You might have to be older than 50 to grasp how audacious declarations about the all-new Lexus LS500 really are. It helps to be familiar with the polite modesty typical of Japanese business interaction, but if you’re grounded in the effect the 1990 LS400 had on the luxury-car market, you’ll have a better idea what this guy is saying:
“The pinnacle must go far beyond what the world expects from a luxury sedan,” chief engineer Toshio Asahi told AW through an interpreter, shortly after the fifth-generation LS was unveiled at the Detroit auto show. “We expect to achieve the pinnacle and to present the same level of impact and accomplishments presented by the original (LS sedan). We set previously unachieved targets for this LS500 and pressed on until they were achieved.”
Car enthusiasts of a certain age and particularly original owners know the LS400 debuted as few cars ever have. Its noise, vibration and harshness management surpassed anything previously experienced, even at the upper reaches of the luxury market. Its attention to detail, build quality and (with time) reliability all set new, substantially higher benchmarks. The extent to which Lexus drove the evolution of luxury cars through the 1990s should not be underestimated — in terms of customer service, standard equipment, driveline smoothness and broadening application of V8 engines. By the mid-90s, the German brands were in crisis-management mode.
In the current subdivided and rapidly fluctuating market for new automobiles, it’s hard to imagine any new vehicle having that kind of impact. Lexus and its engineers insist the 2018 LS500 will.
The German luxury brands recovered, of course, and turned the tables, to some extent. They played to their deeper heritage, their reputation for taking care of the driver foremost and to a performance advantage honed through decades in motorsport. At some point, the LS went from trendsetter to Euro chaser, distinguished primarily by its application of Toyota Motor Corp.’s hybrid technology. As the 2000s rolled out, Lexus’ pursuit of perfection shifted to the pursuit of emotion — or maybe plain old sex appeal. It culminated with the LFA supercar and the LFA’s trickle-down effect on lesser Lexuses that followed.
Chief engineer Asahi notes that all production cars require compromise — or choices, at least — and he reminds us that engineers building the first LS400 were aware of that. Yet at the Detroit show, he conceded that LS400-style serenity can work at cross purposes to excitement — that a bit more rumble in the exhaust, a bit more reluctance to lean through curves or a bit more steering feel can lead to solutions that are different from what tranquil perfection dictates. Asahi also said this balancing made some decisions with the new LS more difficult, but his solutions were more likely to fall on the aggressive side.
Asahi was as boisterous as a Japanese chief engineer gets. The new LS achieves a balance of comfort and excitement yet to be seen in the marketplace, he said, and it is Euro-chasing no more. It represents a “deep, strong Japanese identity and approach to luxury,” just as the original did.
Then: The original LS400 set new standards in finish, form and presentation.
The 2018 LS500 does that with Lexus’ new large rear-drive platform, which recently debuted under the LC500 coupe. It has the same double-jointed suspension configuration as the LC, with enhancements to maintain appropriate rigidity on a 10-inch-longer wheelbase (including aluminum suspension towers in back). The LS will offer optional air springs, active stabilizer bars and rear steer. Its 123-inch wheelbase matches long-wheelbase versions of the Audi A8, BMW 7-Series and Mercedes S-Class, give or take an inch or two. Indicators suggest the LS could be lighter.
Its 3.5-liter twin-turbo V6 is new, with different spacing and bore/stroke ratio from Toyota’s familiar corporate 3.5. With 415 hp and 442 lb-ft of torque, it surpasses the current 4.6-liter LS V8 by 8 and 15 percent, respectively. The 10-speed torque-converter automatic was introduced in the LC, and Lexus promises that its largest sedan will go 0-60 mph in 4.5 seconds.
Technology highlights include active noise reduction and active pedestrian detection with autonomous steering within the lane. LS500s with air suspension will have an access mode, though this one raises the vehicle as opposed to lowering it. When it’s unlocked, the car will lift, and seat bolsters will spread and flatten.
Indicators suggest that the LS will not match Tesla or the new Mercedes E-Class in autonomous operating technology. Yet Asahi believes its driving aides are appropriate for anticipated market demand, and he says the new-gen LS is protected. In other words, Lexus won’t need to wait for the next wheels-up redo to add more autonomous operation.
Now: “I think you need only open the door to know you’re looking at an interior unlike any luxury car before.”
Then there’s the look. This LS500 is visibly lower, wider and less bulbous than the current LS, and it might be the most successful iteration to date of design themes introduced with the LFA, defined by Lexus’ spindle grille. As it was with Cadillac’s sharp Art and Science style, it seems that it’s taken Lexus a few tries to lose the goofier qualities and get things balanced.
“The LS is a bit softer, with more unifying lines, as is appropriate to a brand flagship,” chief designer Koichi Suga said in Detroit. “The mesh enhances the nature of the spindle grille. I think you need only open the door to know you’re looking at an interior unlike any luxury car before.”
More audacious declarations. Chief engineer Asahi certainly understands that the automotive landscape is different and more splintered than it was in late 1980s, when the first LS was developed. He notes that there were far more vehicles to benchmark this time, from old standbys like the S-Class to four-door “coupes” like the Audi A7 hatch or Mercedes CLS to four-door “sports cars’’ like the Porsche Panamera — not to mention the broadening range of SUVs and crossovers that are influencing what luxury buyers expect. Yet he isn’t backing down from his assertion that the next LS will deliver the same sort of impact the original did.
“We are setting our own direction again,” he said. “This will define the new-generation luxury car and embody Japanese tradition and culture. LS buyers will be surrounded by luxury on a steady basis, with an eye for authenticity to begin with. We wouldn’t turn their heads with a conventional premium sedan. As we get closer (to introduction), you will see.”
The opportunity to see more clearly should come by this summer.