Review: 2021 Lexus LS 500h is close to perfect
Flawed, but still exemplary. The Road Beat tests Lexus' flagship model. Words and photos by Mitchell Weitzman.
Review and photos of the 2021 Lexus LS 500h
I really like the Lexus LS 500. Like, really like it. I like it so much that the aspects that bug me really bug me, and that's because I want this car to be nothing short of perfect. And oh, is it close. One of the most delightful vehicles I've ever been in, the LS 500 was made to emphasize the very notion of luxury. It reminds me of Rowan Atkinson's character in Love Actually, when he is gift-wrapping a scandalous necklace. Alan Rickman says he doesn't need a bag, but Atkinson says, "Oh, this isn't a bag, sir...This is so much more than a bag." And that describes the Lexus LS - it's not just a car, it's so much more than a car.
What is it?
Lexus' flagship vehicle, the LS sedan. LS means Luxury Sedan and helped transform the luxury landscape when it first debuted some 30 years ago. Before the LS, your choices were either German, in the shape of a BMW or Mercedes, while the adventurous (and those with a mustache) might choose a Jaguar. Then along comes Lexus with the LS 400, providing an experience and quality to match those peers, but at a lower price point and with their legendary build and reliability. To say the LS changed automotive scenery forever is an understatement, because it proved that the Japanese carmakers could challenge, and legitimately, any segment of the car industry; Not just affordable items.
Fast forward to now, and the LS still exists to take the good fight to the Germans, built still on its principles of luxury and quality at a better price. Only now, it's not so affordable, and also, there's increased competition from new startups like Genesis and electrics. At $104,965, it's definitely priced as a flagship. How does it hold up then?
Lots is hot. I think it looks rather nice for starters. With elegant curves that seemingly elongate the shape and a Lexus grille that magically works, it's very stylish on the outside. The use of chrome is perfectly tasteful, too. However, the inside is even better. Leather and softly addictive alcantara micro suede is basically everywhere. I reckon Lexus must use the same leather supplier as Saint Laurent, because it's oh-so luscious. I love the design of the door cards, with a swooping, waterfall effect happening on the armrest that is closer to a floating shelf. Instead of a square motif, I like the swooping nature of everything, and in the center of the dash is an impressively large touchscreen display.
Comfort and space are both enormous in whichever seat you choose, but the front seats have the most sensational built-in seat massagers ever in a car. I've used BMW's optional massage system in their 7-series, but they're nowhere near as potent as here in the Lexus. With multiple massages to choose from, it's a massage you can actually feel. Other systems are hard to tell they're even on, but not the Lexus, and not only can you feel it, but it feels good. The seat adjustments are literally endless, with even a way to fine-tune the padding/inflation around your tailbone. Yeah, the front seats are damn amazing. The rears don't have quite the adjustment, but the leg room is fantastic and you can slightly recline seats for being chauffeured around. There's also a center screen to control your own climate among many other things. Think of it as having a permanent first-class ticket on Qatar Airways.
Of course it's quiet, but I didn't expect the LS to be this quiet. At 70 MPH, I swear you can hear the thoughts of your passengers; Don't bother speaking, just communicate telekinetically. I could park next to a busy freeway or inside a busy hotel's parking garage, and you could very easily read The Goldfinch without any interruptions inside. Shoot, you could record a chart-topping hit in the LS 500.
It should come as no surprise that the ride quality is equally excellent, with the LS 500 seemingly gliding over any and all bumps, potholes, whatever, with absolutely no fuss. I don't know how it renders road imperfections as so insignificant, but it does. The LS rides better on a battered roads than many cars do on the most perfectly glass-smooth tarmac in existence. Add up the comfort of the seats (with massage mode on), the lack of road and wind noise, and the magic carpet ride quality, and it's such a relaxing, soothing experience. Okay, your monthly payment on one of these will be high, but think of it as including an unlimited Spa membership plan, and then it's not quite as bad.
Lexus engineers have also managed to make the LS more than decent to drive. It's completely mute, sure, with no feeling through the wheel at all (because feedback is intrusive and not luxury-like), but it still manages to be direct and thoroughly capable. Aim it through a series of bends, and you can carry an alarming rate of speed despite the vast size and weight of this luxury barge, and it does it with few complaints. On one of those looping, cloverleaf freeway onramps with two lanes, you could easily pass the average Porsche or Corvette driver in the LS and they'd be confused and left feeling insubstantial in their existence. Understeer happens when you push of course, but the balance and composure is strikingly good for a vehicle not meant to eat corners.
