What am I, a prince? As far as a car is concerned, I don’t need anything more than a $20,000 Kia Rio to get around. So what is it like to get plopped into a Lexus LS500 worth almost six times that much, all just to get from A to B?
This is kind of the central question of the biggest and most opulent sedan Lexus will sell you. After all, there’s something fundamentally different about a Lexus compared to, say, a Mercedes-Benz.
Full Disclosure: Lexus lent me an LS 500 for a few hundred miles’ worth of a weekend road trip. It was vaguely harrowing to be in charge of a car worth $115,175, to be exact. It spent no time streetparked in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, and came with a full tank of gas.
If you drive an S-Class, a Maybach even, as I did a few years back on a road trip up to Maine, you are really just the assistant and the car is the boss. The Mercedes, as you know in your heart, is the top product from a dedicated luxury carmaker. It is the best of the best. Its features have been carefully selected by the finest engineers in Germany, optimized to the nth degree. When you rest your head on the built-in pillow on the rear-seat headrests, you are comfortable, and you are comfortable in the knowledge that there is no way to make a built-in pillow on a rear-seat headrest any more comfortable than the one in this car. This is why you buy a Mercedes. You put your trust in a Mercedes, knowing that the rest of the world does, too.
But what if you sort of wish that it was a little bit softer, or a little bit firmer? You are going against the whole mythos. You’re wrong, the Mercedes tells you.
The whole dream of the car unravels at the seams when you realize that, actually, it’s not really the best of the best of the best of the best. It’s just another consumer product like anything else, built to a budget even if that budget is high. Even a Maybach is compromised in little ways in every little aspect of it. The Mercedes will not last forever, nor will it be the ultimate in comfort. Nothing will be.
That’s fine in a normal car, but this is a Mercedes. Who are you to question it, after all? Look at the little wreath surrounding the three-pointed star emblem. You really think that you are a greater, wiser, person than whoever designed this thing? Because of its status as the top car of the top luxury carmaker, in a Mercedes, the car’s will comes first; you are second.
This is not the case in the Lexus. After all, everyone already knows that Lexus is just a luxury brand from Toyota. There’s an underdog quality in that, a self-made kind of energy. It’s the very best and highest-quality product that Toyota can produce. (That is, excepting the Japan-only Toyota Century, which is less of a luxurious car and more of a dignified one meant for conservative heads of state.) At its heart, even this Lexus LS500 is a product of the Toyota empire, and no matter what, it will always be resting in the back of your mind. You know that this car, all 17 feet of it, does the same basic job as a Toyota Corolla, and fits into the same corporate balance sheet.
So what, then, does Lexus do to justify its price? Well, that’s the fun part of it. Every part of the car is screaming, overworking to tell you that you are in not just a car but a luxury car. Every little inch is sprinkled with Lexus’ fairy dust. The back seats do not just recline, they are heated, and cooled, and they have massage functions. More massage functions than I was able to test, even with the help of three other people over the course of a long weekend.
You see Lexus Ls everywhere you look, as if the car is constantly trying to remind you LEXUS, YOU ARE IN A LEXUS. They are in the headlights. They are in the taillights. Even the doors are upholstered in a kind of ribbed fabric flaps in the shape of repeated Ls. Every minute inside the LS500 has another discovery of a feature you did not expect to find. Almost all cars now have little icons of you and your car driving down the road. In the LS500, that image is in high-definition, and you get to pick your own matching color.
This is all to say that the LS500 is not a car that you drive, that you work for. The LS500 works for you. It has a little chip on its shoulder, always trying to surprise you, convince you that it’s worth it. There’s something in that, and if it came down to it, I would rather be the rich guy 10 or 20 years down the road with an aging LS500 than an aging S-Class. I don’t know if I can clearly say that one is more luxurious than the other; I’m not a good judge of that anyway. The last time I bought a car I dished out a grand total of $2,500. I paid in $50s. I’m not the final word in what seat most finely comforts the asses of the world’s ultra-rich. But I can say that while I respect an S-Class, I want an LS.
With that in mind, let’s look at each of the qualities of this car, starting with the one most eager to lie to your face.
