Drive Time

BY STEVE SILER

Next Level

Ancient Japanese craftsmanship practices take Lexus’ fifth-generation LS to the next level of luxury. But is the last level for luxury sedans?

The car you see here, the 2018 Lexus LS sedan, may be brand new, but it actually took centuries to make. No, Lexus does not have the world’s slowest assembly line, but this time around, the fifth-generation LS is more than a sanitized, safely styled take on the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, which is essentially all the original LS400 was when parent company Toyota introduced the car and the Lexus brand itself in 1989. Since then, the LS sedan, initially conceived to “out-German the Germans,” has become a highly respected nameplate in and of itself, and at last, Lexus seems to have discovered that it no longer has to chase Benz or BMW down whatever path they take. Indeed, by incorporating design details evocative of its homeland of Japan, not Germany, the US, or anywhere else, the LS has found some soul.

“The new LS was created as an expression of what a true Japanese sedan should be, from its design language to the way it drives. Therefore, it has its own unique identity. My sincere wish is for our customers to feel and experience the wonderful qualities of the new Lexus flagship that embraces the ethos of my country,” says Toshio Asahi, chief engineer of the new LS. Asahi and his team started from scratch, developing an all-new architecture that also underpins the slinky and sporty six-figure LC coupe we profiled back in February. Designers in turn created a flowing new body that’s slightly longer, wider, and lower than before, with a road-hugging stance and flowing sheet metal that’s downright radical-looking in comparison.

Among the most obvious changes is the gently arching roofline that blends seamlessly with the fastback-like rear glass, accentuating a thick ring of polished zinc that visually lassoes all windows together including new quarter windows aft of each rear door. Lexus’ controversial, spindle-shaped grille looks more extreme yet more elegant than ever, with a complex inner lattice containing some 5,000 individual surfaces, or 7,000 in the case of the sportier “F-Sport” model. Flanking that grille are intricate Z-shaped headlamps featuring a trio of LED primary bulbs underscored by sharp, spear-like daytime running lamps, while out back, each taillamp contains six spooning, L-shaped light strips layered in three dimensions, plus curious chrome accents that drip down the corner of the car.

Dramatic styling is nice, but the real aim of the new LS was to become the automotive manifestation of Japanese hospitality, or omotenashi, which Lexus describes in automotive terms as the “human-focused” way a vehicle anticipates the needs of its occupants, attending to their comfort and protecting them from hazards. In nearly every key objective measure—cabin space, creature comforts and newfound safety features (including an available semi-autonomous driving system), the LS does exactly that. But what make being inside the new LS a truly next-level experience are its exceptionally beautiful interior details, the most riveting of which—not coincidentally—weren’t in-kind answers to anything found on its competitors, but rather the ones inspired by centuries-old craftsmanship practices of its homeland, many of which are assembled by Lexus’ team of in-house Takumi artisans. Here a just a few.

The Japanese koto guitar inspired the thin lines that sweep across the LS’ dashboard and cleverly conceal the climate control’s center vents. Gorgeous art wood veneers can be ordered in the shimamoku-style’s flowing stripes or a striking herringbone mosaic. For an even greater sense of occasion, the LS’ executive package can instead be ordered with glistening Kiriko-cut crystal accents with 10,000 individual edges that can be admired from any seat in the car, but are perhaps best viewed when fully reclined in the right rear seat, legs crossed on the retractable footrest. Also available with this package are hand-pleated, origami-inspired fabric door panels said to be so time-consuming that a single craftsperson can only complete 12 per day—enough for just three vehicles.

These features impart so much richness and character to the new LS that even the most performance-driven aficionado might forgive Lexus for having just six cylinders under the hood and not the LC’s throaty 471-hp 5.0-liter V-8 found in the LC. The standard V-6, however, has twin turbos, blessing it with 416 hp and buckets more torque than before, along with a 10-speed automatic transmission with Comfort, Eco, Sport and Sport+ drive modes. All-wheel drive and miserly, less powerful LS500h models will also be available when the LS arrives in dealerships in February 2018.

After putting several hundred miles on a pre-production, all-wheel-drive LS500 over six days in California, the LS felt no less huge than before, especially when making U-turns, but the body control is excellent and its “waft” game is on point. And despite emitting a rather blasé note when it pipes up in Sport and Sport+ mode, the gutsy V-6 engine conspires with the tidy handing to make this easily the best-driving LS ever. And thanks to Lexus enlistment of its home-grown Takumi artisans, it finally has soul.

Are Flagship Sedans Sinking?
As we ruminate on the many ways to luxuriate inside the all-new, fifth-generation LS sedan, we must first celebrate its continued existence flagship of the Lexus brand. Why? Because like DVD technology in a DVR world, conventional passenger cars (i.e., sedan, coupes and wagons) are being abandoned as more and more customers migrate to more macho and practical crossovers and SUVs. This trend, plus the astronomical costs of developing all-new automobiles—especially innovation-driven top-tier automobiles—has prompted certain luxury carmakers including Acura, Infiniti, Lincoln and even Cadillac to delay or cancel altogether their next-generation full-size four-door flagships to focus on their crossovers/SUV offerings. So it’s significant that Lexus even bothered building this car in the first place, and we’re awfully glad it did. Long live the flagship sedan!

2018 Lexus LS500/LS500h
Estimated Base Price: $75K
Body Style: 4-door, 5-passenger sedan
Power: 416-hp turbocharged 3.5-liter V-6, 354-hp hybrid 4-cylinder/electric (hybrid)
Transmission: 10-speed automatic, continuously variable transmission (hybrid)
Drive wheels: Rear or all
Fuel Economy, MPG (city/highway): n/a (est.)

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