Jim Meachens’ Motorway America

2018 Lexus LS 500 — Raising the luxury bar

By Jim Meachen
Motorway America

The Lexus brand was launched nearly 30 years ago to take on the European auto elite. The first car produced by Toyota’s new luxury division was the LS 400, a large sedan with a 4.0-liter V-8 engine making 250 horsepower and mated to a four-speed automatic. It became an instant success. As the years went by, the LS has become more sophisticated and the engines have gotten bigger and more advanced. And they have all come with eight cylinders — until now.

As the all-new fifth generation LS carries on as the brand’s flagship it reminds us again that Europe doesn’t have a lock on world-class luxury. And notably Lexus has joined the trend toward smaller, turbocharged engines, and for the first time a six cylinder lies under the hood of an LS. The new 2018 LS 500 comes with twin turbochargers, 416 horsepower and 442 pound-feet of torque mated to a 10-speed automatic transmission. It’s still rear driven — and an all-wheel drive variant is available.

The 2018 LS also gets a new platform that’s even longer than the outgoing generation’s stretched model. The long wheelbase will be the only version offered for 2018. It has a lower, ground-hugging appearance and a striking coupe-like silhouette with a six-window profile. The body is mostly aluminum; only the roof is steel. Luxury audiences have a measured preference for big grilles and the LS doesn’t disappoint. A unique rendition of the massive spindle grille mesh includes 5,000 different surfaces (7,000 on the F Sport trim), flanked by narrow slit-like projector lamps and L-shaped LED lamps. Overall, it’s the most sharply angled and edgy vehicle in its class.

The effects of the longer wheelbase really show up inside, with massive amounts of passenger room and comfort. Unlike most cars, the best seat in the new LS isn’t the driver’s. Rather, the backseat is like flying international first class with executive seats that heat, cool, massage, and recline — along with a raised ottoman.

Power window shades add privacy and keep out the sun. There are also 11.6-inch entertainment screens, a Mark Levinson 3D audio system, ambient lighting, and a wide variety of hand-finished trim options that include a choice of nine interior color schemes — plus two more for the F Sport. There’s several Shimamoku wood patterns available in a choice of matte or gloss, light or dark. All wood pieces are individually handcrafted by a Takumi (Japanese for “artisan”) craftsperson.

Other interior trim elements include Kiriko glassware ornamentation and hand-folded pleats on the door trim when the Executive Package is included. This is unquestionably a showy, almost arrogant display of luxury automotive craftsmanship that is nothing short of exceptional — pure genius.

While the overall interior layout is extraordinary, we were dismayed that Lexus decided to carryover the infamous touchpad-based infotainment system. It has to be the most distracting feature found in any car regardless of price. It’s impossible to use without taking eyes off the road — and that’s never a good idea while hurtling down a highway at 70 mph. There is a better way, just check the competition.

For those who want more performance Lexus again offers the LS 500 with the F Sport package that will take you on a 0-to-60 run in just 5-seconds. The F Sport is also equipped with dynamic handling, active stabilizers, sport-tuned suspension and air height adjustment to lower the vehicle’s profile for improved handling dynamics at highway speeds, and is easier for entry and exits from the cabin.

The LS 500 provides world-class safety technology with Lexus Safety System+ A, PCS that can detect pedestrians and vehicles ahead using millimeter-wave radar for collision prevention, and stereo cameras for damage mitigation. In certain situations, the active steering assist can automatically control steering and braking when there is a high possibility of collision with a pedestrian.

With its array of sensors, the LS can detect the threat of an impending collision and automatically apply the brakes if the driver does not. Lane departure alert detects road lanes and alerts the driver when the vehicle wanders, and even provides steering wheel assistance to keep the vehicle in its lane.

The Lexus comes in just two trim levels — base and F Sport and with the choice of rear wheel or all-wheel drive. The LS 500 starts at $75,995 including a $995 destination charge. All-wheel drive raises the bottom line to $79,215. Our F Sport test car with all-wheel drive carried a bottom line of $88,155, which included virtually all the options available on the Lexus.

