Lexus LS 500 — Flagship luxury the Lexus way

By Jim Prueter

(August 19, 2021) Last year we drove and tested the 2020 hybrid model of the Lexus flagship LS sedan and noted few changes since it was redesigned for the 2018 model year. That redesign was flush with the style, substance and presence expected for a top-tier luxury sedan, with evidence that the Japanese automaker went to great lengths with state-of-the-art advanced technology throughout the vehicle.

Like competitors such as the Mercedes S-class and BMW 7-series, Lexus did away with its traditional V-8 engine in favor of a new twin-turbo 3.5-liter 416-horsepower V-6 with a choice of rear- or all-wheel drive, delivered through a silky-smooth 10-speed automatic transmission.

The hybrid LS was comprised of a V-6 and two electric motors, good for 354-horsepower and paired with an electronically controlled continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). We found the hybrid setup to be decidedly unrefined, coarse and far inferior to the twin-turbocharged V-6 engine. We were also disappointed with the continuously variable transmission (CVT); pre-set gear ratios felt imprecise and vague leaving us questioning why Lexus engineers felt the need to abandon the excellent conventional 10-speed automatic transmission found on the non-hybrid LS model.

Now for 2021 Lexus has supplied us with a non-hybrid LS sedan for testing. Automakers traditionally do a thorough redesign of a vehicle after five years of production, which makes the LS due for an upgrade for the 2023 model.

That said, little has changed for 2021. As expected, there are some minor alterations with new headlamps and trim surrounds on the exterior, and a quieter cabin courtesy of a modified active-noise-cancellation system. However the biggest change is the new 12.3-inch infotainment touchscreen that replaces the overly fussy and poorly executed system that frustrated us for so many prior years.

Other upgrades on the latest LS include refined suspension and chassis tuning to achieve a smoother, controlled, more comfortable ride while helping to minimize body roll in turns. Still, pothole bumps and pavement imperfections are too noticeable for a top-tier luxury sedan. Even with the suspension improvements, the LS is no canyon carver and far from nimble on twisty roads, feeling overmatched for the task at hand.  

While we prefer the power and dynamics of a V-8 engine in large luxury sedans, that isn’t part of the deal with the LS. The standard twin-turbocharged V-6 performs admirably with brisk acceleration, needing just 5.8 seconds to reach 60 mph from a stop. That’s certainly quick enough but there’s a noticeable amount of turbo lag, a hesitation between the V-6 and the transmission. There are several drive modes the driver can select (Normal, Sport S, and Sport S+) to enhance performance, but we miss the smooth immediate power delivery of a V-8. The LS is rear-wheel drive, with all-wheel drive available.

As expected, interior fit, finish and exquisite materials are first rate relative to look and touch; surfaces are luxuriously padded and adorned with real wood veneers, suede, leather and chrome. We were surprised to find that the lower part of the dashboard is finished in hard plastic where competitors use full padding. Seats are soft, perforated leather trimmed with contrasting stitching, fully adjustable with a welcomed massaging feature. Activating it, however, requires a multi-step process through the touchscreen that isn’t easy to use and unnecessarily distracting.

One should be rewarded with at least three college credits to master the car’s overly complicated operating controls that most often require numerous touchscreen steps for even the most benign functions: engaging the heated seats, finding and operating audio and climate controls. We recommend drivers develop proficiency with steering wheel controls and voice commands for some of the simpler tasks. Still, these commands to confirm the voice entry are cumbersome. Siri Eyes Free and Google Assistant are supported when an equipped smartphone is paired.

Standard safety features included in Lexus Safety Systems Plus include forward collision warning and automatic braking with pedestrian detection, lane keeping assistance, lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control, and automatic high beam headlights. An optional package brings active steering assist—a feature that is designed to help avoid a pedestrian or guardrail.

Overall, the Lexus LS, with its bold style, first-class accommodations, impeccable build quality, and advanced technology, along with its 30-year history in the U.S,. is a standout among its Japanese peers. However, it fails to match the stage presence or cachet one gets when in the company of competitors like the Mercedes S Class, Audi A8, BMW 7 Series or Porsche Panamera.

Vital Stats
Base Price: $79,600
Price as Tested: $98,810
Seating: Four
Engine/Transmission: 416-hp 3.5-liter twin turbocharged V-6 delivered through a 10-speed automatic transmission
Fuel Economy: 18/29/22 MPG – City/Highway/Combined

Crash Test Safety Ratings: Neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has crash tested the 2021 LS. Very expensive cars like the LS typically do not undergo crash testing.

Where Built: Tahara, Aichi, Japan

Competes With:
Audi A8
BMW 7-Series
Genesis G90
Mercedes-Benz S-Class
Porsche Panamera

Fab Features:
First rate cabin with impeccable build quality
Long list of standard and optional equipment
Plush, comfortable seating