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Lexus LS400 (1989 - 1994)

Last updated 14 October 2013


The Lexus LS400 represented nothing less than a revolution for the Japanese car industry. It was Toyota's money-no-object assault on the most difficult of automotive sectors - the luxury car market.

The car bristled with technology and had all the gadgets, space and pace you could ever need at the beginning of the 1990s. But has the LS400 stood the test of time, and does it stack up on today's roads?

Classic road test: Lexus LS400

Lexus LS400 (2)

In 1989, the Japanese motor industry truly had the world at its feet. For 12 fertile and memorable months, the Land of The Rising Sun reinvented itself, bloodied the noses of the European manufacturers like no other, and established its own true identity is a carmaking country. To that point, it could be argued that Japanese manufacturers were conservative, and not averse to a little plaigiarism.

But right at the end of the '80s, all that changed. The supercar and sports car markets, once judged the preserve of the Europeans and the Americans were split apart by the Japanese. Almost simultaneously, the Honda NSX and the Mazda MX-5 exploded on to the scene and sent the Europeans scuttling back to the drawing board. And in it seemed that the Japanese had no fear - Toyota created Lexus, and Nissan invented Infiniti to do battle with the likes of Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar in the luxury sector.

The idea of a luxury Japanese saloon wasn't exactly new - by the 1990s the Toyota Crown was available with every conceivable option. But what set the Lexus LS400 apart from its forebears was that it was styled and equipped very much to Western tastes.

About the Lexus LS400

Lexus LS400 (5)
We broke a photographic rule here and left the key in. Had we removed it, the instruments would have disappeared

When the Lexus LS400 was first unveiled, it was a true culture shock to us Europeans. Here was a car that was designed from the outset - and with absolutely no budget constraints - to be the best luxury car of its type in the world. Toyota's engineering team, which numbered thousands, was tasked with producing the smoothest, most capable luxury car, and started with a clean sheet. A new quad-cam V8 engine, displacing 3969cc and developing 250bhp was developed, while the all-round double wishbone suspension was tuned for ride comfort, and low road noise.

All the latest technology was designed in from outset, but in the true spirit of conservatism, no fripperies were specified - and even the wonderful electroluminescent instruments were designed to look like conventional analogue dials. As for the body, it was aerodynamic (the Cd is 0.29), and admirably rigid in its structure, but it was far from progressive looking - but that was deliberate, because it should not look out of place alongside all of those Jaguar XJs and S-Class Mercedes-Benzes in the Golf Club car park. Again, Toyota attained those aims for the imposing looking LS400.

Back in 1990, the road testers weren't too complimentary about the chrome-laden grille of the Lexuss LS400. 'Despite Toyota's claims that it began with the idealist's blank sheet of paper, this is copybook styling, the text supplied by BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar. Until you get to the nose, that is, where resides the biggest hun of chrome to come Britain's way since the '58 Vauxhall Cresta,' said Richard Bremner in CAR magazine. Time has certainly softened the Lexus' frontage - and in 21st century Britain, it actually looks low key, and the epitome of taste compared with some of the luxury challengers to emerge during the 1990s and '00s.

Inside the Lexus, it's more of a success. Okay, there's less wood than you might find in a Jaguar or Mercedes-Benz, but the California walnut that's used in the centre console has deep lustrous veneer and looks fantastic. The plastics for the dashboard and other mouldings are nicely textured and coloured, and feel good to touch. As for the leather that swathes the seats, it's not particularly soft, but it's great quality and certainly feels hard-wearing. It's a nice place to sit and conduct your business, and you get the feeling it would rack up 400,000 miles without raising a sweat.

Perhaps that's why there's so many left today in daily service.

On the road

Lexus LS400 (6)
Quad-cam V8 is creamy smooth and punchy at high revs

Our Lexus has enjoyed a full life. Despite occupying pride of place in Toyota GB's heritage press fleet, our example, which starred at the 1989 Motorfair at Earls Court, has more than 150,000 miles on the clock, but it may as well have 15,000 given the condition it's in. The lack of remote central locking is one of the few giveaways of this car's age - along with the ICE, central to which is a top-end tape deck and boot-mounted CD-multi-changer. It still sounds good compared with contemporary set-ups.

