On Autos: Cadillac, Lexus flagship sedans highlight their brands’ missions

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The 2018 Lexus LS is redesigned with a continued focus on comfort and refinement, along with new attention to distinctly Japanese aesthetics. (Brady Holt/The Current)

An automaker’s flagship luxury sedan offers more than just some extra legroom. Especially when it’s newly released, it’s a showcase of the best qualities and amenities the brand can offer. It’s a big four-door that illustrates what the company’s smaller models are striving to achieve.

The 2018 Cadillac CT6 combines a spacious interior with surprisingly sporty performance for the full-size luxury sedan class. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Two recently tested examples are the Lexus LS, whose 2018-model redesign will go on sale in February, and the 2017 Cadillac CT6, which debuted last year. The once-anonymous LS applies a more distinctly Japanese aesthetic to ultra-refined, relaxing luxury. Meanwhile, the CT6 shows off Cadillac’s unexpected focus on sporty handling.

The 2018 Lexus LS 500 replaces the old LS 460, trading a 386-horsepower 4.6-liter V8 engine for a turbocharged 3.5-liter V6 with 416 horsepower. Luxury-sedan purists insist that a V8 is an essential piece of the formula, and the LS will no longer offer one. However, the V6 will be similarly whisper-quiet in most conditions, deliver even sprightlier acceleration and return an estimated 23 mpg in mixed driving. That’s outstanding efficiency for a full-size sedan with more than 400 horsepower, and an improvement of 4 mpg over the old LS.

But Lexus isn’t a particularly performance-focused brand, and the LS is more about coddling occupants than exciting them. The tested model, with the Executive Package, emphasizes that priority. The two-person rear seat features a massaging system, and the center console there has its own touchscreen controls. The front passenger seat can also move far forward for lounge-like rear legroom on an ottoman-style seat; that front head restraint also folds down to offer the rear passenger a better forward view.

The 2018 Lexus LS interior is available with artfully shaped panels and even cut glass trim. (Brady Holt/The Current)

The LS’s well-finished interior doesn’t look much like its German competition. Lexus says the pleats of its upholstery are inspired by origami, and available cut glass cabin trim is unique in a world dominated by wood and metal. There are also graceful swoops and swirls on the dashboard and door panels, which not everyone will love but which certainly differ from the more straightforward appearance of a European luxury sedan. Unfortunately, extra-simple controls — once a Lexus staple — are no longer an LS feature. Drivers will deal with a clumsy gear selector and awkward infotainment controls.

The Current has only gotten a few minutes of driving impressions so far on the upcoming LS, but that brief drive yielded few complaints. Expect a smooth, quiet ride to remain a staple on the largest Lexus, though it’s unlikely to handle like a sports sedan. Neither, however, do most competitors — notably, BMW’s 7 Series has become quite LS-like itself.

The 2018 Lexus LS replaces last year’s V8 engine with a more fuel-efficient V6. (Brady Holt/The Current)

An LS 500h gas-electric hybrid is also due for 2018, replacing the never-popular LS 600h. It’s rated for a whopping 28 mpg in mixed driving. Unfortunately for D.C. buyers, its city rating (25 mpg) trails its highway estimate (33 mpg), unlike the fuel economy for most hybrids. Prices will start at about $75,000 for the gas V6; hybrid prices haven’t yet been announced.

European competitors to the LS tend to cost quite a bit more. The 7 Series and Audi A8 both start in the low $80,000s, while the Mercedes-Benz S-Class’ base price exceeds $90,000. Moreover, to get those models with equivalent performance to the base LS 500, buyers would need to upgrade to an extra-cost engine. (However, Lexus might have been wise to introduce its own lower-range engine to satisfy shoppers who are just fine with “only” 300 to 350 horsepower.)

But the main reason to consider the LS is if you’re attracted to its distinctive flavor: the wedges, curves and creases that dress up the Lexus inside and out compared to full-size luxury sedans with cleaner, simpler lines. In addition to the pricier Germans, competitors include Korea’s Genesis G90 — a big, comfortable sedan that’s less expensive but decidedly plain to look at.

The 2018 Cadillac CT6 is the company’s flagship sedan. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Another competing sedan is the Cadillac CT6, but this is a vehicle you’d choose for reasons other than aesthetics. It does share vertically oriented headlights and taillights with other Cadillacs, but the more important difference is how it drives. Although it’s a spacious and comfortable full-size luxury sedan, it drives like a good midsize sports sedan. Quick, responsive steering lends it commendable poise and makes it feel agreeably compact. It’s no longer news to the automotive community that Cadillac makes many of the best-handling sedans on the market, but the brand’s image hasn’t kept pace with reality.

Though high-quality, the 2018 Cadillac CT6 interior suffers from some inconvenient touch-sensitive controls. (Brady Holt/The Current)

CT6 pricing starts at $55,090 with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine; various V6 options are also available with up to 404 horsepower and prices that can squeak past $90,000 fully loaded. Even if the handling isn’t a particular draw, the Cadillac’s combination of space and luxury with a wide range of price points can be appealing.

The CT6’s interior is perhaps its weakest point. While fully appropriate for the price, it doesn’t have quite the decadence or the modern design aesthetic seen in the pricier luxury competitors. Its touch-sensitive controls require more attention than necessary while driving. And passengers being chauffeured in the rear wouldn’t receive the all-out decadence available in some full-size luxury cars: The Cadillac is best experienced from the driver’s seat.