On Autos: Lexus boasts diverse sedan lineup

The redesigned 2018 Lexus LS 500 is the brand’s flagship, sitting atop a lineup that increasingly blends assertive styling and sporty performance with quiet luxury. Photo by Brady Holt

Over its three decades of existence, the Lexus brand has cultivated a reputation for quiet rides, rich leather upholstery, and long-term reliability. This luxury division of Toyota is also sometimes seen as dull, lacking the exquisite driving experience found in the European luxury marques.

Lexus increasingly fights to shake off that perception, and today’s lineup of Lexus sedans tries harder than ever to add style and excitement to the common impression. In the last couple of years, the two most sofa-soft Lexus sedans have undergone complete redesigns that aim to turn heads.

The Current recently sampled all four Lexus sedans — the redesigned midsize ES and full-size LS, and the existing compact IS and midsize GS. While none of the four is perfect, each of them has potential appeal, and all serve as a challenge anyone who considers Lexuses to be stodgy.

The Lexus IS 300 is an aging compact sports sedan that still offers smooth V6 performance and flashy looks. Prices start at $39,435

The Lexus IS has been the sportiest Lexus model since it first debuted in 2001. Today’s model is the third generation, and it ushered in the brand’s polarizing design renaissance — a big hourglass-shaped “spindle” grille, and swoosh-like headlights and taillights. Wrapped around the IS’s tight proportions, the aggressive look has aged well and still looks fresh five years later.

The rest of the IS package shows its age a little more, for better and for worse.

The good news is for those who prefer the smooth, rich-sounding V6 engines that used to be staples of the luxury class. In most compact and even many midsize luxury sedans, these have been largely displaced by more fuel-efficient turbocharged four-cylinders.

To get six cylinders from the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series/4 Series, or Mercedes-Benz C-Class, you spend at least $50,000. The IS’s entry-level V6 model, the tested IS 300 with optional all-wheel-drive, is $41,885 and has less-expensive options than the European’s. The 260-
horsepower IS 300 — no more powerful than four-cylinder competitors — favors smoothness and quietness over maximum performance, while the IS 350 uses a more spirited 311-horsepower version of the same 3.5-liter V6 engine for not much more money.

The bad news is the IS’s aging interior has neither the opulence nor the user-friendly technological integration found in fresher luxury sedans.

The sport-themed dashboard design looks like something out of a supercar rather than a humdrum sedan — but a supercar from maybe 10 years ago. While the IS has nice upholstery, most dashboard surfaces are either hard plastic or something that looks and feels similar. And lots of small trim pieces meet in obvious places, rather than feeling like a seamless whole.

Also, the IS suffers from dated infotainment technology, with cumbersome controls and graphics that fail to dazzle like a luxury car’s should. And the rear seat is on the tight side, though that’s a drawback shared with many competitors.

The IS still drives pretty well. It’s a compact rear-wheel-drive-based sports sedan, and it still balances high handling limits with decent (if not extra-cushy) ride quality. And the V6 engines — and even the 241-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder on the base rear-wheel-drive IS 300 — are respectably smooth and quiet.

The redesigned 2019 Lexus ES brings generous interior space to the entry-level luxury class, with prices starting at $40,625. Photo by Brady Holt

Lexus is unique in the market in that it sells two very different entry-luxury sedans. In addition to the compact IS, it also offers the much larger midsize ES.

While the IS’s rear-wheel-drive construction makes it a BMW challenger, the ES borrows its front-wheel-drive architecture from less expensive Toyotas — the Camry and Avalon. But it adds convincingly Lexus styling, features and build quality.

The formula has long been successful, providing relative affordability and a smooth ride, rather than pursuing the high performance limits of the European luxury brands (or the similarly priced Lexus IS). And like the IS, it is also widely available with a smooth, powerful V6 engine with 302 horsepower; a fuel-efficient four-cylinder gas-electric hybrid is also offered.

With its 2019 redesign, though, the ES dials in respectable handling composure while simultaneously improving the ride quality and expanding rear seat space. It shares most of those strengths with the redesigned Toyota Avalon, but it has richer interior materials and styling shared with the flagship Lexus LS. There’s also a new F Sport model with slightly stiffer suspension tuning and sport-themed aesthetic tweaks.

