The Lexus LS400 blew everyone away in 1990
Depending on where you lived in the 1990s, the new Lexus LS 400 was a big enough deal to get airtime on the local news. At the very least hushed chatter in the valet line, leading to begrudging respect from friends of those who opted for Toyota’s North American flagship sedan instead of the traditional domestic and European offerings. Remember the TV commercials with champagne glasses and a chassis dynamometer?
The gravitational pull of the Lexus LS was so strong that the famous TV spot was later replicated by Nissan and Dodge, albeit conducted at slower speeds and tweaked for their respective demographics. (Note how neither “competitor” dared attempt 145 mph on dyno rollers.) Should we thank Lexus for forcing Nissan’s hand, which gave us the not-Stanza sedan named Altima?
It all stems from the good old days in Japan. It was before the economic bubble burst, before flights of engineering and design fancy were cancelled, never to be seen again. The JDM market had everything from radical Kei cars, to premium Mazdas with unique names. They are all old enough to legally import in the year 2023, but only one such effort made a stateside splash so fantastic when new. (My apologies to both Acura and Infiniti, as your greatness never moved the metal like Lexus has for decades.)
Yes, the LS 400 was born from a country riding high on its industrial and manufacturing prowess. Toyota was a brand that left no stone unturned to ensure success. That last bit is important; proactive customer service and a covenant that promises a stunning dealer experience is what separates the cream from the rest of the crop. I remember family friends being upset by the indifference of service personnel at Audi, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Jaguar service departments. They all fell like dominos after the first member of our circle bought a Lexus LS 400 in October 1989.
As a child, there are things you gloss over and things you’ll never forget. And I will never forget seeing my parent’s friend take delivery of a silver/red LS 400 while the local news covered his delivery for all Houstonians to see. As a 20-something, I drove that very same LS 400 for a month, making it my first subject in my art school’s photography class.
It was a seven-year-old depreciated barge, and my classmates still thought I was rich for owning it. I didn’t bother correcting them, and I truly enjoyed the car. Its command of the highway was unforgettable, and the “Lexus Covenant” rung true after the local dealer was tasked with rear air spring replacement during my tenure.
While the brand did (and perhaps still does) err a tad on the milquetoast side, the original LS 400’s engineering had no peer, be it at the top or bottom of the depreciation curve.
Toyota had to reimagine the luxury brand from nose to tail to make all this happen. And that’s where this video from the Barchetta YouTube channel comes into focus, as it sets up the Lexus story from brilliant beginnings with Yukiyasu Togo to the final advertising push from Saatchi and Saatchi … which created that famous tagline:
Of course the good stuff in this video lies between those book ends. The engineering mandate eschewed give-and-take for a no-compromise approach and ultimately made possible a 155-mph top speed and superior aerodynamic performance, paired with a curb weight light enough to avoid the gas guzzler tax. The focus on quality made a car that no other manufacturer could touch, and the creation of the Shibetsu Proving Ground showed just how committed Toyota was to making a North American flagship sedan that would shake the luxury space to its core.
The Lexus LS 400 may not look like a work of art today, but was a revolutionary vehicle. Buyers who needed a Cadillac, BMW, or a Mercedes-Benz to fit their branding aspirations might have been hesitant at first to purchase the Lexus LS 400 (even if it was disturbingly cheap), but everyone else could find The Relentless Pursuit Of Perfection quite appealing. Early adopters love an underdog.
So whenever you have a moment to binge watch some brainless TV series, instead consider soaking in the above video in its entirety. I promise it will be worth your time.
Not sure what it says about me, but a clean LS400 is 100% on my “cars I must own before I die” list.
You will absolutely not regret that decision.
I’ve owned two and I search for a third constantly
In 1991 I was invited by RR to test drive the new Bentley Turbo R at Mosport. I shared the experience with a couple who were contemplating a purchase of the Bentley or a Lexus 400. My impression at the end of the day was that the Lexus would win on fit and finish even though price didn’t seem to be an issue with them.
I never found out what was their final choice.
I have to agree with most of these statements! I’ve been a Toyota guy for a long time anyway, but when my aunt & uncle bought a 2-year old 91, I was quite impressed, though I don’t think I ever drove it. When I got married, my wife had a 98 Saturn she bought new, and we sold that and bought a 92 LS400. We enjoyed it immensely, and the first thing that impressed me was the power combined with MPG. They easily get 18-24, and my 86 Cressida with the 2.8 Supra engine and 5-speed never got any better, and couldn’t come close to the power. That one had air suspension, and was the most stable of any LS I’ve driven. We eventually ended up selling both of those cars and got a 94 LS (newer A/C that could be affordably recharged). Those cars are smooth & quiet even though they’re old (though I missed the air springs), and the other impressive thing was the interiors. Not only was everything motorized with presets (including the headrest height), but they went to great lengths to make them elegant though simple and understated; you won’t even find an exposed screw not covered with a cosmetic touch! And still much less frustrating to work on than about any European car, not too mention exponentially more reliable! My biggest complaint about them are the irreplaceable plastic & rubber engine parts that get brittle. I’ve just had to improvise on these things.
