Date posted: 03-12-2003
For those of us who lived through them, the 1980s don't seem so very far away. But they were a far different time. Yes, it's true that the cell phones were huge, hair was even bigger and Internet access was still restricted to university computer labs, but more importantly there wasn't a Lexus yet.
Lexus is such a strong brand and familiar name in the 21st century that it's sometimes tough to keep in mind that it hasn't yet been around for two decades. After all, its major competitors are old and venerable brands. BMW began as the Rapp Motoren Werke back in 1913 and has been building cars since 1928. William Lyons began production of the car line that would become Jaguar back in 1932. And Mercedes-Benz is literally as old as cars themselves; Karl Benz produced the first commercial automobile back in 1886. Lexus, however, didn't sell its first car until late 1989 when the first ES 250 and LS 400 sedans went on sale as 1990 models.
Toyota launched Lexus at almost the same time Nissan introduced its own Infiniti division and nearly four years after Honda opened its first upscale Acura dealerships. If Acura hadn't been a hit or Infiniti a threat, maybe conservative Toyota wouldn't have felt it necessary to go forward with a luxury division of its own. But when that decision was made, Toyota knew it had to come up with something spectacular to support the idea of a Japanese car that could beat the German and British luxury brands at their own game. That something spectacular was the first 1990 LS 400.
But while the LS Series was impressive from the moment it was first shown, the second model that went on sale alongside it in those first Lexus showrooms was the thoroughly lackluster ES 250 sedan. Clearly based on the then current Toyota Camry, the ES 250 was boxy, boring and obviously a rushed compromise.
"Our first impression of Lexus is a mixed one," wrote
Car and Driver at the time. "The top model LS 400 has the look, smell and specifications of the premium-level luxocruiser its maker intends it to be. The entry-level Lexus ES 250, on the other hand, seems like a last-round draft pick. It looks out of place alongside the elegant LS 400."
To put this in perspective, the first LS 400 was so good that everyone overlooked the half-effort ES 250 and seemed to collectively assume that the real Lexus models yet to come would live up to that standard. Lexus wouldn't be Lexus today if the LS hadn't been so spectacularly good.
First Generation: 1990-1994
"The LS 400 is a technological tour de force,"
Car and Driver gushed upon its first exposure to the car. "From its unequal-length-control-arm front suspension to its multilink rear suspension to its standard cellular microphone buried in the steering wheel, the LS 400 positively reeks of breeding and careful development. And that's as it should be: When you're playing in this class, you can't afford to nickel-and-dime the details."
In general specification, there was nothing revolutionary about the 1990 LS 400. The basic structure was a straightforward unibody, the suspension (as described above) wasn't anything that hadn't been seen before and the 4.0-liter, DOHC, 32-valve V8 was sweet-natured and, at 250 horsepower, quite powerful, but hardly groundbreaking.
Ditto for the four-speed automatic transmission sending power back to the rear wheels. At 196.7 inches long over a 110.9-inch wheelbase, the first LS was 3.4 inches longer overall than the 1990 standard-wheelbase BMW 7 Series and there was 0.7 inch less space between the front and rear axle lines (it was close in size to the rest of its competitors, too).
Of course, such things as antilock four-wheel disc brakes and rack and pinion steering were standard but that was true of virtually all cars in the V8 luxury sedan class at the time. While 15-inch wheels and tires were standard, almost all buyers opted for the 16-inch wheels and 225/60VR16 tire package. And the LS 400 naturally carried the expected luxury equipment, too — automatic air conditioning, power everything (including a neat tilting and telescoping steering column) and a front airbag for the driver.
Besides being built in Japan, what separated the LS 400 from the other cars in its class was the quality of its execution and almost ludicrously low price.
"It is by design," wrote Car and Driver about the LS 400 as it won its first comparison test — besting the Audi V8 quattro, BMW 735i, Cadillac STS, Infiniti Q45, Jaguar XJ6 Sovereign and Mercedes
420SEL — with impressive ease, "a very filtered, silken automobile, the hardest job of all to pull off. We stand in admiration of the engineers who executed this assignment. At the same time we recognize that the Lexus may seem a bit placid to the strong-coffee crowd, those who don't think they're getting real flavor unless their car has the forceful, machinelike demeanor of the Audi or the BMW. The only forceful assertion in the LS 400 is correctness."
