While not Japan’s first attempt at a luxury car (the Toyota Crown and alike had been the high-end motors of their domestic market for years), it was the nation’s first stab at creating a luxury car that would appeal to the western customer base. Years in the making, Toyota spent millions on a market research campaign that investigated all the factors that made the luxury cars of North America and Europe so appealing in their own right. Taking pointers from the likes of Lincoln, Cadillac, Mercedes-Benz and Audi, Toyota amalgamated all the things they’d learnt together under their new luxury arm; a striking, one-letter marque simply known as Lexus. When the company launched its first model, the LS 400, in 1990 the critics and customers alike fell head over heels for this wonderful amalgamation of Japanese reliability and build quality with all the comforts and features one would expect from a contemporary luxury motor.
With credentials like that, the LS 400 is truly the perfect alternate choice for anyone wishing to buy themselves an executive motor. The car, for the time, had nothing but the absolute finest coupled to the kind of build quality one expected from Japanese motors. For the most part, the car would never put a foot out of line, providing the discerning motorist with the latest and greatest in features that far surpassed the equivalent Mercedes S-Class or BMW 7-Series. While many argue that Japanese cars are soulless, seen less as machines built with care and more just an unloved, mass-produced white goods, the Lexus is aesthetically pleasing to all the sense; from its soft leather and smooth, polished wood to the sound of its obedient 5-speed automatic gearbox gently drifting the V8 engine up to speed.
Most of all though, the car was comparatively cheap against its rivals, especially in America. While car manufacturers such as Ford and Cadillac struggled to reorganise themselves in the late 80’s and early 90’s after the calamitous upheaval of the preceding decade, Japanese cars were built in an almost sterile environment which provided efficiency and quality that was almost unheard of. The result was the LS 400 being constructed under ideal conditions which trimmed as many overheads as possible from the production process; therefore allowing Lexus to lower the price to make it more appealing.
What resulted was nothing short of critical acclaim for the machine, including the 1991 International Car of the Year, 1991 Canadian Car of the Year, 1991 Wheels Car of the Year and the 1991 Top Gear Limousine of the Year.
So, what features do you get in the LS 400 and how do they stack up to today’s crop of executive saloons?
Upon its launch in 1990, the LS 400’s internal features and refinement were second to none; leaving the likes of Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Jaguar quaking in their boots.
The LS 400 was among the first luxury saloons to be fitted with an automatic tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel with SRS airbag, power adjustable shoulder seat belts, and an electrochromic rear-view mirror. The five-passenger cabin included California walnut and leather trim, power-adjustable seats, and soft-touch controls. A back-lit electro-luminescent gauge cluster featured a holographic visual effect, with indicator lights projected onto the instrument panel. The memory system stored the driver’s seat, side mirror, steering wheel, and seat belt positions. Available luxury options included a Nakamichi premium sound system and an integrated cellular telephone with hands-free capabilities. The LS 400 further contained some 300 technological innovations to aid smooth operation and silence, including fluid-damped cabin fixtures, vibration-insulating rubber mounts, airflow fairings, and sandwich steel body panels.
Everything about the car, especially for its size, was incredible; it being incredibly cheap to buy and run, incredibly efficient, incredibly reliable and incredibly well-equipped.
28 years down the line and the car’s features, while endearing for the time, aren’t exactly top notch compared to what you’d find as standard on most modern day luxury saloons. However, even though the car’s refinements, which were once revered as cutting edge, may be woefully dated, that doesn’t make it any less a car worthy of your money; mostly because you can get all the aforementioned features for less than £5,000. As a mass-production car that was comparatively cheap to buy in the first place, the LS 400 today has depreciated to the point that you can whip up mint condition examples for tuppence.
But, and it’s a big but, let’s not forget that these cars are knocking on the door of 30 years old and thus there are multiple mechanical gremlins that could make the LS 400 not the most ideal buy.
