Driven! Lexus LS 500h Hybrid Luxury Sedan

  • Jeff Sabatini has written for many publications over his 20 years in automotive journalism, including Car and Driver, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Sports Car Market magazine. His lifetime car churn includes 30 vehicles: eight GM cars, five Ford products, four Toyotas, three BMWs, two Jeeps, two Chrysler minivans, a Miata, a Mercedes, a Porsche, a Saab, a Subaru, and a Volkswagen.

can be reached at jeffsab@gmail.com
  • Jeff Sabatini has written for many publications over his 20 years in automotive journalism, including Car and Driver, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Sports Car Market magazine. His lifetime car churn includes 30 vehicles: eight GM cars, five Ford products, four Toyotas, three BMWs, two Jeeps, two Chrysler minivans, a Miata, a Mercedes, a Porsche, a Saab, a Subaru, and a Volkswagen.

can be reached at jeffsab@gmail.com
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If the Prius and RAV4 hybrids are flagstones at the base of Toyota’s sales pyramid – and they certainly are, with over 69,000 and 92,000 sales last year, respectively – then the Lexus LS 500h represents the capstone. Or maybe a spire on top (last year Toyota’s Lexus luxury brand sold just 187 of them). Indeed, the hybrid LS is not only one of the most luxurious automobiles you can buy, but also one of the most exclusive.

  • Lexus introduced the LS 500h hybrid three years ago at the 2017 Geneva Motor Show.
  • The 2020 Lexus LS 500h starts at $81,035 but can easily be optioned up to a six-figure price tag.
  • With 354 total horsepower, it’s as much a performance car as a fuel-saver, with the hybrid version improving fuel economy by 5 miles per gallon combined compared to the non-hybrid.

The LS is the car that forged Lexus’ reputation for building impressive luxury sedans, now in its fifth generation. For the first time the LS is offered only with a V6 engine, rather than a V8. Lexus has offered a hybrid version of the LS since the 2008 model year, and this newest one continues the tradition of using electrification to provide a moderate improvement to fuel efficiency without sacrificing much of anything when it comes to accoutrements or performance.

2020 Lexus LS 500h If you’ve never seen the handsome Lexus LS hybrid in person, that’s because annual sales number in the hundreds. (Photo: Lexus)

Luxury above all

The LS 500h is available in either rear- or all-wheel-drive versions. Both use the same powertrain, built around a 3.5-liter V6 that uses the more efficient Atkinson combustion cycle and makes 295 hp. This is paired with two electric motors that feed and draw power to and from a lithium-ion battery sandwiched between the rear seatback and the trunk. (The battery does eat into cargo capacity, by almost 2 cubic feet, giving the LS 500h a proportionately small trunk at just over 15 cubic feet, or about the same as a Toyota Camry.)

Total system output is 354 hp, which is enough to do 0-60 mph in just over 5 seconds, according to Lexus. Perhaps more importantly – depending upon who’s counting – is that the LS 500h earns as much as 28 mpg combined in EPA testing. That’s for the rear-drive version, while the all-wheel-drive model is rated at 26. Those are both significant improvements ­– 5 mpg – over the regular LS 500. In our week of driving an AWD model, we recorded 23 mpg overall.

The LS 500h is more than 17 feet long and tips the scales at over 5,000 pounds. This gives it a stiff ride, with heavy handling that makes it more of a luxury limo than a sport sedan. Thankfully its smooth braking proves immune to the grabbiness that afflicts some regenerative systems.

Lexus LS 500h cutawayThe new Multi Stage Hybrid System gives the LS 500h a second transmission that enhances both efficiency and performance. (Photo: Lexus)

Unlike other hybrids

Lexus introduced its Multi Stage Hybrid System in the LS 500h, which essentially mates a continuously variable transmission (similar to the one Toyota has used in hybrids forever) in series with a conventional four-speed automatic. This has several benefits, among them pushing the top electric-only driving speed above 80 mph, allowing hybrid assist under more circumstances, and improving overall system efficiency.

From behind the wheel, this improves the responsiveness of the engine when you’re driving aggressively and makes the LS 500h feel much sportier than other Lexus hybrids. The tandem transmission simulates a 10-speed automatic, which can be shifted using steering wheel paddles, further enhancing the sportiness. At full throttle it sounds great, with a loud exhaust roar that’s uncharacteristic of a Lexus – or a hybrid.

Yet during normal driving, the transmission and engine seem less happily married. The result is typical: a tendency to produce some of the droning noise common to vehicles with continuously variable transmissions. At least the cabin of the Lexus is well isolated from outside noise, helping to keep a lid on it.

Lexus LS 500h interiorThe LS interior is gorgeous, but its infotainment system is outdated and difficult to use. (Photo: Lexus)

Ergonomics be damned

Although the LS 500h is extremely roomy and comfortable, with seats that probably out-coddle (and out-massage) any piece of furniture you might have in your living room, it’s not an easy car to live with. Controls seem to be randomly scattered around the dashboard: Buttons for the audio system are on the same panel as the climate control, the EV mode selector is next to the sunshade control, and the button to activate the brake hold function is part of the CD player’s real estate.

There’s nowhere in the center console to place your phone, in part because Lexus’ industry-worst infotainment system requires a big chunk of real estate for its haptic-feedback trackpad. You may get used to the convoluted placement of the buttons, but years of experience using this trackpad still will not cause it to feel familiar or comfortable. At least the interior styling is appealing to the eye, with plenty of beautifully grained wood and soft leather, all of it commensurate with the car’s position as the company’s flagship.

Indeed, the LS 500h is loaded with high-tech equipment, including Lexus Safety System+ 2.0, which includes adaptive cruise control with lane centering, lane-departure prevention, and a pre-collision system with pedestrian and bicyclist detection. An optionally available upgrade adds automatic lane changing. The 12.3-inch infotainment system supports Apple Carplay – although this still requires using the trackpad because the display is not touch screen – and Amazon Alexa. Lexus also offers an app called Enform that allows monitoring, locking and unlocking the car, and starting it remotely.

Lexus LS 500hLexus has a several-years head start in building opulent hybrid sedans, but the Germans are coming – for some reason or another. (Photo: Lexus)

The verdict

At this price, comfort and performance is to be expected. On those measures there’s nothing surprising about the Lexus LS 500h, which delivers what it promises. It’s a striking car that looks opulent from any angle or seat.

Lexus has faced little competition in this segment, although BMW has just launched a plug-in hybrid version of the 7 Series and a similar Mercedes S-Class is imminent. That this tiny market niche is about to expand in choices is curious and it begs the real question: Does anyone really need this much hybrid?



About the Author

  • Jeff Sabatini has written for many publications over his 20 years in automotive journalism, including Car and Driver, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Sports Car Market magazine. His lifetime car churn includes 30 vehicles: eight GM cars, five Ford products, four Toyotas, three BMWs, two Jeeps, two Chrysler minivans, a Miata, a Mercedes, a Porsche, a Saab, a Subaru, and a Volkswagen.

can be reached at jeffsab@gmail.com
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