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Who wants a full-size luxury sedan? Who wants to spend close to $100,000 (or more) for a vehicle that’s too big to be a sports car and yet too small to carry more than five people?
Some carmakers have concluded that the luxury market is better served by big SUVs than big cars. Cadillac is discontinuing its critically acclaimed CT6 sedan this year, directing big spenders to its Escalade SUV. Lincoln still sells its big Continental sedan, but its heart seems to be more into the Navigator SUV. Infiniti hopped on the trend early, dropping its Q45 sedan in 2006 to focus on the QX56 SUV.
European luxury marques still hold the sedan in high esteem, with Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar continuing to treat their four-door cars as the pinnacle of their engineering abilities. Their sedans aren’t just comfortable ways to cruise around, but are technological and stylistic showcases — ways to prepare the world for the next generation of automotive luxury.
Lexus is working to follow suit with the LS, the full-size sedan that’s been the brand’s flagship since Toyota created its luxury division 30 years ago. But rather than continuing its longtime focus on maximum isolation, the LS now brings sportier performance and more dramatic styling.
No longer trying to blend in among the world’s historic luxury brands, Lexus is trying to create its own distinct flavor of Japanese luxury, with more elaborate details and sharp curves than more conservative European sedans. It’s designed around Lexus’ hourglass-shaped grille, and its sleek roofline flows slowly back toward the far-off rear end.
The interior is similarly filled with intricate patterns, from the six metal dashboard strips that flow from the steering wheel to the passenger door and incorporate the center vents along the way and the new F Sport model is available with sport-themed red upholstery.
On the road, the LS 500 enjoys more handling composure than past LS models, and the steering is tight and responsive rather than loose and distant. and its standard 416-horsepower engine delivers more kick than the base motors in most European competitors — including those that cost tens of thousands more than the Lexus’ $76,225 base price.
Lexus LS loyalists won’t necessarily love the latest model, though. Rather than cushy and quiet, the LS has a firmer suspension tune that doesn’t filter out road imperfections as effortlessly. The F Sport model can feel downright stiff over some bumps, and a Beltway pothole destroyed one of its $324.89 high-performance 20-inch tires. Also, while the turbocharged V6 engine is powerful, some buyers will prefer the more laid-back V8s in past LS generations.
Overall, the LS can be a good fit for buyers who want a powerful engine and relatively agile handling for less money than a Mercedes-Benz S-Class and other European models, or who prefer the Lexus’ design aesthetic. However, even such customers may find enough niggles to sour them on the LS, and too many qualities fail to truly dazzle.
But for many luxury buyers, the biggest downside of all is that Lexus devoted its attention to a big sedan instead of a more functional SUV — a vehicle that can carry eight passengers and their cargo rather than a maximum of five adults and a few suitcases. The LX 570 dates back more than a decade, and it’s a premium version of the off-road-focused Toyota Land Cruiser rather than ever being designed to prioritize on-road luxury and convenience.
Two superior flagship SUVs are the recently tested Lincoln Navigator, reviewed late last year, and the 2019 Infiniti QX80.
The QX80 trails the Navigator’s fuel economy and third-row seat comfort, and its infotainment system is missing the latest graphics quality and smartphone integration, but it’s otherwise competitive for roughly $10,000 less — a base price of $66,675.
As truck-based SUVs rather than car-based crossovers, the Navigator and QX80 don’t deliver maximum ride smoothness or car-like handling agility. But they own the road, towering over other traffic and commanding attention, and unlike the Cadillac Escalade, they can carry adults comfortably in the third-row seat.
The QX80 debuts a new $91,950 Limited trim this year with extra-plush upholstery and other upgrades, but all versions offer a comfortable, quiet ride and a throaty 400-horsepower V8 engine. If your style of flagship luxury skews toward heavy-duty SUV rather than extra-long sedan, it belongs on your shopping list.
Visit tinyurl.com/sentinel-ls to see more photos of the tested 2018 Lexus LS 500, and visit tinyurl.com/qx80-sentinel to see more photos of the tested 2019 Infiniti QX80.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.