The Original Lexus LS400 Was a Luxury Car Game-Changer

Today, Lexus’ vehicles, from passenger cars to 3-row off-road-capable SUVs, enjoy a strong reputation for reliability and comfort. The brand’s vehicles don’t offer features like perfume atomizers or the Rolls-Royce Cullinan’s starlight headliner, true. But then, Lexus started from Toyota, the automaker that created the understated, extremely-exclusive Century. Instead of over-the-top tech, Lexus focused on quality and dependability, something which even high-end marques struggled with during the 80s and 90s. And it all started with the Lexus LS400.

Building Lexus and the LS400

A beige 1990 Lexus LS400 in a parking lot
1990 Lexus LS400 | Lexus

As Automobile Magazine describes, a Japanese automaker moving upmarket wasn’t unusual in the late 80s. Acura had already done it, with the Legend sedan so beloved by Ludacris. But the Legend was a front-wheel-drive car. Toyota wanted Lexus to compete with the best rear-wheel-drive luxury sedans coming from Audi, Mercedes, and BMW, Automobile reports. In fact, Car and Driver reports Toyota’s specific target was the Mercedes S-Class: one of the most iconic luxury sedans on the market.

The project originally started in 1983, Automobile reports. This was the tail end of the Bubble Era. This was the same period that brought us the Nissan Skyline GT-R, the 2JZ-powered Supra, and the Autozam AZ-1. As such, Lexus had more than enough funds to perfect its debut luxury sedan. By the time the Lexus LS400 officially debuted, Road & Track reports engineers had gone through over 900 prototypes.

And that dedication definitely showed. The Lexus LS400 didn’t use Formula One tech like the Acura Integra Type R did. But project lead Ichiro Suzuki did have F1 technicians help with the car’s engine development. Today, the car’s 250-hp 4.0-liter V8 and 4-speed automatic fell “peppy”, Hagerty reports, if not exactly fast. But the F1 techs weren’t there to give the engine more power. Refinement was Suzuki’s end goal.

The Lexus LS400 was arguably over-engineered

The techs helped improve engine tolerances by 1/3rd, for one. That’s one reason why The Smoking Tire’s Matt Farah’s personal LS400 racked up 1,000,000 miles without having to rebuild or touch the engine or transmission. Suzuki also had a hard weight limit: 4000 lbs. If any modification added more than 10 grams, R&T reports, Suzuki had to personally approve it. Assembly workers wore lab coats and booties. But the Lexus LS400’s true strengths were best shown in its interior.

Automobile writes, “Every switch, lever, and button felt weighty and solid.” Veteran auto journalist Peter Egan recounts sitting in the passenger seat looking through a CD binder, while the driver was doing 130 mph. Egan had no idea; he said, “A near absence of wind noise and mechanical commotion, along with excellent directional stability, made the new LS 400 the calmest, quietest car I’ve driven at high speed. The Lexus V-8 and its nearly vibration-free driveline simply set a new standard for combining horsepower with civility.”

Farah reports that, when others borrowed his personal Lexus LS400 at 900,000 miles, some thought the odometer had to be broken. One driver reported that it felt like a 100,000-mile car, the interior and ride were so comfortable and serene.

Even better, the Lexus LS400 offered all this at a fraction of what the German brands cost. Car and Driver reports that, while the LS400 was a rival for the S-Class, it was priced more like Mercedes’ mid-level E-Class. And R&T reports it was a bigger hit with owners than Mercedes’ cars, too. 96% of owners rated their experience with the car as good or excellent; Mercedes, the previous record-holder, only mustered 77%.

Its influence today

Because of their build quality, many LS400s are available at reasonable prices. As of this writing, a 78,000-mile 1992 example is going $9100 on Bring a Trailer. Particularly well-preserved ones can sometimes go for close to $25,000.

Nowadays, we expect vehicles from luxury brands like BMW, Maserati, and Alfa Romeo to work. That’s in part because of the Lexus LS400, which still impresses to this day.

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