2021 Lexus LS 500 Review: Smooth Operator

When Lexus first arrived in the US with the LS 400 it took the luxury sedan market by storm. Its engine smoothness and in-cabin experience were unparalleled.

But a lot has changed since then. While its core values have remained intact, in recent years, the LS has fallen behind its chief competitor, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, in terms of luxury and technology. But it also undercuts the Germans by a fair margin, and for the 2021 model year, Lexus has made some improvements to the cabin, and thrown in an uber-luxurious package that measures up even to the highest luxury standards. 

Couple all that with an impeccably designed interior and the spirit of Japanese hospitality and the 2021 Lexus LS 500 comes across as a package worth considering even at $110,000—at least on paper. 

Omotenashi?

In Japanese culture, Omotenashi consists of two aspects, attention to detail and anticipating the guest’s needs before they arise and it’s at the heart of Lexus’ flagship sedan. Well, the former is certainly true. From the moment you open the door, the LS 500’s cabin greets you with subdued exuberance. The Kiriko Cut Glass sitting just behind the door handle seems indispensable despite being ornamental, while the hand-pleated, cognac-colored door trim looks all kinds of bespoke. You can’t help but touch it to ascertain if it’s even real. But it is. 

Every single inch of the dash is draped in the finest leather in the same cognac hue. Black leather upholstery on the seats with contrasting red stitching not only complements the red dashboard, but balances out the brightness of it. Stitched leather even adorns the grab handles.

SEE ALSO: 2021 Lexus IS 350 Review: First Drive

The whole design of the cabin has a flow to it. Each line and panel blend into each other. That, combined with a soft roof-liner, creates an ambiance that is both calming and awe-inspiring. You could get in here after a long stressful day and just sit in the seats to unwind. 

Seat comfort in the front is impeccable. It is 28-way adjustable, covering everything from the squab, side bolstering, hip bolsters, even the rear of the squab, and upper and lower back panels. The LS ensures that you don’t compromise on your driving position, even if it takes you half an hour to find it. You also get massage function with multiple modes—on all four seats, so no one feels left out.

At the rear, you get two separate reclining seats. While you can only recline the seat-back on the rear-left seat, the rear-right one can go full first-class lounge and reclines almost flat enough to sleep on. Needless to say, the front passenger seat needs to be unoccupied. There are other thoughtful touches like diffused and beam reading lights at the rear depending on your needs. Plus, you can also control much of the car from the touchscreen on the center armrest. Lastly, the LS 500 is essentially a four-seater; you can flip the middle armrest up to seat a third person in the middle. The said person will feel like a third wheel, but space is there. 

Unfortunately, the rear seats are not as enveloping or comfortable as you would expect them to be. You get a feeling that you sit on them rather than in them. The LS’ chief competition, the Mercedes S-Class, offers almost cocoon-like rear seating comfort, one that is both relaxing and luxurious. The LS only gets the luxurious part right. 

The tech toys 

We start from the rear seats. The rear seats operate via a touchscreen in the center. While you can operate pretty much every aspect of your immediate space from the touchscreen, including the individual climate control zones, passenger seat position, massage, heating, sunshades, and rear lamps, the resolution feels dated and tactility is lacking. As I mentioned before, you can flip the armrest up to accommodate an extra passenger but that also means you lose the control screen and can’t operate most of the functions. Avoid a third passenger unless you absolutely can’t.

One of the biggest changes to the 2021 LS 500 is the new infotainment screen, which now comes with touch control. You still get the trackpad though, which is better left untouched unless you are parked. While the touchscreen makes the system user-friendly and easier to live with, some quirks remain. For example, you can’t scroll through a menu like you would on any normal touch device. Here you can only scroll by touching the up or down icons on the screen. If you try to scroll, the system takes your initial touch as the input and you land in an unwanted menu.

