Payne review: Flamboyant Lexus LS 500 lives large

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

In 1989, “The Simpsons” debuted on television, the Tigers were mired in a rebuilding year and the fall of the Berlin Wall promised the end of the Cold War. Thirty years later, and the Simpsons are still America’s family, the Tigers are again reinventing themselves and Russian relations are colder than a Michigan spring.

But before you think we’re in a “Groundhog Day” movie loop, gaze upon the all-new Lexus LS 500 sedan. This is not your father’s LS.

The year 1989 was also notable, of course, for the debut of the LS 500 — at the Detroit auto show — as Lexus’ flagship. True to Japanese stereotype, the LS was a cheaper knock-off of the luxury segment’s state-of-the-art Mercedes S-Class. Same upright grille with rectangular, encased headlights. Same long, slab sides. Same gray rocker panels, same rectangular taillights, same leather-wrapped interior.

Toyota’s premium brand built its reputation on bulletproof reliability, slavish customer service and wallet-friendly pricing. Design was an afterthought.

Not anymore.

Once again using Motown’s show as its backdrop, Lexus’ all-new, fifth-gen LS hit the stage in January like Bette Midler belting out “Hello, Dolly!” This Lexus had brass, sass and a personality all its own. And like any Broadway diva, the result is a polarizing talent that won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

My 2018 tester arrived in the driveway with a cowcatcher grille bigger than a steam locomotive.

The spindle grille has become Lexus signature. It graces everything from the enormous mask on the RX ute (a face only Darth Vader could love) to the artful sculpture on the racy Lexus LC 500 sports coupe. The LS’s sci-fi grille is somewhere in between — neither pretty nor hideous. Flanked by “Z” headlights, it is a galaxy away from the Mercedes’ classic facial bone structure.

“It’s a handsome car except for the grille,” said a friend. “The grille’s ugly, but the back is nice,” another friend said of the derriere’s bold, horizontal lines interrupted only by a chrome drip (another Lexus signature) at the corner taillights.

Indeed, the Lexus is a bit of a split personality, like Tommy Lee in a tuxedo. Elegantly radical.

In between its “ugly” face and “nice” tush are a coupe-roofed, rear-wheel-drive-proportioned sedan draped over a 123-inch (a foot longer than the 1989 model) wheelbase. In contrast with the RX which demands an opinion from every angle, the rocker panels and door handles are conservatively conventional.

The dual personality continues inside. From the get-go the LS was a tech geek, sporting breakthroughs in 1989 like an automatic tilt-and-telescope steering wheel and vibration-insulating rubber mounts. My loaded, all-wheel drive $103,635 tester checked every box on the car geek’s wish-list including kick-open rear trunk, world’s-largest heads-up display, drive modes, air suspension, 28-way massaging seats and flux capacitor (just kidding about that last one, “Back to the Future” fans).

But then Lexus goes too far with a touch-pad operated infotainment screen that will drive you bonkers. Mrs. Payne nearly took a tire iron to the mouse-controlled display of the Lexus GS on a recent journey to West Virginia so, naturally, Lexus made the LS controls even more diabolical.

Trying to navigate the haptic touchpad while traveling is like moving target practice. To make matters worse, Lexus buries features in the screen like heated seats that most automakers locate on the console. The LS console is a sleek piece of uncluttered art — at least until frustrated passengers start gouging it with blunt objects.

My wife tried adjusting her heated seats with the touch pad while I drove and soon threw her hands up in frustration. Naturally, the Lexus features an advanced safety system — no doubt to help drivers distracted by the maddening touchpad — that has its own issues. Like other Level 2 systems, “Safety System Plus” triangulates adaptive cruise-control, lane-keep assist and blind-spot assist to create a cocoon of self-driving comfort on freeways. Until it doesn’t.

Like Tesla’s Autopilot, SS+ will simply stop working when it can’t make out road lines or center itself in the lane. That means you have to be alert, lest the system takes a coffee break. It’s a toy, not a tool.

Happily, there is the back seat for when the front gets too stressful. In fact, I would recommend going everywhere with two couples to gain the full LS experience. Touchpad driving you batty? Time to switch with the rear passengers!

Equip your LS with the $12,270 luxury package and you won’t regret it. In addition to the aforementioned, 28-way front thrones, you get reclining, 18-way heated rear sofa chairs with power window shades, a seven-inch touchscreen controller (Hooray, no touchpad!) and Ultrasuede liner.

My chocolate Ultrasuede door liner looked like it had been applied with a cake knife, its sugary material shaped with scalloped swirls. I gained 10 pounds just looking at it.

The touchscreen controller not only heats and reclines your own seat, but moves the front passenger seat forward for extra space (oops, still got room up there?) and controls the front radio (“CNN? I’ll switch to Fox News, thank you very much!”). Opt for the $1,000 panoramic roof and you can also control how much sun you get. Aaaah, that’s the life.

The Adaptive Variable Suspension also makes for a carpeted ride back there, electronically adapting to Detroit’s worst roads. On a double date, our chauffeured friends paused from licking the chocolate suede to notice how uncommonly smooth was the drive down the pothole-pocked Lodge service drive.

Naturally, the Lexus also has split driving personalities.

Determined to match its hair-raising design with goosebump-raising performance, the all-new architecture is lower, lighter and more nimble. Give the big bull’s right horn (sprouting from the cockpit cowl) a twist and you are in Sport Plus mode: springs-stiffened, 10-speed tranny optimized, growling 3.5-liter twin-turbo V-6 at the ready.

Open the throttle gates and the 4,938-pound heifer is on the loose, its 442 pound-feet of V-6 torque stampeding across the landscape.

It’s not a the V-8 roar of old — hey, its’ not 1989 anymore. But it has personality, just like the rest of this big, ugly, handsome, relaxing, maddening Japanese land yacht. The new Lexus is still cheaper than a Mercedes, still leads five-year cost-of-ownership lists and still speaks geek. But it’s never boring.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2019 Lexus LS 500

Vehicle type

Front-engine, rear and all-wheel drive, four- or five-passenger luxury sedan


$75,995 base ($103,635 AWD with luxury package as tested)

Power plant

3.5-liter, twin-turbo V-6


416 horsepower, 442 pound-feet of torque


10-speed automatic


0-60 mph, 4.6 seconds (mfr.); top speed: 136 mph (electronically limited)


4,751 pounds (5,093 pounds as tested)

Fuel economy

EPA fuel economy: 19 city/29 highway/23 combined (RWD); 18 city/27 highway/21 combined (AWD)

Report card

Highs: Unique design; palatial back seat

Lows: Maddening remote touch-pad screen controller; clunky auto downshifts at low speed


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★