What If? 1973 Lexus LS400
Welcome to What If, a new feature from imaginative illustrator Abimelec Arellano and Hagerty. We’ll be taking you back in time—and possibly forward into the future—to meet alternative-universe automobiles. Even better, our time machine is working well enough to bring “short take” reviews along with the photographs and advertisements. Buckle up and enjoy the ride! — Jack Baruth
(Originally published in Driver and Car, July 1972 issue)
It’s an idea so crazy it just might work: You get a $13,800 car for just $5,999—but it’s from the same people who normally make $1,698 cars. But wait, there’s more: you’ll have to go to just one of 35 dealers across the country in order to get it. The good news? They’ll treat you like a king. Heck, they’ll treat you like an Emperor.
After all, the car company in question is Japanese; Toyota, to be precise. The car is the Lexus LS400. “Lexus” isn’t the model name. It’s the name of the brand. Think Cadillac to Toyota’s Chevrolet. Thirty-five unusually prosperous Toyota franchisees have agreed to open up special “Lexus” dealerships next to their existing Toyota stores. These stores will sell nothing but the LS400—for now, anyway. There are more Lexus cars coming in the future, if America likes the idea.
So what’s there to like? Toyota says their LS400 matches the Mercedes-Benz 300SEL 4.5 in all categories, at a price just a little bit above that of a stripped-down Cadillac Sedan de Ville. We think the V-8-powered Benz is just about the best sedan ever made. In particular, it has that West German quality that seems unmatchable. Can Japan, which has almost no reputation for quality and which is primarily known for shoddy knockoffs of American goods, even come close?
From the outside, it doesn’t look promising. The “Lexus” project has been going on for several years, and Toyota has not been in a hurry to release it before it was ready for the public eye, so the silhouette owes more to the old, stodgy-looking 1971 Toyota Crown than the sleek, Cutlass-esque car on sale today. It’s 190 inches long, about half a foot shorter than the Benz with which it’s meant to compete, and hardly any longer than a new Chevy Nova. Lincoln-style headlight covers drop at night and make the resemblance to the old Crown even more explicit.
The old Crown, by the way, sold for 2200 bucks, and is available for half that at your local used-car lot.
Beneath the hood, it’s a different story. Toyotas are known for being slow, all the better to pinch a penny at the pump. The “Lexus,” on the other hand, is hip to power and how to use it. A 3995-cc overhead-cam V-8 makes 195 horsepower. That’s what the Benz cranks out, too. Coincidence? We think not. The automatic transmission has four forward speeds, an ambitious first for the Japanese. No manual transmission is available, which is probably also a first for thrifty Asian cars in this country. The engine is so smooth that Toyota has released a television advertisement to promote it:
We think Toyota missed the boat with this me-too powerplant, lusty and strong as it proved to be during our test drive. Mazda’s Rotary engine shows the way into the future. Within ten years, it seems reasonable that pretty much every car in America will be rotary-powered. Why bother with an old-fashioned piston engine now, even if it has overhead cams?
Inside, the “Lexus” has smooth leather, real wood on the dashboard, and a list of standard equipment you won’t believe. We’re talking fuel injection, air conditioning, power locks, and power windows. There’s even a no-cost-option power sunroof, something which feels like it’s out of a Buck Rogers comic book and which just arrived in certain Cadillacs for a price that would buy you about a quarter of this Toyota.
The dashboard, too, is ready to go to the moon. When the car is turned off, it’s a blank glass screen, but when you start it up, hidden bulbs illuminate the speedometer and tach. Toyota calls it “Optic Tronical.” Far out, Daddy-O!
Unfortunately for Toyota, their Japanese horses just don’t pull as hard as the German thoroughbreds. 0-60 happens in 10.4 seconds, almost a second behind the mighty 300SEL 4.5, while the quarter-mile doesn’t arrive for 18.1 seconds. This is still faster than most domestic iron nowadays, helped by a transmission that shifts clean and smooth.
Handling won’t set anyone’s cap on fire, being more reminiscent of a Corolla than an Autobahn legend. Understeer was excessive and while the LS400 has four-wheel disc brakes, they aren’t particularly eager to stop the car. Fuel economy, on the other hand, was better than any V-8 we’ve ever tested. Just what you’d expect from the thrifty Japanese.
Regrettably, our test Lexus fell victim to an unfortunate incident in which our road warrior, Spaniel Felson, drove it into a curb in Ann Arbor at a speed over 100 miles per hour, ripping out the suspension and essentially totaling the vehicle. He says the handling of the LS400 is to blame, and that he’s an experienced driver. We’re going to send Felson back to the minor leagues, so to speak. When we get another LS400, we’ll tell you about the rest of the performance numbers. One thing we can say for sure: it’s quiet. Quieter than any Benz, and likely within striking distance of a Continental.
If you’re within driving distance of a Lexus showroom, you’ll enjoy complimentary coffee and snacks during service, as well as the availability of a dealership-provided car should your LS400 need service within the absurdly generous 24-month/24,000-mile warranty period. Toyota tells us that they do not think Lexus dealers will need to haggle. Hate to break it to them, but a Japanese clone of a Mercedes at Cadillac prices isn’t exactly going to set the world on fire.
Will the Lexus idea fly? We think you’d be crazy to set up a Lexus dealership, but Toyota dealers are already crazy by definition. Some of them were previously Volkswagen dealers. Imagine turning in your VW franchise to sell Japanese cars! It boggles the mind. There’s one more problem coming the LS400’s way: the car they benchmarked is about to be replaced by a new, aerodynamically-styled big Benz that will probably blow this car out of the water. Will a low price be enough to keep America’s interest? We say it’s the worst Japanese idea since thinking the Yorktown wouldn’t show up at Midway.