Review: 2022 Lexus LS 500 F Sport
Driving the V-6-powered, Camry-contoured, slightly-apologetic-for-existing-at-all Lexus LS 500 down a California canyon road, the traction-control light flickering with the telegraph fist of a madman, I experienced a sudden burst of affection for a fellow named Karl Rove. Most of my readers won’t recognize that name, but the ones who do will no doubt have a strong emotional reaction to it. Let me bring the former group up to speed real quick: Karl Rove was the fellow who got George W. Bush elected by a strategy known as “playing to the base.”
For most of American history, it was believed that major elections have been won and lost by courting the undecided voter, that mythical creature who just isn’t sure if he is going to vote for Reagan or Carter, Obama or McCain, Tilden or “Rutherfraud” Hayes. In order to gain the affections of said voter, you take your political positions and “move to the center” with them. Let’s say you think there should be no speed limits on the American highway; well, during the primaries you said that out loud, but during the main election you allow as how it might be reasonable to raise the limit to 85 … or 90 … but certainly not to infinity!
Karl Rove had a different idea. He believed that you should move away from the center in an election. You should become more extreme, not less. In so doing, you motivate the people on “your side” to actually get out and vote. So a Rove-advised candidate would say something like “Not only are we going to get rid of the speed limit on the freeways, we’re gonna let you pass people on the shoulder if they won’t get out of the way!” In doing so, you’ll really motivate your voters to show up at the polls. The Rove strategy was one of those rare things in American politics: a legitimate bit of brilliance. Unfortunately, in proving the value of “playing to the base,” Mr. Rove did a lot to bring us our modern hyper-polarized political environment, in which a man like myself cannot even advocate the flogging of people who wear square-toed dress shoes without having half of the country call him a villain.
The lovely Genesis G90, reviewed in these pages half a year ago, plays to the luxury-sedan base. It prioritizes appropriate luxury-car behavior, from the available color palette to the unashamed availability of a naturally-aspirated V-8. Most people will find the G90 somewhat unappealing: it’s not sporty, it’s not progressive or particularly modern, it doesn’t handle well, it doesn’t sip fuel. Hyundai doesn’t care, because most people won’t buy the G90 no matter how sporty, modern, or fuel-efficient it is. You can’t make money trying to sell a product to people who hate the fundamental idea of your product. You can’t sell me a square-toed pleather “dress shoe” by making it look a little bit more like an Edward Green Malvern III, because I’m just going to keep ignoring your trash and wearing, with considerable joy I might add, the Edward Green Malvern III.
From 1990 to 2005, the Lexus LS was nothing more than a Japanese copy of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, in W126 and W140 forms respectively. This was an excellent idea, because the worst thing about owning a Mercedes S-Class was, you know, actually owning it. From 2006 to 2017, the slavish imitation of Swabians was retired and the LS became a completely generic-looking big sedan. This was smart because by then Lexus had some brand cachet of its own and quite a few repeat buyers.
In 2018 Lexus introduced the LS 500, and I have found myself unable to love it or even like it. The reason is simple: this is a full-sized sedan that courts the undecided voter. Its sleek-but-kinked silhouette is meant to look less bulky than its predecessors did—but who wants a non-bulky full-sized sedan? The twin-turbo V-6 is superior on paper to the dearly-departed, balance-champagne-glasses-on-the-hood V-8 in the old LS 460—but who was asking for a V-6 in a full-sized sedan? That’s what you get when you can’t afford a V-8. Hyundai knows this, and that’s why they continue to offer the V-8. (Or did through 2022, anyway; the future’s uncertain and the end is always near.) You can get a V-6 in the G90 if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t care. Genesis salespeople tell me that nobody ever asks for it.
From a distance, the LS 500 looks like the firm’s smaller ES sedan, only with more windows. This is not a good idea, and the market agrees: the worst three sales years in Lexus LS history are the last three years. So now we have an F Sport package, which attempts to court people who aren’t really sure if they want a Lexus LS in the first place. “Maybe if it managed to be … sportier?” these entirely imaginary customers ask themselves. “You know, I could really get behind the idea of buying this completely milquetoast, comparatively massive V-6 sedan if it had … six-piston front calipers?” This is the same kind of thinking that got us the Urban Sombrero.
