Curbside Classic: 1992 Lexus LS400 – With All Due Respect

(first published 2/18/2012)   This car was once a very big deal.

If you were around for the launch of Lexus brand in the second half of 1989, you may recall just how earth-shaking it was.  It’s conventional wisdom now that most Lexus cars are boring, but this was not the case at the introduction of the LS400, and so we take a moment to give the early versions of the LS their due.

Toyota spent years doing their damnedest to perfect this car, and every indication is that their Relentless Pursuit Of Perfection was not just marketing hype.  You may not especially like the style of the car, but if you’ve spent any time with an LS400 and compared it against any other 1990 car even in the general ballpark of its price there is simply no comparison in the realm of overall quality.

The original LS400 was quite the value, too, starting at about $35k, but creeping steadily upward with the passage of time.

This particular model has not lived a charmed life, which I can verify because I’ve done some repair work on this car.  It belongs to a young friend of mine who didn’t want a “chick car.”  Hey, who can blame him?  I don’t want a chick car either!

I’m certain I wouldn’t have recommended a tired, 20-year-old luxury car to someone who can’t turn their own wrenches, but I’ve bought 2 Lincolns almost solely for the hood ornaments and know the heart (and certainly not the brain) wants what it wants.

This DOHC 4.0-liter V8 is worth 250 horses and 260 ft-lbs of torque; nothing much in today’s world, but pretty potent in 1990, and it was good for mid-8 second runs to 60 mph.  A Camry Hybrid will leave this car for dead while getting significantly better fuel economy, but you can’t put Flowmasters on a Camry Hybrid and sound cool, can you?

Except for an ugly-sounding lifter tick, this engine is still stupefyingly smooth.  Maintenance and many repairs are as easy as they can reasonably be, which is something that signifies a well-designed car to me personally.  The only fly in the ointment is that the camshafts have to come out to adjust that pesky valve lash, but any good Toyota guy (or even me) can manage it.

Please note that this emblem, after being subjected to engine heat for 297k miles and 20 years, still looks better than most badges on the exteriors of brand-new cars.  Also look at the grain of the intake casting–junk this is not.

The unadorned, semi-badgeless rear has always looked clean and well-proportioned to my eye, and has the added benefit of making it harder to correctly date these older versions.  I like that it didn’t have LS400 denoted back here.  It’s a Lexus, so what else do you need to know?

Factory dual exhaust outlets were still pretty rare at the time on anything other than a high-end Pontiac with their honky V6s, and I always thought this car looked sneakily powerful because of them.

The LS400’s tires and wheels are microscopic by today’s standards, but do lend a certain visual lightness when viewed in combination with the entire side profile of the car.

While the powertrain and chassis of this zillion-mile LS400 still reek of baked-in goodness, it is the interior that ends up coming across as most impressive of all, even after all this time.

This switchgear should look familiar to any Toyota product owner of the last 20-odd years.  It is said Toyota would often let the latest and/or greatest bits trickle into the lowly Toyota-branded models down from the Lexus line.  This is distinct from makers such as General Motors or Ford who would seemingly let bits from the lowest car on the totem pole filter up into their top offerings.  Go sit in a 1990 Corvette and then sit in this Lexus and see what you think of the two strategies.

The cruise sprout, especially, seemed near perfection to me, and the cancel function was greatly appreciated.  Being able to momentarily deactivate the cruise system without the brake lights admitting guilt for me was frequently helpful in my younger years.

Also notice the location of the ignition switch.  I distinctly recall car magazines carping about any car that still had the switch on the column because they didn’t consider it ergonomically correct when compared to cars like the LS400.

What a boring dash you say?  Well, yes and no.  That column features power tilt and reach, and swings itself out of the way as you enter or exit the car.  But as for looks, I’ll agree…and where’s the instrument cluster, anyway?

There it is.  My camera simply can not capture how cool the electroluminescent cluster is, with its nearly holographic dials and 3-D warning lights.  I had read many, many times about this cluster by the time I finally saw one in the flesh, and I was still blown away when I saw one for the first time.

This aftermarket stereo’s controls do an excellent job of making the LS400’s HVAC panel look even cleaner and more straightforward than it already is.

Behold: The fold-down mirror visor.

I believe it was at the intro of the SC400 that one of the car magazines did at least a full paragraph about this visor in that car.  The writer described the perfectly-tailored fabric covering’s seam, and the fact that the entire item was nearly useless.

While I disagree it’s useless and would kill for one in my own car, the author used it as a metaphor for the obsessiveness with which the Lexus was designed, and they were right.  The entire car exudes the sense that many, many people made sure everything possible was done right.

It should go without saying that I was devastated to find today that the one in this LS400 was coated in insanely cheap-feeling vinyl and exhibited none of the craftsmanship described by the magazine author.  It was, at least, maybe the ONLY thing that feels cheap on this car.


And this mechanical odometer is maybe the only thing that severely dates the interior.  If this were replaced with an electronic odometer somewhere under the speedometer, you’d be hard-pressed to ever guess this car is 20 years old.

I intended this story to be much funnier and snarkier than it has obviously ended up.  I’d planned to poke some fun at my friend’s choice of car along with his choice of mini-mowhawk hairstyle and general MTV-based persona, but the truth is after looking at all these pictures and writing it all out, I want a LS400 of my own.

Not this LS400, of course, but you get the point.  I’ll at least skip the bad hairdo.