It is also not the most intuitive infotainment system out there. The Enform system is best left alone in favor of phone projection. Both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto run seamlessly on the touchscreen and are the best ways to navigate the infotainment system. Also, the segregated instrument cluster feels a tad dated and small in the era of large screens. It’s the one thing that Lexus should have considered updating alongside the touchscreen.  

SEE ALSO: 2022 Mercedes-Benz EQS Preview: Hands On With the New EV Luxury Standard

But I do appreciate the redundant buttons for the seat and steering heating controls and the shortcut for massage function. Plus, individual climate control zones for all four passengers is a thoughtful touch. Then there is the 23-speaker Mark Levinson sound system which is a thing of beauty. Its sound quality is impeccable, and is likely only rivaled by Merc’s Burmester system. 

Gliding away

While it may fall a tad short on anticipating an occupant’s needs in terms of quality infotainment, on the move the LS feels like riding on a cloud. The adaptive air suspension is a work of art. No matter the speed, the Lexus LS never feels out of shape. The smaller bumps are discarded without a second thought; the bigger ones feel like a soft knock. Only a large pothole creates a noticeable sonic effect, even then, the cabin remains absolutely solid.

SEE ALSO: 2021 Mercedes-Benz S-Class Sets New Luxury Tech Benchmark

You could be doing 30 mph in the city or 70 on the highway and yet the cabin remains as quiet as a Japanese prayer hall. Despite its size, the LS is easy to maneuver in the bends, again thanks to that adaptive air suspension setup, which makes quick work of most of the corners a typical North American long drive could throw at you. Yes, it might come across as a bit ostentatious in the pictures but on a busy downtown street the big Lexus seems in its element, in its natural habitat. It can be a tad cumbersome to navigate through tight spaces however, partly due to its size, partly because it needs larger wing mirrors and partly because it never stops beeping.  

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The 3.5-liter twin-turbo V6 is a smooth operator. Its 443 lb-ft of torque is not only ample for the LS’ considerable heft, but since it makes peak torque from 1,600 rpm, it’s also effortless. Rolling off the line is easy and sans any drama. Even to gather speed quickly all you need is prod of the right foot. One of the biggest advantages of a strong mid-range on a gasoline motor is that you barely hear it. 

The 10-speed transmission complements the engine rather well. It isn’t the quickest and feels relaxed in normal mode. But to be fair, you don’t need frequent gear changes with a strong mid-range. It does get off its armchair when you switch to sport via the dash-mounted scroller, but even then the shift speed doesn’t change dramatically. But bury the throttle and the Lexus forgets it weighs over two tonnes and darts forward (admittedly after a short pause) as it buries your head into the soft headrest. It is however most comfortable when you’re not trying to achieve its claimed 0-60 time. As long as you are gentle-ish with the throttle and the brake pedal, you never really feel the transmission shuffling through the gears. The transmission is clearly tuned for smoothness rather than anything else. 

Powertrain smoothness has always been the Lexus LS’s hallmark and the 2021 LS 500 keeps that tradition intact. 

Verdict: 2021 Lexus LS 500 

The 2021 Lexus LS 500 starts at $80,700 ($106,845 CAD) including destination which, though far from affordable, is quite competitive for a flagship luxury sedan. Especially considering you get the entire list of safety features including all-speed radar cruise control and rear emergency braking as standard. Our tester here comes with the Executive Package with Kiriko Glass which adds a whopping $23,580 ($34,600 CAD) to the MSRP and tips the pricing scales at $110,545 ($141,445 CAD). But with the added price you get all the features mentioned in the story above. 

The primary target of the Lexus LS has always been the Mercedes S-Class. But it already struggles to match the Merc’s rear-seat comfort, a gap which will likely only widen when the 2022 model touches down in a few months. As things stand today, the Lexus has its quirks but is still a more affordable and luxury-loaded package compared to the BMW 7 Series or the Audi A8. Then there is Toyota’s bulletproof reliability and lower maintenance costs to boot which makes the 2021 LS 500 worth considering. 

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