But if there's one element that stood out amid the refinement of that first LS, it was its interior. "The arrangement is logical and fine," continued Car and Driver. "The texture and colors are chic. And the steering wheel's leather feels as if it came from a heifer that enjoyed Elizabeth Arden treatment all its life." Other observers noted that the cabin's oversized controls contrasted sharply with the dinky switches then infecting many German machines and that the electroluminescent instrumentation set a new standard for readability and simple beauty.
The driving experience of the LS was just as buttery as the interior. "This car creams over the streets without a flutter," stated Car and Driver, "yet the suspension is disciplined. A few staffers felt mildly inhibited on the tearing-around roads, not quite sure they had enough feedback — particularly from the steering — to proceed with the usual abandon. But they came around after a bit. The Goodyear Eagle GA tires were developed with ride quality as a high priority, but they manage, in concert with the suspension, to produce a highly predictable steering feel on the curves."
All that refinement was available in the LS 400 for the incredibly low base price of just $35,000, at a time when the Mercedes 420SEL started at $61,210 and the BMW 735i listed for $54,000. Even fellow upstart Infiniti wanted $38,000 for the Q45. By selling a car many felt was intrinsically better than Mercedes' flagship S-Class (according to Car and Driver the LS 400's 8.6-second 0-60 time was seven-tenths of a second better than the 420SEL's) at around 57 percent of the price, the LS 400 was an immediate hit. Lexus sold 2,919 LS 400s during September 1989, its first month on sale.
Sensing things were mostly right with the LS 400, Lexus raised the price by $1,000 in the middle of the '90 model year, then tacked on another $2,000 when 1991 rolled around. But there were virtually no other changes to the car for its sophomore year except for revised front brakes and the option of all-season tires. The LS 400 changed even less for 1992 as the car continued to sell at a blistering pace despite the fact that the base price was now over $40,000.
The first-generation LS was "freshened" for the 1993 model year with a few tweaks. "If one overlooks the very subtly revised grille — and that's not at all hard to do — the most visible change is in the wheel and tire combo," explained Motor Trend at the time, "where 205/65VR15 Goodyear Eagle GA radials on 6.5-inch cast rims are replaced by 225/60VR16s on 7-inch wheels. The power steering has been made more positive, shocks stiffened in rebound mode, and sway bars and bushings manipulated to afford better control without a noticeable compromise to ride quality. Stopping potential also is augmented thanks to a larger-diameter brake disc at each corner. Underhood modifications include a weight-saving aluminum radiator and a revised A/C unit that uses CFC-free R134a refrigerant, plus numerous detail improvements."
Beyond that, the lower body panels were made body color for '93 and inside the cockpit there was now an external temperature gauge, the mechanical odometer was ditched in favor of a digital one and a pair of state-of-the-art safety features came onboard: pre-tensioners for the seatbelts and a passenger-side airbag. Sales continued to be strong.
The LS traipsed through 1994 virtually unchanged — except for the ever escalating base price (now over $50,000). Designing a car this good must have been tough. Designing its successor would surely be even harder.
Second Generation: 1995-2000
Lexus pulled off an astounding feat when it redesigned the LS 400 for 1995: It changed practically everything about the car while keeping everything looking virtually the same. Not a single styling theme was changed from the original, but all the lines were sharpened and all the textures subtly modified. Was it a better-looking LS? No. Was it a better LS? Yes.
"Cars tend to grow heavier over time as once optional luxury features become perceived necessities," explained Motor Trend about the new LS in the midst of a three-way comparison test. "Bucking that trend, the new LS lost 209 pounds while adding 1.4 inches of wheelbase, more power and even more features. Lexus did this with a sort of finite element analysis that combined smaller body pieces into large comprehensive stampings, and reduced the number of parts in the car by 10 percent. All that fuses with a chiseled, even more aerodynamic variation of the original car's styling (its 0.28 drag coefficient is the best of any production car available in the U.S.) to result in better performance and fuel economy."