Even at the legal limit, the driver won't need to raise their voice barely above a whisper to converse with rear seat passengers

It's an interesting experience starting up the LS400. You turn-on the ignition, and the once-black void ahead of you springs into life, as the instruments come to life. At the same time, the steering wheel whirrs silently towards you. Time then, to adjust the seats - everything from headrest height to the height of the base... to the seat belt anchorage are all electrically powered. Once settled, fire up the engine, and enjoy the near-silence of the creamy smooth idle.

Back in 1990 when the LS400 was launched, they had a party trick they showed they showed to the UK press - the Toyota minders opened the bonnet of a car and balanced a coin on the engine as it idled away. And, yes, they didn't topple over. The four-speed transmission is matched with the engine perfectly - and as 'D' is selected, and the throttle squeezed, the car eases forward without a trace of driveline vibration.

Once underway, the dominant sensation is one of suspension movement, as that V8 engine is almost silent no matter what the speed, while the almost lack of wind noise means the LS400 is utterly hushed. Even at the legal limit, the driver won't need to raise their voice barely above a whisper to converse with rear seat passengers. But keen drivers will love the engine - floor the throttle, and it picks up like a thoroughbred. Between 4000-6000rpm, it has a distinct, albeit very distant, V8 howl, which for those who can afford its thirst when driven like this, will keep coming back for more.

Performance is more than adequate for keeping up with the 21st century flow - 0-60mph comes up in around 8.0 seconds, and the maximum speed is 150mph. Because the engine is actually quite peaky, you do have to stoke the throttle to make it go fast - and if you feel the need to overtake, it's best to floor the throttle and hit the overdrive lock-out button on the transmission.

Our car had adjustable suspension fitted, so you can choose between Sport and Comfort. After playing with this feature once, we just left it in comfort, and enjoyed the sensation of driving a car that does a great impression of smothering all but the roughest of roads. In a straight line, the LS400 is imperiously comfortable, and it maintains this feeling of indomitability. As for cornering, yes, it does that - but really, isn't all that a little unseemly in a car like this?

In a word, yes. The Lexus LS400 isn't a car about about comfort and wafting. Stick to that and you'll get the most of out of the regally luxurious Japanese saloon.

The HJClassics Verdict

Lexus LS400 Interior
Interior is top drawer quality, and extremely well put together. It's much more stylish than previous Japanese luxury cars

The Lexus LS400 is a magificent car to travel in. It's comfortable in the front, roomy in the rear, has a cossetting ride and has one of the smoothest engine and gerbox combos ever built. If you're looking for something that will glide you from one end of the country effortlessly, then this car is for you. You can also depend on a Lexus - a car that's consistently one of the most reliable you can buy - and even when they get old, these cars will soldier on for interstellar mileages thanks to near unimpeachable quality.

The LS400 was a magnificent achievement in 1989, and even if it didn't revolutionise the luxury car market in the way that the MX-5 and NSX did in their respective sectors, it did establish Lexus as a force to be reckoned with. Today it's a conspicuous bargain, and you can buy an early example for less than £1000, if you fancy lording it over the rest of us.

But let's face it, the LS400 has faults, otherwise we'd all own them, especially considering how cheap they are to buy. It's a very large car, and you'll need a big garage to house it. And unless you drive it gently everywhere on the motorway, it has frightening thirst that, when coupled with its 18.7 gallon fuel tank, makes £100-plus fill-ups an alarmingly regular occurence. But that's part and parcel of living with a classic luxury car.

The big question is would we have one over a similarly-priced Jaguar XJ40 or a Mercedes-Benz S-Class? Rather like our 1990 counterpart buying these cars new, we might have to take a heart over head decision, and stick to European. No-one said that buying cars at this level is a rational decision.

Lexus LS400 (1)

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