We received an LS 500 F Sport for review. Here’s the one thing that hasn’t changed about the Lexus LS: it’s still vicious value for money. The car bases for $79,600, which is barely more than a Genesis G90 and hugely less than the equivalent Benz. Our tester stickered for $92,615, assuming it had the “Dynamic Handling Package.” I don’t know how you’d be able to tell if it did. The only option an LS 500 actually needs, even an F-Sport LS 500, is the $1940 Mark Levinson stereo package. That should really be standard, but it’s a Lexus tradition to make it optional, so let’s respect that. The rest of these options—air suspension, panoramic-view monitor, dynamic handling—can be left in Japan at absolutely no risk to your peace of mind.
As with every LS 500, the cognitive dissonance of the car’s styling disappears once you actually get in the thing. Now that they no longer feel the need to emulate Mercedes-Benz, the fine folks at Lexus are free to make the interior look exactly like a 1989 Denon DCD-620. This is a good thing and then some. This is playing to the base, because your average Lexus LS owner was probably once a Denon hi-fi owner, and the shiny-black-button aesthetic can be magic when you execute it to surgical levels of fit and finish, which is certainly the case here.
The seats are good; I cannot see that they differ from non-F-Sport seats. Overall the interior is an unalloyed pleasure, and slightly more spacious than the old LS 460, which was short on room for both head and shoulders. If you’ve just come out of an S-Class, this will feel like a Corolla-sized cockpit; get out of an actual Corolla and you’ll see that’s not true, it just doesn’t have the authentic and luxurious expanse of space offered by the big Benz. Everything you touch in the Lexus feels like it cost real money to produce. The odd chrome-and-something trim feels tremendously expensive as well. While this LS continues to use the slightly wacky “mousepad” control on its center console, you can now touch the screen directly if you need something. The infotainment continues to be very good, if the usual Toyota half-step behind the competition. Sound quality from the Mark Levinson system is better than decent, although once again Genesis has a better mousetrap with its Lexicon-branded stereo.
For some of my time in the Lexus I had our Community Editor, Sajeev Mehta, chauffeur me, just to confirm that the LS is acceptable for back-seat passengers. It is, and although it falls short of an S-Class in this respect it’s nearly as good as the Genesis in terms of overall comfort while offering a bit more headroom. Lexus does not indulge its passengers with a bunch of screens and controls in back. That’s a shame.
Maybe it’s because you’re supposed to be paying attention to the F Sport’s massive over-the-road speed. I’ve read quite a bit of breathless prose from my colleagues in the motoring press regarding the way this car handles in Sport and Sport-Plus mode, all of which is unadulterated hogwash. Yes, it steers pretty well and brakes okay, but the actual over-the-road pace wouldn’t worry the driver of a rental Dodge Charger. Most of this is due to the insane traction control, which curtails the available power on a near-continuous basis, but some of it is just due to the size, weight, and suspension design of the thing. It might not look like a massive, ponderous sedan, but it is and it drives like one.
I suspect that Lexus did not have the canyon roads of Southern California in mind when they developed the F Sport package; it’s meant to look sporty in the dealership and maybe be a bit firmer on the highway. Again, I have no idea who wants this. The standard LS 500 is just fine on the freeway, it doesn’t need any buttoning-down.
Thankfully, the F Sport histrionics don’t make the LS any noisier, fussier, or less pleasant to drive. Our tester was slightly ridiculous-looking in its bright red; from a distance the vibe was “angry suburban dad in a Camry XSE.” No worries, Lexus will sell you a bunch of other “colors” that are all shades of grey plus a very nice blue … that can’t be had on the F Sport. Want some advice? Get the blue anyway.
I don’t know if Karl Rove is looking for work nowadays, but I bet he could make the Lexus LS a truly great car. Bring back the V-8, drop it to three or possibly two windows per side, bulk it up a bit. Play to the base. Give the Lexus LS buyer what he or she wants, which is probably a slightly better take on the almighty turn-of-the-Millennium LS430. This F Sport takes an LS 500 that already lacks a sense of self-confidence and confuses it further. Let me close by quoting another slightly-controversial right-wing fellow, in this case the fictional “Rabbit” Angstrom of five John Updike books: “If you have the guts to be yourself … other people’ll pay your price.” While the F Sport LS 500 is a very good value at under eighty thousand dollars, I can’t help but think there’s a bigger market for a $100,000 Lexus LS that has the guts to be itself. I think people would pay that price.
2022 Lexus LS 500 F Sport
Price: $79,600/$92,515 (base/as-tested)
Highs: Comfortable, sizable, reliable, a real joy to touch and operate.
Lows: F Sport is an answer to an unasked question; looks like a Camry; you coulda had a V-8 elsewhere.
Summary: This extremely well-assembled and value-priced flagship can’t decide if it’s an S-Class or a Cressida, and therefore doesn’t cut the mustard as either.