Welcome to Critic’s Notebook, a quick and off-the-cuff car review consisting of impressions, jottings, and marginalia regarding whatever The Drive writers happen to be driving. Today’s edition: the 2018 Lexus LS 500 F Sport.
It was only recently that Lexus took a turn for the sporty. For a long time and up until recently, the company was mostly known for big, soft, comfortable, luxurious sedans that were pleasant and quiet to drive. The cars were valued for reliability over performance, and came with the perception of a certain savvy value (which was not to say the cars weren’t luxurious, because they were, if understated—not showy) and a smattering of technological gimmickry.
Even re-reading that description summons a picture of my grandfather, who used to put long miles from Florida to Cape Cod on various big Lincolns and Mercuries and Cadillacs. As a demographic, old-guy driver is reliable—traditionally loyal, doesn’t mind spending—but always shrinking, and no brand wants it as its face. And so, at some point, Lexus decided to change its identity from sedate to sporting, introducing a two-seat (and single model-year) LFA supercar in 2010; a hyper-aggressive evolution of the L-Finesse design language, in 2011; and, more recently, a continued development of its sport sedans, and finding good use for a big 5-liter V-8 engine.
Except Lexus’s pivot happened at exactly the wrong time. Developing proprietary in-house infotainment technology became a money-burning exercise once the Big Tech world-eaters got into the automotive game: customers demanded instead that their cars either used or played well with slick, established interfaces from Apple and Google. Tesla changed the entire definition of what a “high-tech luxury sedan” was supposed to be in 2012, with the model S—then changed the shorthand for “performance” with sub-three-second 60 mph sprints in Ludicrous mode.
The entire world—including, until only recently, America—decided that vehicle emissions were not only an issue but a solvable one; car companies reacted with a flurry of innovation, pulling more from less: higher output from lower displacement; higher mileage with fewer emissions. The idea of electric cars moved into the mainstream—even seemed sexy, on occasion.
Also, the sedan market started dying with the same alarming rate as all those disappearing bees.
Into all this comes the Lexus LS 500 F Sport—a massive, soft, comfortable, luxurious sedan with “Sport” inexplicably in its name, home to one of the most hopeless user interfaces ever devised, with a conventional (though good) V-6 engine and every interior texture known to man. It is, at a glance and on contemplation, a bewildering car—but maybe a good way to understand the various and sometimes conflicting messages Lexus is sending at the moment.
Remote Touch; or: That F@&#ING Infotainment Interface
On a modern infotainment system, where most everything from the radio to climate control to a seat massager is controlled through an infotainment interface, a driver arguably interacts with this more than anything outside of the wheel or pedals. Lexus’s infotainment interface—the system by which a driver makes those choices, from finding a different station to pumping up the AC to using the Navigation system to find an address—is no longer new, but it remains an almost perfect failure. I’ve never found anything quite so difficult to use; imagine trying to use a trackpad to play a maze game with half your attention, while also going 40 mph and trying not to kill any pedestrians, and you have the sense of what every interaction using Remote Touch was designed to feel like. It looks complicated (because it is complicated), feels ancient, mostly doesn’t work, operates using an inscrutable system logic (see video, below), and surely has pulled off the once-thought-impossible trick of equally alienating both early adopters and tech-phobic older buyers. Surely, there is a countdown somewhere in Nagoya, Japan, to show when the R&D costs for the system have been amortized, and it can be taken out back behind the shed.
I’m bringing up the Lexus’s absolute worst feature first, because it is one of the first things a driver interacts with, and it starts creating frustration with every interaction, and that frustration keeps building. I’m sure you get used to it eventually, and gain some expertise in its use—and, yeah, read the directions or whatever—but there is no rational way to defend Remote Touch. It is a badly-designed system that Lexus will be glad to see tossed, and the name sounds creepy, besides.
Here’s seven minutes of The Drive‘s Cait Knoll and I trying to use this system, at a standstill in our showroom, and mostly failing: