A Bit of Background on the Lexus LS
It’s no secret that Lexus enjoys much more success than its Japanese luxury cohorts (Acura, Infiniti), and the brand owes much of that to the original LS. Acura got on by selling cars that were entirely rebadged versions of premium JDM Hondas. As such, they didn’t look appreciably different from the Honda lineup, which turned many buyers off. Infiniti did the same, and while the products were often more avant-garde than the Acuras, styling-wise, the marketing was terrible. It should be noted that Infiniti’s first advertisement, in 1989, didn’t even have a car in it.
Well, Lexus also mostly got by on selling premium versions of JDM Toyota cars, with a couple of notable exceptions. The first was the introduction of a kind of customer service to which even exotic-car customers weren’t accustomed. The second was the original 1990 LS 400. Put simply, the LS 400 was a better Mercedes-Benz S-Class, then the standard of the world. Hiding behind the LS 400’s handsome but understated styling was a couple billion worth of development costs on what was likely the highest-quality car ever. Not only that, but it was also silent, comfortable and effortless. One of the first LS 400 commercials featured an LS traveling at 145 MPH on a dynamometer with a pyramid of full champagne glasses balanced atop the hood.
Rolls-Royce, eat your heart out.
It was that car that came to define Lexus’ image, and a general commitment to quality throughout the lineup was all it took for the LS 400’s halo to pay dividends. Interestingly, the LS 400 was actually “downbadged” into a car called the Toyota Celsior in Japan, as Lexus wasn’t a thing there. And while the Celsior featured some truly wild options not available on the LS 400, like a fax machine, the cars were one and the same. The LS had a Celsior twin for its first three generations, the original LS 400 (1990-1997), the subsequent LS 400 (1998-2000, largely a heavy facelift), and the LS 430 (2001-2006). In all that time, though, the LS was never really as luxurious as the German cars: the aforementioned S-Class, the Audi A8 and the BMW 7 Series. The LS didn’t have the same absurd levels of decadence and it only came in a single size with a single (RWD) powertrain. It also looked like a Toyota, because Toyota and Lexus were sharing styling and cars, if not necessarily in the same markets.
L-finesse changed all that. In 2003, Lexus debuted a concept that shook up its heretofore reputation for staid styling. That car was the LF-S, whose sleek roofline, large wheels, angular lighting elements, and tasteful blend of curves and angles was in sharp contrast to anything it had done before, and it received plenty of praise. Lexus stated upfront that it was a preview of upcoming cars, and just in time, too. Because in July 2005, Toyota decided to launch Lexus in Japan, making it the first premium automaker to make it back to Japan. And now that this was the case, the Lexus products needed to be thoroughly differentiated from their Toyota counterparts. The first L-finesse car to hit the market was the third-generation GS (2006-2012), which was as honest a production translation of the LF-S concept as was practically possible. It was shortly followed by the second-generation IS (2006-2013). 2007 brought us the fifth-generation ES (2007-2012) and the subject of our article, the fourth-generation LS.
The fourth-generation LS introduced quite a few firsts for Lexus. Buyers now had a choice of two wheelbases: a standard size and an extended “L” size. There were now two variants: the base LS 460/LS 460L, sporting a new 4.6-liter V8 engine with either RWD or AWD, and a range-topping LS 600hL, comprising a 5.0-liter V8 AWD hybrid setup that was meant to compete with its cohorts’ V12 offerings and the standard LWB body. (It’s worth noting that Lexus did sell a SWB LS 600h, but not here in the ‘States). The in-house 8-speed was the first such production transmission ever. And the LS was now truly high-tech, with interior design and accouterments to battle the best from Germany, England or Italy.
This generation of LS enjoyed a long life, lasting from 2007 to 2017. The early models were the 2007-2009. 2010 brought a very subtle facelift that lasted through 2012. The 2013-2017 models were more drastic, sporting Lexus’ controversial spindle grille, as well as the mouse-based Enform infotainment system and the option of the F Sport package for the first time. In 2018, the LS was finally redesigned for a fifth generation.
These days, the LS is probably a rounding error on Lexus’ (and Toyota’s) bottom line. The LS doesn’t sell in nearly the numbers of the brand’s less-expensive wares, like the UX, NX, RX, GX, ES, IS, etc… nor is it likely anywhere near as profitable. Lately, several brands have had to contend with iconic models that once came to define them in the past, but that no longer make sense in the lineup (VW with the Beetle, Chevrolet with the Impala and soon the Camaro, Bentley with the Mulsanne, Volvo with its wagons, Lincoln with all its sedans). I suspect Lexus will be asking itself that question not long from now and may conclude that it no longer needs the LS.
But let’s get to my story.
I remember when the fourth-generation (XF40) LS came out. I was just about to enter high school. And while most high-schoolers dream of a Ferrari, a Lamborghini, or even a Mustang…I’ve always liked myself a large, world-class, wood-and-leather-trimmed luxury car. So thought the design was beautiful. It looked kind of like a BMW 7 Series…but it didn’t. It did its own thing. And I remember looking at them in 2013, when I was in college, and seeing the earliest examples descend to around the $35K mark, retail. That said, I never got close to one. I didn’t know anyone who’d had one and couldn’t afford one.
Not until roughly nine years later, in January 2022. As is often the case, I was playing around on FB Marketplace or AutoTrader, and an LS 460 came up. I looked at it like one would an old crush. Huh. This depreciated luxury car had now fallen to the level where I could buy it with cash. More than that, the fact that it was a Lexus meant that this was a less scary proposition than any number of other similar cars I could have bought, such as the 2006 Jaguar XJ Vanden Plas that it would likely replace.
I knew the hybrid LS 600hL wasn’t in my price range (under $20K), at least not for good ones, so it was down to the gas-only LS 460. I definitely wanted the LWB L body style, because…why not? The problem was that while the XJ, 7 Series and A8 were plentiful in LWB style (and Mercedes-Benz began only importing the LWB S-Class starting in 2007)…the vast majority of LS 460s are, for whatever reason, SWB. So that one factor limited my search to, I’d say, 15% of the market. The other thing I wanted, which was more of a “nice-to-have,” was the adaptive cruise system…and it became apparent within five minutes of searching that this just was Not Going to Happen, for sheer rarity.
I wound up at a respectable used-car dealership I’d heard of before, which did (and still does) a brisk business in fourth-generation LSs and so had four of them on the lot. I zeroed in on the one they had that was an L. Specifically, it was a 2011 LS 460L AWD. It was a very dark grey with a light grey interior and it had one very rare feature: the matte interior trim. I thought that made the interior look ten times better, because it didn’t appear nearly as dated as the glossy stuff in the overwhelming majority of these.
After I managed to finagle the keys, I sat inside and enjoyed Lexus’ just-right ergonomics. The seats weren’t as adjustable or complicated as the Multi-Contour ones in the BMWs I’d had, and yet they just felt nice. Beyond that, everything was incredibly well put-together. The buttons had a high-quality glittery-grey finish and looked as new as the day the car had rolled out of the Tahara plant. The interior surfaces were unreasonably immaculate and gave the car an appearance of being babied for all of its 108,000 miles.
I started the car up and was pleased with the sound coming from its 4.6-liter V8…which was none. The cabin was that well insulated against noise. On the road, the suspension seemed well-dampened, but comfortable, and it handled quite well for what it was, without all the trickery of air suspension (optional on the LS, but not equipped on this one) or pricey active roll bars. I decided I liked it and circled back to the dealership to work out a deal. We settled on $18,000 or thereabouts, and the LS 460 L was mine.
As I’m sure you folks have noticed, most of my stories seem to have more excitement around acquiring the car than actually driving it (I really should just go ahead and start a car dealership of my own) and this will be another of those.
A few days later, I noticed a suspicious puddle in the driveway, and took it straight to the Lexus dealership, who promptly gave me a loaner (a new ES 350, gosh, I love those folks). They told me the valley pan gasket was leaking coolant, and then showed me where said coolant had leaked alongside the transmission bell-housing. My service advisor told me that it was a very common maintenance item on the Toyota V engines at that mileage.
My service advisor also told me that the reason my interior looked so clean was that the car had gotten the entirety of its interior replaced under an extended campaign in 2021 at that dealership, just the prior year. Several mid-aughts Toyota and Lexus products are susceptible to an issue wherein large panels will begin to melt and go tacky. It’s like the sticky-button issue that plagues some contemporary Mercedes-Benz, Fiat, Maserati and Jaguar products…but turned up to eleven. Anyway, the interior looked new because it was new. Good to know.
What seemed unreasonable, and the reason I didn’t have the car fixed at the Lexus dealer. was their $2,800 repair bill. I took it to a local independent who specialized in Toyota and Lexus products, and they got the job done for a third of that. I had to take it back twice because they inadvertently damaged a fuel rail in so doing, causing the car to have a vapor leak that permeated the cabin.
Sometime here, I learned something I didn’t previously know. The AWD LS 460 was down about 26 hp to its RWD counterpart. Both had the 4.6-liter 1UR-FSE V8, featuring both port and fuel injection, but the RWD’s was tuned for 386 HP, while the AWD had 360 HP. If the LS is anything like the contemporary N-platform IS and GS, AWD ones also have entirely different floor pans. Furthermore, in some markets, such as the Middle East, the LS 460/L got the 1UR-FE engine, which lacked the direct fuel injection. This is the exact same engine that’s in the outgoing GX 460 (301 HP) and that was in versions of the prior Tundra and Sequoia (310 HP).
Shortly after that, the car began doing something very odd, which was vibrating quite noisily whenever the transmission was in gear. I didn’t realize it until it started in earnest because the Jaguar that preceded it wasn’t nearly as refined in the first place, but it had been doing it the whole time. It just got louder and far more noticeable. My first thought was motor mounts or transmission, and the cheapest of those to solve was definitely the transmission mount, and I could do it myself. Little did I know that the AWD one had a completely different transmission mount, which made a huge difference. It did not solve the vibration issue.
Once I got the quote for new motor mounts at $3,800 and it still might not fix the issue, I decided I didn’t love the car enough to fire the parts cannon at it. If I could have definitively known it would solve the vibration and gotten it done for less, I might’ve risked it. So, I sold it to a used car dealership for about what I paid. Well, I consigned it to them. It took two weeks before someone flew in from Kentucky and bought the LS and paid me off, and that was that.
I would own another LS 460L—perhaps with just RWD—but I’m highly interested in owning the LS 600hL. That one seems like an interesting experience, and I’d love to see what it’s like.