The upgrades help the ES compete against the Lincoln MKZ, Buick LaCrosse, and Genesis G80, which used to enjoy a comfortable advantage in terms of driving dynamics. The ES also offers an above-average balance of acceleration and fuel economy, and offers a
spacious interior without being overly bulky.

There still isn’t the truly dazzling driving experience of most midsize luxury sedans. The ES feels light at times, rather than glued to the road.

And although its steering and handling have improved dramatically — it responds much more quickly, and the steering feels more connected to the wheels — it’s still not a sport sedan.

And like other Lexus models, the controls could work more easily. The interior looks more modern than the IS, and it supports Apple CarPlay smartphone integration (though not the equivalent Android Auto system for non-iPhones). However, as on other Lexus models, some controls are difficult to use — relying on a remote touchpad rather than a touchscreen, and forcing you to go through multiple menus for some basic functions.

The Lexus GS is a midsize luxury sport sedan with zestier handling but a higher price than ES. Photo by Brady Holt

In addition to the entry-luxury ES, Lexus also sells a midsize luxury sports sedan, the GS. It’s available with four-cylinder, V6 and V8 engines, with prices starting at $47,735.

The GS is Lexus’ oldest sedan, dating all the way back to 2013 since its last full redesign. But it still looks decently up to date inside and out — not cutting-edge, but not dated either.

This rear-wheel-drive-based sedan (with optional all-wheel-drive) is Lexus’ head-on rival to the Audi A6, BMW 5 Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class. Even in this esteemed company, it offers quick, responsive steering and capable handling that makes it fun to drive. The four- cylinder engine isn’t especially quick but it’s quiet enough that it avoids feeling strained; the V6 is smooth and powerful, and the V8-powered GS F is a 467-horsepower performance machine. (The tested model offered a pricey but fuel-efficient V6 hybrid powertrain, which Lexus recently discontinued.)

Some buyers will question the extra expense of the GS over the similarly roomy ES, but others will appreciate the extra agility and overall solidity of its driving experience. However, some luxury buyers will prefer the more advanced decor found in a more recently redesigned European competitor. And like the IS, the GS doesn’t have an especially advanced infotainment system.

The redesigned Lexus LS 500 strives to underscore the brand’s interest in being more exciting. Photo by Brady Holt

The full-size LS has been Lexus’ flagship since the brand debuted in the 1990 model year. It’s not only the biggest, roomiest, most expensive Lexus sedan you can buy, but it’s always set the tone of the brand as well.

Most LS generations focused on being spacious, cushy and silent, often with restrained styling that blended in more than standing out. But a dramatic redesign for the 2018 model year highlights the brand’s increased focus on excitement and performance.

With swoopier lines inside and out, the new LS is designed to be a luxurious Japanese car, not a generic luxury sedan. The Lexus design ethos is more extroverted than today’s German sedans, and the interior’s flowing curves include origami-inspired cues.

The most popular LS model is the LS 500, which replaced the LS’s lifelong V8 engine with a turbocharged V6 that makes 416 horsepower. That makes it quicker than the base models of the European competition, even as the LS 500 undercuts their price tags by starting at $76,235.

Handling has also improved, with Lexus banishing the detached, pillowlike floatiness that once characterized the LS — particularly on the tested F Sport model. Visually and on the road, the LS exhibits a high degree of sportiness for a full-size sedan.

That said, if you think a full-size luxury sedan should be about coddling comfort, the LS has some drawbacks. There isn’t much foot space in the rear seat, so you can’t take full  advantage of the generous legroom. And especially on the F Sport, the suspension doesn’t take as much edge off the potholes as the best luxury barges.

Plus, like other Lexuses, the dashboard controls can be cumbersome to operate. The LS adds an electronic gear selector that worries you’ve found Reverse by mistake, and therefore beeps at you every time you’re trying to back up. And an always-glowing orange light about the status of the passenger airbag is out of place in a high-style luxury car.

Overall, the LS is a halo for the Lexus sedan lineup that incorporates style, comfort, performance and luxury. But if you’re planning to buy one, be aware of its downsides.

To see more photos of the tested 2018 Lexus IS 300 and 2019 Lexus ES 350, you can visit tinyurl.com/IS-ES-current. To see more photos of the tested 2018 Lexus LS 500, you can visit tinyurl.com/LS-current.