2018 Lexus LS500 F Sport AWD

2018 Lexus LS500 F Sport AWD

When Lexus debuted its new LS sedan at the 2017 Detroit auto show, the company proudly declared that it was breaking from European norms for luxury cars and establishing a new definition for Japanese luxury. The LS unquestionably does that, with ambient lighting inspired by andon paper lanterns, metal and wood trim evoking traditional Japanese crafts, and even an available trim package featuring kiriko cut glass.

The LS presents a Japanese take on performance, too. The F Sport package is available either with the predictable powertrain—the 416-hp twin-turbo V-6 in the car tested here—or with the 354-hp hybrid setup. Given Lexus’s dedication to hybridization (six of its 10 models offer a gas-electric powertrain) perhaps that should come as little surprise.

Take That, Cullinan

With either engine, the F Sport adds distinct 20-inch wheels (different 20s are available on non-F models) with tires that are 30 millimeters wider in the rear, 275/40s compared to 245/45s. Larger brakes with six-piston monoblock calipers up front tuck inside those wheels. Lexus’s Adaptive Variable Suspension, which includes adaptive dampers and is available with air springs, gets returned in the F Sport for a wider range of adjustability. The F Sport instrument cluster adopts a tach/speedometer that moves within the cluster depending on the driving mode, a cool trick borrowed from the LFA supercar. And the F Sport’s rendition of the spindle grille (the CAD model for which Lexus tells us took five months to perfect) gains 2100 more facets, bringing its total to 7100. Go ahead, count them all!

What the F Sport doesn’t add is even a single extra horsepower. While the twin-turbocharged 3.4-liter doesn’t want for power, it does lag the German V-8s in output. It’s smooth, with plenty of midrange and top-end power, but at 5.0 seconds to 60 mph and 13.4 through the quarter-mile, it trails competing luxosedans by a half-second or so. A valve in the muffler tweaks the exhaust note depending on engine load. With it closed, occupants suffer through a generic V-6 intake drone like that of any Toyota Camry or Pontiac Sunbird. But once it opens, the exhaust takes on a hard-edged rip that we’d just go ahead and make the only soundtrack. If you don’t want it to be loud, stay out of the gas. These are buyers who did pay for a Sport badge, after all.

Behind the six, Aisin’s new 10-speed automatic packs two extra ratios into a package that Lexus says weighs the same as the eight-speed in the previous-generation LS. It’s a smooth gearbox but can feel slow working its way through that many ratios, and it responds so lazily to the paddles that most drivers will give up trying. In addition to either engine, the F Sport package also is available with either rear- or, as in our test car, all-wheel drive. Unlike the all-wheel-drive systems of the BMW M5 and the Mercedes-AMG E63 S, this one offers no mode for rear-drive shenanigans. Depending on conditions, the LS500’s Torsen center differential will direct between 69 and 52 percent of available torque to the rear axle.

Dancing—but Not in the Good Way

Lexus says the GA-L (Global Architecture for Luxury vehicles) structure upon which it builds the LS and its LC coupe sibling is the stiffest platform in the brand’s history. But a stiff shell is only part of the equation. The F Sport rides comfortably enough but never feels enthused about winding roads. Previously, we drove a few final-calibration prototypes of this car, and it now feels as if engineers shied away from the full-commitment excellence we recall from those cars. Here, the various driving modes dance around different versions of good. Normal mode is a strong baseline, but it wants for a touch more body control. Sport S mode doesn’t add any, only tweaking powertrain response, and then Sport S+ overcompensates, making the ride overly harsh for rough roads. Worse, steering feel dries up in the S+ setting. At 0.89 g on the skidpad, the LS is at the top of its class, but there’s less joy in the handling than you’ll find in a Jaguar XJ or an Audi A8. The brake pedal is the one element that is exactly as we remember it: firm and progressive, one of our favorite stoppers in the segment.