“I think I’m going to do something very silly,” I said to my passenger. Nick, a current student at my alma mater and member of its motorsports club, was riding shotgun in the 2021 Lexus LS 500 that I was driving. I had traveled a few hours outside Washington, D.C. to attend the club’s fall car show, and while the big Lexus was ideal for the highway cruise to and from school, it was decidedly out of its element on the back roads that we were exploring with other students and alumni. One lane turned into two, I twisted the drive mode “ear” of the LS 500’s gauge cluster into Sport S+, and passed two (aware, alert) friends on the inside lane, the twin-turbocharged V6 inching toward redline and all four tires moaning a bit.
Nobody in their right mind will ever consider the largest Lexus sedan a corner-carving machine. Much like yours truly going on a run, the LS 500 can do it and probably not fall over, but it’s not the happiest in the process. Big sedans like the 2021 LS 500 are much more at home doing relaxing, comfortable things on the highway.
What Is It?
This is a 2021 Lexus LS 500. It’s a facelifted variant of the brand’s biggest “executive” sedan, which is what put Lexus on the map in 1989 as they set out to beat Mercedes-Benz at their own S-Class game. Every 2021 Lexus LS starts as a rear-wheel drive chassis, with all-wheel drive optional. Power comes from one of two drivetrains, a gas-only twin-turbocharged V6 or a hybrid setup that promises roughly 20 percent better fuel economy over the gas model.
My test car was the lightest and simplest LS on offer, a rear-drive LS 500 (hybrids are dubbed LS 500h) powered by a 3.5 liter twin-turbo V6. Horsepower comes in at 416 and torque is quoted at 442 lb-ft. It all flows to the rear wheels through a ten-speed torque-converter automatic that is delightfully unobtrusive.
Lexus equips the LS 500 with adaptive dampers and four-corner air suspension, all adjustable with the silly drive mode “ear” jutting out of the gauge cluster. Big brakes seem outlandish at first – does a luxoboat need 14-inch front rotors and 13-inch rear rotors? – but make sense when you consider the car’s size and weight. This is not a small sedan, with overall length about four inches shy of a new Chevy Tahoe. My rear-drive LS 500 weighed in around 4,696 pounds and the heaviest all-wheel drive hybrid version comes in at 5,093… before anyone sits down inside.
Options are plentiful, and my car included the Luxury package but not the Executive package, which meant rear passengers made do without massaging seats. Also absent was the beautiful (expensive) hand-cut Kiriko glass and hand-pleated leather door cards. Regardless, I had 28-way front seats with massagers, a huge panoramic sunroof, power sun shades throughout the back half of the car, and a punchy Mark Levinson sound system.
MSRP of my particular 2021 Lexus LS 500 Luxury came in right around $98,000.
Wafting Down the Interstate
The highway is where the 2021 Lexus LS 500 belongs.
Ride quality is easily the best part of the 2021 Lexus LS 500. It’s soft and pillowy, almost excessively so around town. Abrupt pedal inputs cause the car to rock back and forth before settling down. At highway speed, though, everything is copacetic. Bumps and expansion joints are absorbed, damped further by the comfortable seats adjusted just so to fit your body. Wind noise is appropriately minimal and the Mark Levinson system, if fed good source material, masks the rest of the outside world when you crank it up. The LS 500 is a fantastic four-person highway cruiser, if you all fit.
I say “if” because yes, the LS 500 is a large car on the outside… but interior space is lacking if you want to bring three friends. Rear seat legroom was on the shorter side for tall passengers sitting behind other tall-ish people up front. With the driver and one person sitting right-rear, the front passenger seat can be moved far forward to provide limo-like legroom.
Acceleration from the twin-turbo V6 is entirely fine. The LS 500 moves out with authority, though the overall experience is best if you keep your foot out of the skinny pedal and the revs below 2,500 rpm or so. Past that, the 3.5 liter produces a very un-Lexus-LS-like snarl that sounds great in the IS 350 (in naturally-aspirated form) but is unbecoming here. I miss the under-stressed V8s of LS’ gone by.
At speed, you can set the adaptive cruise control and just go. Even in my test car’s entirely uninteresting “Manganese Luster” greige paint scheme, it had enough presence at highway speed that left-lane campers moved over early. This is one case where Lexus’ controversial “predator” grille works, though I’d pair it to darker paint for my preferred look.
After heavy traffic leaving D.C. and only slightly less-heavy traffic further out, I arrived at my destination feeling no more tired than when I left home. Following two days of car-club fun, the LS 500 made a generally wonderful companion to get my tired self home again.
Attacking Curves on Back Roads
“Attack” is a bit of a misnomer for what Nick and I did with the rest of our buddies and their sports cars, more of a gentle dive through each corner than anything. While I prefer the LS’ ride quality and body control in Sport mode – even in day-to-day city driving – it’s still not that stiff or controlled in the tightest Sport S+ setting. Here, the Germans lead, which is okay. Lexus isn’t really trying to make the LS 500 something it’s not… or are they?
The Lexus LS 500 F-Sport adds the requisite visual tweaks, to include bumpers, wheels, and a different gauge cluster. Seats are slightly different and you can have a very un-LS bright red leather covering a vast section of interior. Of course, the “F-Sport Dynamic Handling Package” is another upcharge, should the notion of active sway bars, rear-wheel steering, and a variable-ratio steering rack sound enticing.
I’d buy in more to the idea of huge-sedan-that-can-corner (but only just) if the LS 500 were German. Having two levels of F-Sport on the biggest Lexus sedan is just so out of character. Though the LS’ back-roads dynamics were actually impressive given its size, I never said “you know what would make this better, more sporty bits.” It just doesn’t have that kind of soul underneath all the beautiful wood and leather.
Why You Gotta Go and Make Things So Complicated?
Thanks, Avril. When it comes to the technology in the 2021 Lexus LS 500, I have to ask the same question she did. Lexus’ infotainment software has historically not been, shall we say, class-leading. While the wide screen is a touchscreen, the system is controlled through a mix of hard buttons, touch items, and trackpad swipes through menus on menus. It’s convoluted, a problem exacerbated by the gauge cluster screen’s use of acronyms instead of words. Rear seat passengers use a simpler, touch-only set of controls.
Where most of the tech in the LS appears complex, the car’s 360-degree camera system harkens back to a simpler time, when fewer pixels ruled the world. Backup camera quality is poor despite the touchscreen being bright and beautiful otherwise, making me wonder if Lexus has a contract to buy three million 640×480 webcam sensors and dangit they’re being used no matter what. It’s (slightly) more forgivable on a $20,000 Corolla, less so on a six-figure you-made-it-mobile.
On the surface, the 2021 Lexus LS 500 impresses. Between the seats, suspension, and sound system, it’s a tremendously comfortable place to eat up miles as a driver. Unfortunately, the more I prodded at the details of the LS, the more it felt disjointed. What felt more cohesive and purposeful in previous generations of LS doesn’t necessarily work in 2021.