We eventually sold that car in favor of a commuter for a time, but I finally got my hands on my dad’s 99. I had convinced him to get a Lexus when it was time to replace his bucket-of-bolts 91 Infiniti Q45. He drove it for 12 years and didn’t do a lick of maintenance outside of oil changes. At 200K, it had the original timing belt and the air filter was sucked in. I nursed it back to health and it became our family car for a time. But I do agree also with the “milquetoast” reference, as it still handled like a grandpa car and had a huge steering wheel. I was going to improve the suspension with lowering, sway bars, etc., but happened on a 99 GS400, and my eyes were opened a bit more. Not only does it have the same powertrain, but it handles like a BMW instead of an old Lincoln! One of the earliest cars with paddle shifters on the steering wheel, which I use all the time. I sold the LS and the GS is my daily driver still. It has 226K and I haven’t done much more than routine maintenance.
It really was a wonderful car. Someone i knew had one and was never fastidious about upkeep to any of his cars. He beat the hell out of them. I rode in his Lexus 400 when it had 145,000 miles on it and it drove as it did the day it came out of the showroom.
We bought an RX300 as a winter beater to replace a Volvo 240DL. Eight years ago. Quarter million miles, everything works. A little tatty, but it is cosy, quiet and solid. We have the other end of their spectrum in a CT200h that is just a delightful city car and not bad on the twisty bits. But it isn’t the very good auto that sells these.
We’ve had Benz and Volvo (40 years of the latter, only one of the former, never again) — both were typical car dealers, though the Benz folk were actually demeaning in our experience. I never wanted to talk to any of them again. The Chevy dealer’s parts department doesn’t want to talk to me about my 30 year old Corvette, either.
In contrast, we needed a key cut for the then 15 year old RX, the weekend before Christmas. Service manager greeted us, took the key to the back whilst pointing us towards coffee and danish. When he returned with the key, I asked how much. He said simply, “Merry Christmas.” Like he meant it.
As a retired computer manager, the processes used here resonate, realizing that the entire experience, particularly the Benz example, was a tremendous opportunity if applied end to end. W Edwards Demming continuous improvement taken seriously is a powerful tool, Kanban conquers complexity. Sometimes, anyway.
Not just the car had to work very well, the sense of a cosseting car accompanied with an equally cosseting dealer experience. We were sold with that, “Merry Christmas,” said with a genuine smile.
Fantastic story and a Deming reference to boot! Thank you for sharing!
I’m a Lexus rookie–bought a 145K mile 2007 ES 350 that had been well maintained this fall to replace a beloved Park Ave Ultra whose tranny had become too expensive to replace. What a car! Never seen a 15 year old car like this. It looks and runs like 45k miles. I expect it to last another 200k. I took the Deming and Statistical Process Control classes along with others in our die casting business about when Lexus started. Customers (General Electric especially) insisted on these Toyota measurements for our parts in the early 90’s. That all got forgotten about when cheap China came on the scene. My $6 casting was $2 or less. And they could afford to sort out the bad ones (believe me I did it). Remember the Baldridge Quality Award? Used to be a big deal until China. Am glad my Lexus is a made in Japan version! It looks built with Deming controls–everything fits. Pro tip–China still has not figured out bearing metallurgy. Don’t go for the cheap ones…
Legend. I was looking for an engine to replace the 3 litre in my second gen 4 Runner that was hilariously under powered. Wanting to keep it in the family and was lead to the 1UZ-FE (the engine from the LS400) when I stumbled across one being sold for a measly $500. I bought the engine and set out planning the engine swap. I was driving the 4 Runner at the time and needed an interim car to drive, so I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone and picked up a 1990 LS400 for $2200 so I could both have a car to drive and a working example of the engine I was trying to swap… Well, I fell in love. It was an absolutely stunning car. The cabin was like a sensory deprivation chamber. Driving it was like driving a comfy sofa. I could go on hours long drives and emerge more refreshed then when I started. The air-con was so powerful that in 30°C direct sun after being parked in a hot parking lot for hours, the interior would go from stifling hot to your-nipples-can-cut-glass in 90 seconds flat. The sound system (Nakamichi in my case) was absolutely superb; the nicest I have ever heard to this day. Keep in mind, this was a 25 year old car at the time… Anyway, it was a bit of a pig on gas, and I eventually sold it, reluctantly, but nearly every time I get in my car I think about that Lexus and miss it. I did eventually get the swap done, and it’s an incredible engine to have in a 2nd gen 4 Runner, but the whole car as a package is… well… almost perfect.