2018 Nissan Kicks — A pleasing personality

By Jim Meachen
Motorway America

Nissan has joined the rapidly expanding subcompact crossover SUV segment with a stylish, easy-to-like and relatively inexpensive vehicle with a rather unique name. We found the 2018 Kicks enjoyable to drive, comfortable all-around and with a host of amenities including an excellent-sounding eight-speaker Bose audio system in top-level SR trim that can be purchased for about 22 grand.

If you like the style and personality of Nissan’s newest offering, it can be yours for as little as $18,985 including destination charge. We can’t think of a less expensive yet more desirable new vehicle currently on the market.

The standard features list is amazingly long and includes things you only wish you could get as options on competing base models — automatic emergency braking and forward collision alert, automatic headlights, three USB ports, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, automatic up/down front windows, keyless entry and push-button start, and a 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Bluetooth phone and streaming audio.

Plunk down about $1,500 more and the mid-level SV trim brings an upgraded infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, satellite radio, automatic climate control, and blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, a cargo cover, remote engine start, and 17-inch alloy wheels.

Go all in with the top SR trim with the Premium package for just over $22,000 and you will own a ride that even us old and jaded reviewers could live with as a daily driver. That cash outlay will bring such additional goodies as LED headlights, a surround-view camera (very cool if you haven’t experienced one), nice faux-leather heated seats, a leather heated steering wheel, and the aforementioned outstanding Bose audio system. Another feature only available on the SR model is Nissan’s Integrated Dynamics-Control Module designed to improve comfort by using the brakes to help balance the car in corners and curves or when the road undulates.

Even though the Kicks is loaded with attributes, one of its few so-called downsides is a leisurely persona — what’s the hurry? Stop and smell the roses — with a 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine making 125 horsepower and 115 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm mated to a CVT (continuously variable transmission). Granted, 125 ponies seems like a bare minimum, but get behind the wheel and you will find that its recorded 9.7-second 0-to-60 time is just a number.

Thanks to its light weight — just 2,654 pounds — and its engine tuning together with its just-right shifting from its simulated gear setup, the little Kicks feels sprightly around town, and with plenty of grunt for those pesky merging and passing chores — provided you are willing to put the pedal to the metal and exercise a bit of caution on a two-lane road or when you need extra speed to keep up with freeway traffic.

The real bottom line is gas mileage. The Kicks is one of the most fuel efficient small SUVs on the planet, EPA rated at 31 mpg city, 36 highway and 33 combined with front wheel drive burning regular gas. The Kicks is not available with all-wheel drive.

The interior feels comfortable and friendly. Although we found much black plastic inside our top SR trim test car, it was nicely textured and padded, and fit and finish appeared first class. Our test car featured orange fabric panels on the seats and doors and orange contrast stitching on the leather-trimmed dashboard. Gauges are clear and switchgear is intuitive and easy to use. For those who enjoy a good sound from their audio system, Nissan has made available two optional systems — a 300-watt 7-speaker Rockford-Fosgate system that can be added to any trim level for $595, and as noted above, the Bose system that can be added in top-level SR trim with the $1,000 Premium package.

The front seats proved comfortable and reaching a good driving position was easy. One trip included hauling three adults with no complaints about rear-seat room or comfort. The cargo area behind the seats (25 cubic feet) proved large enough to easily transport a folding wheelchair. We think two sets of golf clubs would also fit without any drama. Cargo space with the seats folded increases to 53 cubic feet.

It seems the younger set wants more personalization these days and Nissan has made it possible with its Color Studio offering 12 accessories for a bit more color and, well, more kick(s). We most like the ability to add a two-tone body/roof paint scheme for $545.

Our top trim SR with Premium Package, the two-tone paint, and the Bose audio carried a bottom line of $22,025 including destination charge.

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