Well, there was slightly more to the improvements in the new LS than just a new body and structure. Lexus thumped the 4.0-liter, DOHC, 32-valve V8 up to 260 hp by raising the compression ratio to 10.4:1, revising the fuel injection system, installing a solid-state airflow meter and bolting up a new stainless-steel exhaust system. Despite the extra power, the engine still idled in eerie silence and then got only slightly louder during acceleration. The transmission behind it remained an electronically controlled four-speed automatic; a stethoscope was needed to detect its shifts.
While changed in many details, the new LS's suspension design retained the same general specifications of the original; it was still double A-arms in front and a multilink system in the back with coil springs all around, unless the optional air suspension was ordered.
The interior also carried forward themes established by the original LS. "The LS 400's efficiency extends into the interior," continued Motor Trend, "where every millimeter of wheelbase has been enrolled in passenger accommodation. It can't match the roominess of the 8-inch-longer-wheelbase BMW (740iL), but the difference doesn't seem as great as the measurement suggests. The rear seat has plenty of room, while the engineering feat of placing an airbag, in-dash CD changer and roomy glove compartment ahead of the front passenger is mind-boggling. Although the seat shapes could hardly be better, their range of adjustability pales in comparison to the BMW's and their tough leather seating surfaces can't match the Jaguar's supple hides. And while the LS 400's controls are elegantly simple, some feel more like Toyota bits than world-class luxury car items."
Also continuing unchanged in the new LS was the driving experience in splendid isolation. "The steering is overdamped and the muted feel is exacerbated by Bridgestone tires engineered [more] for a soft, quiet ride rather than handling," concluded Motor Trend. "The modest slalom speed and skid pad numbers attest to this car's preference for gliding over corner diving."
Despite pricing now firmly planted above $50K, the LS 400 continued to sell exceedingly well. So Lexus pretty much left it alone for the 1996 model year.
Edmunds.com got its first exposure to the LS 400 with a full test during the 1997 model year (the only significant change was the addition of side airbags) and was suitably impressed. "Having never driven the LS 400 before," wrote this site's reporter, "the first thing that struck me about the car was its imposing size. You don't really notice just how darn big the LS 400 is until you are standing right next to it, getting ready to pilot it out of a narrow, winding driveway and onto one of the busiest road networks in the world. Fortunately, the LS 400's considerable girth is made manageable by its light, precise steering. Thus, we were able to get onto crowded Sunset Boulevard without marring the car's beautiful paint.
"No one has ever accused the LS 400 of being a driver's car," he went on, "but that doesn't mean that there aren't some viscerally satisfying feelings that can be experienced when piloting it around a narrow mountain road. The LS 400's powerful V8 engine pushes out 260 hp and 270 lb-ft of torque through the rear wheels, enough to get this 3,700-pound car from zero to 60 in a factory-reported 7.1 seconds. Although the suspension is obviously tuned for large-car cruiser duty, it handles twists and turns fairly well. The body leans quite a bit, a fact that our increasingly queasy staffer was painfully aware of, but the tires are slow to relinquish their grip of the pavement below. The brakes, as one would expect on a car with a top speed of 149 mph, provide quick, short stops, and are easy to modulate after getting acquainted with the overly touchy pedal. The LS 400 won't be confused with a BMW 5 Series by those who like to drive, but she ain't a Buick Roadmaster either."
Toyota's VVT-i variable valve timing system was applied to the Lexus 4.0-liter V8 for the 1998 model year, which spiked engine output up from 260 to 290 hp (the SC 400 coupe's essentially identical engine was rated at 300 hp). Behind that newfound power was a new five-speed automatic transmission to better distribute it and a new "Vehicle Skid Control" (VSC) stability control system to ensure that any driver giddily indulging in that pool of thrust didn't get in over his head.
A new combination wood-and-leather steering wheel came aboard the LS for 1999 and Edmunds.com's Brent Romans got behind the wheel for a follow-up test. "At idle," Romans enthused about the engine, "you can't hear it. You can't even hear it during normal driving. The 4.0-liter V8 makes nice growling noises only when you step on the accelerator. And when it does, the LS 400 will run from zero to 60 in less than 7 seconds. With Toyota's variable valve timing (VVT-i), the engine delivers 290 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque. It's also fairly frugal: The EPA cycle is 18 mpg city and 25 mpg highway."
