Lexus LS 500h — Hybrid car luxury

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Virtually every automaker this decade is pursuing some form of "electrification" within their brands whether it be luxury or mainstream. Listen to the talking points of worldwide automakers and full electric is the wave of the future. Except it isn't — at least not now. Indeed, the multi-billion dollar push to EVs has been slow in paying dividends especially in this new age of unprecedented gas engine fuel efficiency and low prices.

The better way to get "electrified" is with the hybrid powertrain that combines a gas engine with an electric motor. No range anxiety with a hybrid because the gas engine can keep things moving. And gas mileage is improved with the addition of the battery-powered electric motor.

Since the turn of the century a hybrid gas engine/electric motor combo has been offered in a majority of Toyota and Lexus vehicles.

Even the Lexus flagship LS sedan (and LC coupe) has gotten the treatment, and we drove both of the newest 2020 Lexus 500h’s for evaluation and came away with mixed emotions.

The 500h is the second generation of the hybrid LS sedan, which was all new for 2018. Three power units — a 3.5-liter Atkinson-cycle V-6 and two electric motor/generators — power the big sedan. Combined output is 354 horsepower.

The heart of the 500h is a unique and complex transmission that combines continuously variable operation with four fixed ratios in a single gearbox. It's essentially two transmissions bolted together in series that Lexus claims gives the impression of a 10-speed automatic from behind the wheel. Lexus also says that the addition of the fixed-ratio gearing helps combat the typical CVT feeling in which engine speed is completely decoupled from vehicle speed. But we were still put off at times by the "hybrid" performance.

In its Normal drive mode — there are also Eco, Sport S, and Sport S+ settings — the V-6 feels disconnected from the wheels as the LS's electronic brain determines the most efficient engine speed required for the requested acceleration. Too frequently the V-6 comes to life and is immediately laboring at a speed out of proportion with driver input.

This is not to say the big two-and-one-half ton sedan doesn't get the job done in merging and passing — it lives up to Lexus' claim of 0-to-60 in 5.4 seconds — it's just the lack of continuously uninterrupted performance that is sometimes off-putting.

Improved gas mileage is the only reason we can think of convincing a buyer to purchase the hybrid version of the 500. With all-wheel drive such as our test vehicle, the LS hybrid is rated at 23 mpg city, 31 highway and 26 combined on premium gas and 25/33/28 in rear-wheel configuration. The lighter weight 500h coupe in rear drive has a rating of 27/35/30.

That's a gain of just five miles to the gallon in either configuration — certainly not enough if you're counting on fuel savings to justify the hybrid's additional cost of about $5,000. Our AWD copy with $14,680 in options came to $98,885. The comparable gas engine AWD model with the same $14,680 in options stickers for around $94,000. Our coupe with $2,120 in options came to $100,605.

While the LC is super sexy and loaded the LS gets a new platform that’s even longer than the outgoing generation’s stretched model. The long wheelbase will be the only version offered. It has a lower, ground-hugging appearance and a striking coupe-like silhouette with a six-window profile. The body is mostly aluminum; only the roof is steel.

Luxury audiences seem to have a preference for big grilles and the LS doesn’t disappoint. A unique rendition of the massive spindle grille mesh includes 5,000 different surfaces (7,000 on the F Sport trim), flanked by narrow slit-like projector lamps and L-shaped LED lamps. Overall, it’s the most sharply angled and edgy vehicle in its class.

The effects of the longer wheelbase really show up inside, with massive amounts of passenger room and comfort. Unlike most cars, the best seat in the new LS isn’t the driver’s. Rather, the backseat is like flying international first class with executive seats that heat, cool, massage, and recline — along with a raised ottoman.

Power window shades add privacy and keep out the sun. There are also 11.6-inch entertainment screens, an excellent Mark Levinson 3D audio system, ambient lighting, and a wide variety of hand-finished trim options that include a choice of nine interior color schemes — plus two more for the F Sport. There’s several Shimamoku wood patterns available in a choice of matte or gloss, light or dark, and all wood pieces are individually handcrafted.

This is unquestionably a showy, almost arrogant display of luxury automotive craftsmanship that is nothing short of exceptional — pure genius.

While the overall interior layout is extraordinary, we were dismayed that Lexus decided to carry over the infamous touchpad-based infotainment system. It has to be the most distracting feature found in any car regardless of price. It's impossible to use without taking eyes off the road — and that's never a good idea while hurtling down a highway at 70 mph.

The LS 500 provides world-class safety technology with Lexus Safety System+ A, PCS that can detect pedestrians and vehicles ahead using millimeter-wave radar for collision prevention, and stereo cameras for damage mitigation. In certain situations, the active steering assist can automatically control steering and braking when there is a high possibility of collision with a pedestrian.

With its array of sensors, the LS can detect the threat of an impending collision and automatically apply the brakes if the driver does not. Lane departure alert detects road lanes and alerts the driver when the vehicle wanders, and even provides steering wheel assistance to keep the vehicle in its lane.

In whatever configuration you decide, you will be getting premium luxury that compares quite well with any full-sized luxury car from Europe.

2020 Lexus LS 500h

Base price: $80,985; as driven, $98,885
Engine: 3.5-liter V6, two electric motors
Horsepower: 354
Transmission: Electrically variable-speed automatic
Drive: all-wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 123 inches
Length: 206.1 inches
Curb weight: 5,027 pounds
Turning circle: 36.8 feet
Cargo capacity: 15.2 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 22.2 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 23 city, 31 highway, 26 combined
0-60: 5.4 seconds (manufacturer)
Also consider: BMW 7 Series, Volvo S90, Audi A8

The Good
• Extremely quiet at all speeds
• Luxury-appointed interior
• Excellent ride quality
• Loaded with safety

The Bad
• Not as sporty as European rivals

The Ugly
• Touch-pad infotainment distracting