Unfortunately, the LS 500h is not perfect. It's close, but not quite there. And it's because of its stellar attributes already mentioned that make me have to be extra nitpicking, and that's because I want it to be that embodiment of perfect. So, what didn't I like? Well, as you noticed, there's a little 'h' attached to the vehicle's name. The h stands for hybrid. Yes, this particular LS 500h is a hybrid vehicle. Now, I'm all for a decent hybrid system, but this exact system belies the luxury character of the car. Why's that? Well, it's a lazy V6 paired to some electric motors for a combined output of 354 horsepower. While it's good off the line with the instantaneous response from the electric motors, resulting in a 0-60 MPH of 5.2 seconds, the performance falls flat over 60 MPH.
However, it's not just the lack of speed compared to German rivals that have literally 100 more horsepower, it's also the nature of the V6 and the presence of a loony CVT transmission. When accelerating and adjusting your throttle, I found the V6 too intrusive aurally, exacerbated by the way the transmission will hold constant RPMs as you accelerate. In short, the operation of this powertrain is not fitting for a luxury car. I don't want a hundred grand car to behave like a Corolla, but that's just how CVTs work, especially with an engine that has to work hard to make any momentum because it's carrying over 5,000 pounds.
On the bright side, fuel mileage is impressive, averaging 25 MPG overall and achieving 37 on the highway at 70. The LS 500 comes standard with a twin-turbo V6 with an extra 60 horsepower instead, and while lacking the economy of this hybrid, it is a more pleasant and luxurious experience whilst also being several thousand dollars cheaper - It's the engine I would recommend for the LS. A big takeaway I had from how the hybrid set-up functions is that this vehicle would be better if it actually was all-electric. Oh, what's that, there's that new, pretty Lucid Air set to roll out this autumn? Hmm...
Other annoyances include a driver's door that either opens way too far, or a little too narrow, being a lack of notches in the door jambs. When you're looking for perfection, you notice these things. I also found the Lexus infotainment display to be too complicated to operate. Even with the introduction of touchscreen operation that does improve things, it still remains a struggle to use at times. The main chief reason is you can't do everything with only the touchscreen; you have to still use the hard buttons located in two different locations to be able to properly do it all. Commit to one or the other, but the mixed use of touch and buttons is not a good combination. An example is there's no digital home button on the screen to access the main menu; you have you click the menu button near the shifter for that. Furthermore, you can adjust the climate control with hard buttons (which I prefer, climate is so much easier with physical switches than digital ones you have to access), but not all aspects of it. Want to turn AC on and off? You have to access the climate page in the screen to do it. It's just weird. There's also too many buttons and ways to access your seat controls.
And, my biggest complaint, is the worst cruise control on any modern car I've driven. On the freeway, if I had 72 MPH chosen, I'm not kidding when I say the car then operates in a range of +/- 4 MPH of that selected speed; It's always constantly slowing and accelerating on even minor hills on the highway. Downhill, it will lose 3-4 MPH as the road transitions back to level, and when a downhill goes immediately uphill, it will re-accelerate back up the hill to 3 MPH over your set speed. So, for concrete example, I'll set the cruise at that magic 72 and then it'll slow to 69 downhill before speeding up to 75 at the top of the following up hill section. Finally, once it levels out, it will decrease back to your initial 72 that you set. Whew, is it annoying. Because it's so isolated from the environment, it is harder to detect these changes in motion, but it's actually just unacceptable in form and function.
What's my recommendation?
I still love the LS 500. Would I say to get the hybrid? No, save your money and get the turbocharged V6 for more performance and an engine and transmission that are more befitting of a luxury car. Shoot, I bet the cruise control will be more consistent, too. I personally think an S-Class Mercedes is on another level of luxury in terms of its cabin, but it's also significantly more expensive with a base price higher than this completely loaded Lexus. Genesis' G90 is fabulous and even fewer dollars, but isn't quite the serene experience and as comfortable when munching miles.
It might appear like I listed a lot of negatives, but they're all so easy to fix: Add an extra notch in the door, add a digital home button and combine some seat customization switches, and make the cruise control work. Those three changes would then make for a car bordering on perfection. This is a car that each time you make your way into the seat, turn the massage on, you feel good; It's tough jumping into a forty grand Volkswagen tester that arrived the following day. This is a great luxury car, but it's not as perfect as the Lexus LS can be. I can't wait to try the next one that's cooked up.
2021 Lexus LS 500h
As-tested price: $104,965
Pros: Beautiful inside and out; amazing quality and seats
Cons: Defective cruise control; expensive; the turbo V6 is cheaper
Verdict: A few small tweaks away from perfect, still a phenomenal luxury car
Weight: circa 5100 lbs