Our editor was also impressed by the suspension. "Even over apocalyptic pavement," wrote Romans, "the LS 400 remains composed and quiet. The trade-off is that the Lexus isn't thrilled to blast through tight canyon roads. Pushed hard in such environments, there is a considerable amount of body movement and the 225/50R16 tires squeal when too much power is applied. But the car never [loses its] composure. It's also helped by VSC, a Lexus system that helps to maintain traction (and the proper heading) in demanding situations. If the situation gets overly demanding, the LS 400 has ABS, dual front airbags and seat-mounted side airbags for the front occupants."
Of course no car is beyond criticism, and Romans found some nits to pick. "In our limited experience, the navigation system worked without fault," he reported. "It's a [CD-based] system that contains maps for the entire U.S. The voice instruction is easy to understand and the map will display a helpful dotted trail to show where you've traveled. However, the amount of storage offered by the [CDs] will soon be eclipsed by the larger-capacity DVD systems now entering the market. A bigger complaint centers on the fact that the navigation system forces the driver to operate everything with the touchscreen display. This makes it much more difficult to change climate or audio settings while driving. With no tactile feel (something a normal button gives you), the driver must take their eyes off the road and look at the screen in order to make sure they are touching the correct virtual button."
Electronic brake assist (BA) was added to the LS's bag of tricks for 2000 and the aging flagship was still able to muster a 3rd-place finish in our comparison test of super-luxury sedans priced over $60,000. "The Lexus LS 400 excels in many areas and never falls below competent," summarized Brent Romans in this test. "It has no mechanical or design-based Achilles' heel. Its price is approximately $37,000 less than the BMW 750iL. That's a pretty big chunk of change. If we had weighted value heavily in this test, the Lexus would have taken second place, and possibly even first.
"If you're wondering how the LS 400 manages to undercut the BMW by $37,000," he continued, "you'll find much of your answer here. Effectively, the Lexus can't match up to the Audi, BMW or Merc in terms of features. But for what it does have, the LS 400 does a good job of being easy to use. The navigation system, in particular, is notable in its ease of programming. This car is also the only one in the group to offer an in-dash CD changer.
"The downside to having climate, audio and navigation controls run through the touchscreen LCD monitor is that it takes the driver's eyes off the road, as well as getting fingerprints on the screen. Secondary controls all work well, though if you own a Camry in addition to the LS 400, you'll notice similar buttons and switches. The buttons on the steering wheel control the multifunction display, but we'd like to see audio controls [there], as well."
Being the least expensive car amongst some very lofty company didn't mean it was the slowest. The LS 400 sprinted from zero to 60 in 6.6 seconds, and bolted through the quarter-mile in 15 seconds at 95.8 mph. That was about midpack for that group, but solid and satisfying.
Still, after a decade, the LS 400 name was ready to retire. An even better LS was coming.
Third Generation: 2001-2006
The 2001 LS was named LS 430 for the obvious reason that the DOHC, 32-valve VVT-i V8 engine grew from 4.0 to 4.3 liters in displacement (horsepower remained at 290 though torque went up to 320 lb-ft). But the philosophy behind the car was hardly different, something that was apparent during Edmunds.com's first drive of the new car.
"Exactly how did Lexus plan on improving what some consider the benchmark sedan in the premium luxury segment?" wrote John Clor rhetorically. "Simple: By going after even more — more design edginess, more interior room, more comfort, more features, more performance, more safety and more technology. As that old disco-era song says, 'More, more, more! How do you like it? How do you like it?'"
Though the new LS 430 was in fact changed in virtually every detail, it carried forward with very conservatively tailored sheet metal, and an interior that did little to break away from the standards set by its forbearers. "Lest you think at first glance that the new LS 430 is a mere freshening, consider that while some of the structural parts, nuts and bolts were carried over from the previous-generation LS 400," reported Clor, "more than 90 percent of this car is all-new. Overall length is the same, but the LS 430 is slightly taller and its wheelbase is 3 inches longer, making for a bigger cabin. And even though the rear overhang has been shortened, the trunk is actually 33 percent larger because the fuel tank has been moved to a location under the rear seats.
"We'll admit the more muscular, chiseled exterior design is indeed fresher-looking, but there's no mistaking the LS 430 for anything but the Euro-clone interpretation of a Mercedes S-Class that it has always been. And now for 2001, the Lexus will actually try to offer the same kind of driving feel as the top European sedans . So for the first time Lexus will offer a sporty, European-tuned suspension as a no-charge option when you pop for the upgrade to 17-inch wheels and W-rated tires.