One of the more notable niggles with the car is it’s steering ‘feel’ or feedback; which is the sensation you get that allows you to feel through the steering wheel what the front wheels are doing. A car with excellent feedback will let you feel road imperfections and, most importantly, will communicate if the front wheels are nearing the limits of grip in a corner or have passed the limit and are starting to slide. The LS 400 has very poor steering feel, almost synonymous with giant American land yachts like the Cadillac Brougham Sedan and the Lincoln Towncar. Indeed while the Lexus was built largely to appeal to the U.S. market, where one can drive for hundreds of miles without having to encounter a corner, on European roads this makes the driving experience tiresome as your background thoughts contemplate what direction the wheels are actually pointing.
In terms of mechanical faults, the earliest models (pre-1995) are notable for suffering from engine surging; which is where the engine is not getting enough fuel and thus the fuel mixture is thrown off balance.
Perhaps the biggest worry when buying the LS 400 is what kind of life the car had previously led. These cars were the pride and joy of businessmen and company pools who would flog these machines to death before retiring them after 5 years or so. Low-mileage LS 400’s are an incredible rarity as many business directors, salesmen and other employees would drive them upward of 75,000 miles per annum. As such, LS 400’s that survive today have been worn to the bone and could be on the verge of a major mechanical failure.
Furthermore, Toyota GB recommends owners “make sure the car has a full Lexus service history, that the automatic transmission fluid and filter have been changed every year, that the shocks and suspension are okay, that the timing belts have been changed at 60,000-mile intervals and that there is no excess wear on the rear discs through misuse of the parking brake.“
Most examples also need a suspension overhaul around 100,000 miles, with control arms and balljoints being particularly prone to breaking thus resulting in an expensive repair. On high-mileage examples, check the service history thoroughly to make sure that the upper wishbone balljoints have been repaired or replaced, otherwise your car may be on the verge of a massive failure. For lower mileage examples, it’d be recommended to preempt this by replacing the wishbones soon after purchase; a much cheaper alternative than putting it off and waiting for them to fail on their own.
The final issue with the LS 400 would probably be the interior wear and tear. While the car is incredibly refined, the interior was made out of comparatively cheap materials which are prone to wearing at a surprisingly faster rate than the competition. The leather seats are particularly prone to tearing after years of hard work.
However, in spite of all these various niggles, most of which have probably been addressed by previous owners (but that’s no excuse not to check), the LS 400 is truly a must-have machine if you’re someone who adores luxury cars but wants something they can both use everyday and can buy for relatively little expense. The car, much like the Ford Scorpio, is truly at home on the motorway; merrily cruising down miles of tarmac 5 times a week without let or hindrance. Couple that with amazing fuel efficiency and that hulking V8 up front, and you’ll find yourself driving a machine built to deliver only the finest in build quality and luxury that will last until the end of time.
- Comfort – 10/10 – Supreme comfort that gave American and European equivalents a run for their money
- Practicality – 10/10 – It made its name as the ultimate company car. People have, and still do, live out of these things on long business trips
- Reliability – 8/10 – Most survivors will be mechanically sound, but there are some concerns here and there which may need addressing
- Speed – 7/10 – Good on motorway cruising, but it won’t be hurried
- Handling – 7/10 – Good in straight lines, but a lack of suitable road feel can be tiring for long trips on winding roads
- Looks – 8/10 – It has its own unique charm, especially if you’re a fan of the box-on-wheels style
- Equipment – 10/10 – The amount of things that came standard with this car back in 1990 truly caught the likes of Cadillac and BMW napping
- Price – 10/10 – The Lexus marque depreciates like nothing on earth, so you’re practically tripping over cheap examples of this delightful car
- Value – 4/10 – With that said, this was a mass-produced Lexus and thus I don’t see it regaining its value anytime soon
- Total – 74/90 – Japan’s 1990 hit which left its rivals quaking in their boots!