There are certain landmark vehicles that us car nuts are naturally aware of. The Lexus LS400 is the sort of car my radar is always on for. I’ve been noticing for a few years that I just haven’t been seeing early LS’s around much anymore. Mid and late 90’s versions are still pretty common, not so the first version of this fine automobile. Where are the Series I cars hiding?
I’ll try to answer that question near the end of the article. Two years ago, walking out of Home Depot, my brain radar pinged loudly on a car parked across the lot. I made a beeline towards it, but the owner was already getting in the car and starting it up. Hi Ho Silver! I got out my camera and snapped what shots I could. “Who was that masked man?” someone was heard to say.
The photos turned out just OK, but I figured, “no matter, another one will surely pop up under better photographic conditions.” Well, after two years I’m starting to doubt that any will come out of hiding for me. In that time, I have seen one pretty beat up example driving on the freeway and that’s it.
The LS has been written about before at CC, of course. I wasn’t sold on writing my car up until I ran across a 1989 article in my archive of Motor Trends and was reminded of what a significant car this was. The fact that this is a first year car and apparently one of a very small number still being daily driven made it a subject worth visiting for me, plus a Vintage Review offers some value added for loyal CC readers. So, let’s look at Motor Trend’s first assessment of the soon-to-be-released 1990 LS400 from August 1989.
In almost any field, if you have something to hide, there are things you can do. There’s a saying among lawyers that goes, “If you’re weak on the evidence and strong on the law, pound the law. If you’re weak on the law and strong on the evidence, pound the evidence. If you’re weak on both, pound the table” (or the opposing counsel or the witness, depending on the version). In pharmaco/medical scientific studies, if the data supports your hypothesis, you focus on the data. If it doesn’t, you write the conclusions you want and hope no one looks too closely at the data (which you can also jigger in your favor). In public affairs, if the data supports your preferred policy, go hard on the data. If it doesn’t, obfuscate, intimidate, denigrate, mandate, and definitely don’t show the data.
Like these other fields, marketing can be manipulated. If a product is not of good quality, there are a hundred tricks to divert attention from that and appeal to instinct, emotion, pride or some other time-tested method of selling people. If your product has great quality and value? Then you just sell the product and the people will come along.
Motor Trend’s Jeff Karr (heck of a name for an auto writer) tells the story of Lexus’s first hands-on presentation of their new car to journalists. Toyota brought them to Germany, where they were given three days to drive the car, including on the Autobahn, and given comparable models of Mercedes, BMW, and Jaguar to also drive and compare the Lexus to. He writes, “The Lexus people felt they had nothing to hide-rather, a lot to show off. They were right.”
Here commences possibly the most glowing car magazine review I recall ever reading.
That’s saying a lot given that Motor Trend has had a reputation for being, ahem, optimistic in their evaluations. I don’t personally think that MT was as biased as some people do, but particularly in this era they would not tend to be as biting as Car & Driver and some others could be. As glowing as the article is, it’s fairly understated, much like the Lexus itself. The excellence of the car comes through organically, in the article and in life.
It begins by reviewing Toyota’s strategy for their new luxury division. This was no gussied up Camry (the ES would come a little later) nor even a well-massaged JDM Century or Crown, it was an all-new, no excuses assault on the flagships of the best European luxury car makers. They knew with no luxury brand identity in a crowded marketplace, the car would have to be exceedingly competent and the ownership experience the best possible. Mediocrity would doom the effort. Though very competitively priced, Toyota knew it couldn’t succeed on price alone. It had to excel.
Lexus representatives said the car would have to deliver on its promises right from the start to exceed customer expectations (GM should have been taking notes). With all Toyota’s considerable engineering and manufacturing expertise brought to bear on the project, it would have been foolish to doubt their capability of success.
Any doubts were quickly blown away when the journalists got their hands on the car. Though acknowledging the cars were pre-production, MT was none-the-less impressed by the paint quality, fit and finish, and the simple, elegant interior. The car eschewed Japanese electronic gimmickiness. Everything was tasteful, functional, feeling good to the touch and good to the tush. Engineering was conservative but totally contemporary. The car was surprisingly slippery for an upright sedan at 0.29 Cd.
Suspension was double wishbone in the front and multilink in the rear, with a choice of coil or air springs. Ride comfort was described as “among the best in the world”. A good line: “At first the Lexus seems so compliant you find yourself expecting little of the car in hard cornering. This is a mistake.” The handling impressed them as quite good and the excellent steering let down only by a slight lack in on-center feel.
I include the pages with David Kimble’s characteristically cool cut-away drawing both singly for maximum size, and joined for full effect.
The engine was a new-design 4.0L, 32-valve, all-aluminum, 250hp, 260 lb-ft V8. Combined with the electronically-controlled 4-speed auto transmission, MT called it, “possibly the smoothest, most refined drivetrain that isn’t still on a drawing board.” It propelled the 3770lb sedan to 60mph in 7.8 sec while asking for 17city/23hwy worth of gasoline. This was very competitive for the time and superior to the other cars driven at the introduction.
Lexus offered an optional electronic traction control system which was reported by MT to have worked well in their limited test. To modern eyes, accustomed to the overwrought luxury car interiors of the 2020’s, the LS interior looks really plain. It has real wood veneer, but small amounts found only in the center console and armrests. Even to 1989 eyes, the interior was where the understated nature of the car was at its most understated. However, ergonomics and function were said to be excellent as were fit and finish and materials. Seats were extremely comfortable and the interior was preternaturally quiet. GM had had their Bose systems for many years, but the optional Nakamichi stereo was said to elevate the standard for factory car audio even further. A trunk-mounted CD changer was optional. Remember those?