"As it is, the standard LS 430 suspension is tuned for firmer, more responsive handling, and if you happen to like the ultrasmooth Lexus ride, you'll be pleased to know that a computer-controlled adaptive air suspension system can be ordered to electronically modulate the ride to maximize smoothness. But that's just the tip of the tech iceberg."
Everything that was ever standard on the LS 400 was present on the LS 430, along with new features like Lexus Link, the Lexus version of GM's OnStar communications system, an available Mark Levinson sound system, headlight washers, a power rear window sunshade, an air purifier and even a power trunk closer.
In a later full test of the 2001 LS 430, we found the $61,171 car jetting from zero to 60 mph in just 6.4 seconds and completing the quarter-mile in 14.8 seconds at 96.1 mph while leaving the shifting of the five-speed automatic transmission up to the computers instead of the driver.
The suspension now consisted of double wishbones at all four corners, but the driving experience was still what buyers (and reviewers) had come to expect from a Lexus LS: imperturbable composure and virtually silent operation. And for those who couldn't get enough of that Lexus experience, there was the "Ultra Luxury" package that threw everything — including six kitchen sinks, massaging rear seats and a suede headliner — into the car. OK, the sinks are a lie, but that headliner and the massaging seats are real.
For 2002 the only changes for the LS 430 involved how the option packages were bundled and priced. For 2003 even the base LS 430 (hardly a stripper) ran on 17-inch wheels but other changes were slight.
Lexus dumped the five-speed automatic in favor of a six-speed unit on the 2004 LS 430, which made the car just that much speedier. Also new were driver and front-passenger knee airbags, while a rearview camera that projected through the navigation screen was a new option. The styling was tweaked ever so slightly.
Our Kelly Toepke encountered the 2004 LS in a follow-up test and found it to be a car of consistent character and amazing quality. "As the days and miles rolled by," she wrote, "the LS continued to surprise its occupants with additional features. Passengers were at first so mesmerized with the oscillating front vents that they failed to investigate other offerings in the front of the cabin. But once they discovered the 62 levels of volume from the premium 11-speaker Mark Levinson stereo system, the crowd gathering in the parked LS during lunchtime increased to capacity .
"But are the few minor shortcomings of the Lexus LS 430 enough to [make one] run toward the nearest Mercedes dealer? Absolutely not. The Mercedes S500 starts at $81,000, while the LS 430 is considerably less at a base price of $55,125. The [Infiniti] Q45 is a more reasonable alternative starting at $61,600, but with the added benefit of parent company Toyota's long-standing reputation for reliability behind it, the LS 430 is a luxury choice that almost seems practical compared to the competition."
Lexus Link disappeared from the 2005 option sheet and 18-inch wheels appeared for the Euro-tuned suspension. But otherwise the LS was still very much the LS it was during the previous year. There were even fewer changes for 2006 as Lexus displayed the car's successor at the Detroit auto show in January of that year.
Fourth Generation: 2007-Forward
As this is written, the 2007 LS 460 is still months away from going on sale. But at the 2006 Detroit Auto Show, Lexus showed the new car, which represents the greatest stylistic break in the history of the LS. Instead of building on the staid themes of its direct predecessors, the next LS adopts some of the leonine, aggressive "L-finesse" styling elements of the smaller GS and IS sedans.
Of course the new name on this car indicates a bump up in engine displacement to 4.6 liters but it's not just an expansion of the familiar LS V8. Instead, this is an all-new, all-alloy, DOHC, 32-valve V8 that will send a massive 380 hp (more or less) to the rear wheels through a new eight-speed automatic transmission. That will be enough, says Lexus, to propel the new car to 60 mph in just about 5.5 seconds.
The structure of the car will also be all-new and carry an all-new five-link independent suspension both front and rear. For the first time a long-wheelbase (121.7 inches compared to the standard 116.9 inches) version will be offered to better compete with similar products from BMW and Mercedes.
Naturally, Lexus will stuff the new LS with every conceivable high-technology feature available. We look forward to driving it and being soothed by it.
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