The indignity of a new LS 500 is that for all the money that you are graciously giving Lexus, you do not receive a V8 in return. Instead you just get a twin-turbo 3.5-liter V6, good for 416 horsepower and 442 lb-ft of torque. By the specifications, this is fine, and uninteresting. Pedestrian, almost. Of course, this Lexus must work exceedingly hard to convince you that there is nothing actually pedestrian about it, lest you begin to question why you shelled out six figures for it. (The absolute cheapest LS 500 starts at a mere $76,000, but you get no options and RWD.)
Again, there is comedy in the LS 500 trying to make this V6 special. You get paddle shifters, funny on their own in a car that weighs 4,905 pounds, and if you actually switch over to sport mode, the car pipes in an absurd amount of engine noise into the cabin as you matt the gas pedal. PHWOOAAAAAR it yells through the speakers while you do a reasonably terrifying 4.6-second 0-60 run. It’s not that it’s not fun; it’s hilarious. It’s just silly that the last thing anyone would want out of a full-size Lexus limo is for the tach to go red and the car to pretend it actually sounds like a Le Mans prototype.
I must also mention that the car does not have “sport” mode, it has “Sport S” mode and “Sport S+” mode above that. What does the extra S stand for? Sport Sport Plus? This is what happens when you are extra.
The Interior (Front Seats)
Much as new carmakers like to talk about how their minivans or electric cars have some sort of “living room concept” that emulate the home, the LS 500's interior is an actual nice place to be. More than a few times over the weekend I had it, I found myself just... hanging out in there. The $1,000 dual sunroofs keep the black interior from being too dark, the seats are comfier than your couch, the sound system is good, and the fluted dashboard trim is handsome. It’s a nice place to be.
Lexus also decided to break into a New Jersey diner and steal some of their mirrored-metal-under-glass facades and affix them around the door handles. I am not sure why Lexus would do this, but it feels homey. It takes me back to my childhood, visiting my grandparents in Fort Lee, getting some matzah ball soup.
The Interior (Back Seats)
Where the front is pleasant, the back is cavernous. This is not an opulent car; you’re not in a Bentley. It is not exactly elegant or stylish, either; the piping on the seats is far from anything I’d call minimal or modern. It is a supremely relaxing, though, with acres of room even for those over six feet. There is also a comedy in how many functions you can scroll through back there.
I found excuses to drive people around on whatever errands they needed to run, just to see if they could run out of different modes to try. Every time someone ended up surprised over something. My girlfriend’s mom’s dog ended up changing the radio station at one point putting a paw on the center-mounted touch screen.
All of this is not cheap. The massage functions, the hand-pleated interior trim, it’s all part of the “executive package,” and it costs $23,580.
The Driving Experience
Does this Lexus, riding on $920 optional 20" wheels, actually ride noticeably, significantly better than a Corolla? It does! It really does. It’s not the floppy, floaty quality of a worn-out Crown Victoria, nor is it the effortless glide of a Rolls-Royce, but you do feel supremely isolated from the business of the tires touching the ground.
The car sort of eggs you on to use its full abilities. I wasn’t exactly hunting for potholes, but I relished cruising over rough roads in the same way that I enjoyed finding country lanes to get a chance to hear the fake engine roar and get pressed into the back of my huge leather seat.
The EPA rates this thing at a rather unspectacular 21 MPG combined, assuredly thanks to having a 10-speed automatic transmission to work with. You can choose to get this thing as a hybrid, which gets you up to 26 MPG, or 28 if you get the RWD model. Why you would be worried about fuel economy when premium is required, I do not know. I am not the target market for this vehicle.
I will also add that the trunk is huge.
Much as the car itself can’t get away without reminding you, at all times, that it is different and special and totally worth it in every way, so too does the design of the car work to justify its name and price. Every panel has a crease, every character line has a chrome accent. This is not the most restrained-looking car out there, but it’s not the most restrained car, either.
I wouldn’t want it to pretend otherwise. The whole look works for me.
What I can say is that I was more than charmed by the LS 500. I’ve never been in a car that worked so hard to tell me it was worth it. Rolls-Royces feel less committed to the bit. There might be more luxurious cars you can buy, I’m just not sure there are more appealing ones.