Overall, they described the car as “breathtaking”, an adjective seldom deployed to summarize a car that doesn’t have hypoxia-inducing levels of performance. A few months later, Motor Trend tested the LS for their Import Car Of The Year. They must have recovered from their dyspnea because it did not win, but came in third. Anybody care to guess what cars that were new for 1990 beat it? (answers below next photo. Let us know in the comments if you guessed and if you got it right!)
By the point system MT used, the Nissan 300Z got the award and the Mazda MX5 Miata came in second. These days, MT very emphatically states that they only evaluate COTY contestants against comparable cars in their market, not other COTY contestants. They said that then, too, but not as formally and I got the feeling that the two sports cars came out ahead because those are the cars that more excited the writers. However, it’s hard to fault them for choosing either, since they were both excellent, well-engineered cars that broke new ground and put their respective competition on notice. MT would combine the COTY and Import COTY in a few years. If that year’s extraordinarily weak domestic COTY contestants were combined with the notably strong field of import COTY contestants, the winning 1990 Lincoln Town Car would have come in 12th out of 26.
Disappointingly, MT didn’t get around to doing a full luxury car comparison test until June 1993. Much of the LS’s competition had advanced by then and the Lexus itself had received a number of improvements, though no major changes. Included here for your possible interest is the introduction, LS review, and conclusion/stats page.
The LS’s base price had increased to $46,600 over the four years since it was introduced at $35,000. Quite a bit more, but still comfortably below the Europeans in the test. As equipped for the test, though, the price was $53,930, almost $3000 more than the Infiniti and only $2,200 less than the BMW and just under $6,000 less than the M-B. Clearly Lexus was confident enough in their car’s competitiveness at this point to give up some of their price advantage over their Old World competition.
The LS’s review is glowing, as expected. They don’t really find any faults in the car, just recognition that the LS’s mission is somewhat different than some of the other cars’. The Lexus is not as much an aggressive performer as the others, it coddles and soothes its occupants while also delivering surprisingly competent road manners for such a serene car. The author notes that the Lexus was rated first or second in five of the six scoring categories.
Despite having a formal scoring system, the scores are not given nor is an outright winner declared. The LS is implied to be in the top three, with the further implication that if comfort is your highest priority, it would be the top choice. (As an aside, the Seville Touring Sedan got a positive review and was the clear-cut value winner. As has been noted at CC in the past, this generation Seville was one of GM’s best cars of the era.)
So why are there so few LS’s still plying the mean suburban streets today (at least in my part of the world)? Any contemporary test you read will describe it as extremely well-made, and in later years it would be considered a reliable older car. The Toyota Of Luxury Cars, you might say (right before you duck to miss the object thrown at you for saying something so silly). Mystified in my search for answers, I joined a couple Lexus forums and put the question to the members: is there any reason why these would be seen so seldom? Are there any mechanical Achilles heels?
They say no, there are no major mechanical weak points. Problems with the ECU (computer) may have doomed some cars due to owners or mechanics not knowing this is a fairly easily conquerable problem. Another problem is that the book value of the car tends to be a lot lower than what the car is actually worth on the market, so a relatively minor accident in an early LS could easily total the car as far as insurance is concerned. There’s also that government-created culling event of 2009 that prematurely doomed a number of daily drivers. I found the full list of cars receiving a lethal injection, which lists 444 1990 LS400’s. A total of 1,785 1990-94 LS’s were executed, a sad end for cars which were so, um… well-executed when new. Forum members speculate that most owners highly value the solid examples still around and don’t daily drive them much. They also added LS’s don’t show up in bone yards very often these days (ES’s do).
Lexus’s introductory car put Toyota’s luxury division on the map and established the corporation internationally as a serious player in all price segments of the popular car market. It sold vigorously right out of the gate, moving over 42k in the U.S. in 1990, then quickly settling into the 20-30k range through 2008. Sales fell drastically during the Great Recession and never fully recovered. In the SUV-obsessed environment of the last ten years, the LS hasn’t sold over 10k since 2013 and only 3,739 in 2021.
How did the Lexus flagship fair against its competition in the U.S.? In its first three years, the LS trounced the Mercedes E and S-class, BMW 5 and 7-series, Jaguar XJ, and the Infiniti Q45 in sales. The Q45 never approached the LS through its end in 2006, nor has the XJ. The E-class and 5-series passed the LS in 1993 (around the time they both began offering V8s) and have easily outsold it ever since and even the 7-series and the S-class have outsold it for the last decade. In total vehicle sales, Lexus beat BMW and Mercedes-Benz for the first half of the 90’s, but the Europeans caught up and all three companies have sold similar totals since 2000.
I would love to hear your thoughts on the LS’s decline in the market. Is it related to the car itself, its competition, or the market’s preference for SUVs? Why couldn’t Lexus maintain its early lead over its main competitors?
Having nothing to hide is a virtue proven righteous by Lexus’s introduction of the LS400. It was a success by any measure and the LS’s early sales showed that quality and value sell themselves, with no need for marketing tricks. Nothing is ever easy, though, and the long-term history of Toyota’s luxury division proves, if anyone ever doubted it, that the auto industry is complicated and cutthroat.
1990 Lexus LS400 photographed in Houston, TX 8/30/2020.
Curbside Classic – 1992 Lexus LS 400 – The Industry’s Greatest Hit Of The Last 50 Years? by Brendan Saur – A great, very detailed look at the LS and its significance.
Curbside Classic: 1992 Lexus LS400 – With All Due Respect by Mr. Tactful – An interesting up-close examination of a high-mileage LS.
CC Outtakes: 2004 and 2019 Lexus LS – Does It Really Matter Anymore? by Brendan Saur – Lots of comments on this pertinent question.
Very informative Non-CC webpage summarizing LS changes through the first four generations