alongside its German rivals.
Once again, the LS is a supremely refined sedan with a whisper-quiet interior and smooth ride. And once again, it isn't as quick or dynamic as the best S-Class or 7 Series. Unlike the normal LS, the hybrid has a CVT combined with a four-speed automatic that seriously underdelivers, and despite the sporty looks, the car still isn't a treat for enthusiastic drivers.
Perhaps most impressive is the fifth-gen's superbly detailed interior, with rich materials and an inviting layout. But it was undone by the Remote Touch Interface on earlier models, and Lexus only resolved this somewhat with a new touchscreen from the 2022 model year. Rivals also have more rear-seat space.
More boldly styled than before, the fifth-gen LS is a good luxury sedan, but the disappointing hybrid and some complicated technologies hold it back from a higher spot on this list.
Debuting in 1994, the second-generation Lexus LS was a refinement of the groundbreaking first-gen model. Chief engineer Kazuo Okamoto didn't want to move away from the recipe of the well-received first LS, so the new one retained its conservative air with squared-off lines and a sense of solidity, much like big Mercedes-Benz sedans of the period.
Underneath the familiar skin, the XF20 LS featured over 90% components that were either new or redesigned. It was lighter, had better sound insulation, a more powerful V8 engine, and the same price advantage compared to European luxury sedans. New technologies for this generation included the first production laser adaptive cruise control on any Toyota/Lexus model, while a freshly facelifted LS 400 arrived in 1997.
The buttery-smooth powertrain and ride quality made the second-gen LS a highly relaxing car to drive, and the car could withstand many miles. Despite its superlative comfort, this LS also exhibited less body roll and improved feel for the driver, but it was still no 7 Series.
Someone picked up a 47,000-mile 1995 LS 400 for $16,000 earlier this year, which seems like a steal when you consider what that will get you for a much newer city car.
The third-generation, XF30 Lexus LS 430 debuted at the North American International Auto Show early in 2000. It brought with it the first notable redesign of the LS since the original model, a larger 4.3-liter V8 engine producing 290 hp, and an even more opulent and meticulously crafted interior. New technologies included voice-controlled navigation and a more advanced adaptive cruise control system with a LiDAR sensor.
Although not everyone loves how it looks, this LS had a more distinctive character than its predecessor. The redesigned suspension (with double wishbones at all four corners) delivered a serene ride, while the eerily quiet interior (with a design inspired by luxury hotels and seats inspired by first-class airline seats) confirmed that this was an exceptional luxury sedan.
But do you know what's even more luxurious than a magic carpet ride and the finest leather trim? Not breaking down. This generation of the LS, perhaps more than any other, just kept going. And it did so at a time when the W220 Mercedes-Benz S-Class and E65 BMW 7 Series were riddled with electronic gremlins and build quality issues. The LS 430 was ranked as the most reliable luxury sedan in every year of its production in the J.D. Power Initial Quality Study; for the 2006 model year, it had a quality and reliability rating of 95.
With its unparalleled quality, stupendous refinement, and introduction of new technologies without compromising on usability, the third-gen LS 430 is a simply brilliant luxury sedan.
Subsequent Lexus LS models were faster, bolder, and more advanced, but the first-generation model represented such a seismic shift in the high-end luxury sedan segment that its place on this list could not be any lower. The first LS proved that brand cachet wasn't necessary to overcome the Germans - all you needed to do was build a near-flawless car.
To say that Lexus did its homework in developing the first LS is putting it mildly. Over 1.7 million miles of testing were conducted around the world, with 2,300 technicians participating in building 450 prototypes. The obsessive designers spent two years sifting through various woods and leathers for the interior before choosing the final specification. It's little wonder that development expenses eventually topped $1 billion.
Launching with an ultra-reliable 250-hp V8, the LS 400 was more aerodynamic and quieter than the Germans, but its base price of around $35,000 handsomely undercut them.
The chairman of BMW at the time went so far as to accuse Lexus of "dumping" the LS in the USA at below-market prices, clearly threatened by the car's combination of value and luxury. It wasn't long before the first LS began outselling the 7 Series and S-Class here.
Toyota's voluntary recall for the LS 400 soon after launch initially appeared to be a PR disaster for the new Lexus brand, but the way it was handled actually had the opposite effect and helped establish a reputation for excellent after-sales service. Issues with taillights and overheating were swiftly resolved, and the cars were soon returned washed and with the gas tanks filled. It turns out that these issues were not a sign of things to come: The LS remains perhaps the most dependable full-size luxury car ever made.
Like its robust mechanicals, its timeless styling has aged well, and we can forgive the plain layout of the cabin for how well all the components held up.