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Although it's been on the scene for only seven years, Toyota's Lexus division has built up an awesome reputation. Right from the start, the senior LS 400 model has been a major player in the luxury car class, combining the best features of its rivals into a single package, just as other members of the family have fit neatly--and successfully--into their own particular niches.
The LS 400 opened to rave reviews, and continues to get them to this day. Judged by almost any standard--quality, reliability, comfort or performance--it has been given top marks by virtually every reviewer who has spent time at the wheel, including the test staff at New Car Test Drive. That kind of unanimity among critics is rare indeed.
In the beginning, the LS was an exceptional value, too. Established luxury cars from Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz and BMW cost substantially more than the Japanese upstart in 1989. That has changed. At current price levels, the LS 400 undercuts some rivals and costs more than others, particularly U.S. domestic offerings from Cadillac and Lincoln. But in most cases, the differences are small.
And customers have more choices today. It's no stretch to put the new Lincoln Continental and ever-improving Cadillac Seville on your luxury-sedan shopping list. Both offer comparable amenities, plus good performance, and if neither quite matches the Lexus in fit, finish and general refinement, they compensate with smaller pricetags.
Which leads to the logical question: Is the LS 400 still the cream of the crop, or just another member of the luxury car crowd?
Though the basic shape is familiar, a complete redesign last year subtly altered the LS 400's looks. Our emerald green test car still shows plenty of Mercedes-Benz styling influence from almost any angle, but the muscular shape, nicely detailed as ever, is instantly recognizable.
During the 1995 redesign the LS was lengthened slightly, but it is still shorter than some rivals; the Lincoln Continental, for example, is 10 in. longer. The LS 400's smaller size makes the car relatively easy to maneuver in confined spaces, while doing nothing to diminish interior space. Quite the contrary, in fact.
Still, it looks substantial, especially from the front. The large air inlet with its chromed surrounding trim is almost mandatory wear in this class. Here, it's large but restrained, and is supplemented by additional openings in the front bumper. Large lamps are installed front and rear for both practical and aesthetic reasons.
Exterior bright trim is tastefully applied here, as on most cars in the class. As with all other exterior surfaces, the plated pieces are flawless and are attached with precision.
Quality you can see is matched by unseen details. Beneath the ultra-smooth paintwork and carefully aligned body panels is a rigid structure that is safe and quiet. It is squeak- and rattle-free even when driven over rough pavement, keeps wind noise to a minimum even at high speeds, and meets all 1997 federal safety standards.
As a one-model offering, the LS comes fully equipped. Personal choice provides for the option of chrome wheels, gold trim package (badges and the radio antenna base) or a glass moonroof; but even without these additions, the LS looks complete and stylish.
To fully appreciate the LS 400's interior, you have to look beyond the expected soft leather upholstery and satiny wood trim. You'll find those in almost every luxury car. They don't set the Lexus apart; features and design do.
Start with the dashboard. The instruments and controls are logical, handsome and easy to use. Gauges are of the electro-luminescent type; when the ignition is turned on, the pointers light up on an otherwise black panel, followed by the numbers a moment later. Some eyes may note a slight flickering of the display when it is set at full brightness, but that can be overcome by turning down the dimmer.
Also on the plus side of the LS scorecard are the seats. The front buckets can be adjusted to suit occupants of almost every size and shape, and are comfortable for trips of any length. The rear seat doesn't move, but doesn't have to; there's enough room in back to accommodate even the tallest passengers, a distinct improvement over the previous edition.
Aside from the gorgeous gauges, there's nothing especially unusual about the LS interior. No special fitments, no heads-up displays or built-in blenders to mix strawberry smoothies while you're underway--just the expected array of power assists and comfort and convenience features, including an automatic climate control system with separate settings for driver and passenger. What sets this space apart is the way all systems look and feel, and by its amazingly low noise levels. That's something better conveyed by a test drive than by words.
There are, however, some extra-nice touches. The optional CD changer is a 6-disc unit that is built into the dashboard instead of soaking up trunk space. There are a pair of gloveboxes, one above and one below the passenger's airbag. The steering column has both tilt and telescope adjustments; these, like seats, windows, door locks and mirrors, are electrically operated. And there are a myriad of smaller but no less thoughtful features, ranging from illuminated seat belt buckles to individual map lights for each occupant.
Extras? Choose an upgraded audio system, with or without CD changer. Add a cellular phone if you like. Get carpeted floor mats. Order a memory system that recalls driver's seat, steering wheel and mirror adjustments for two pilots. Or you can simply enjoy a fine interior that doesn't really need any options.
With 260 hp underhood, 10 hp more than the original LS 400, even a car that weighs just about two tons when full of people and luggage will get down the road quickly. Quietly, too, unless you're pressing hard, at which point a delightful--though still muted--V8 rumble is apparent. This is a relaxed engine most of the time, unobtrusive and backed by a transmission that delivers butter-smooth gear changes. Long gearing equates to decent fuel economy in cruise mode, but frequent dips into the power reserves will use up the required premium unleaded quickly.
In most situations the Lexus takes to winding roads with the same ease it displays covering long distances on the interstate. It's no sports car, and rolls a little more than drivers accustomed to European-style sedans will like, but that won't be apparent in normal driving. The steering, light and easy around town, displays some vagueness at speed, though much of that may be due to the Goodyear GAL all-season radials, not the best for sporty driving.
ABS is standard, traction control is optional. Both work well. The air suspension option is suggested for cruising, less desireable for enthusiastic driving.
What price near-perfection? There are two considerations. The first is money: 53 grand for starters, plus options. That may or may not be a concern to potential customers in this price class, and is offset to considerable degree by the jewel-like finish, sumptuous interior, long list of standard features, and the general air of solidity the LS exudes. It's a class automobile, beyond any doubt, and beyond any consideration of cost.
But the LS 400 doesn't quite qualify as a driver's car in the Jaguar/BMW sense. Even the less expensive Seville STS feels more in tune with the road, more capable of being worked hard, and more fun in the process.
It's all a matter of expectations and experience. As a step up from a Japanese near-luxury sedan, the LS 400 is probably the best choice available. Ditto for a move from middle-class American sedans. But the buyer who steps out of a car bred on the wide-open autobahns and twisty mountain roads of Europe will want to take a long run in the big Lexus before making the final decision.
Then again, for a long run on this country's relatively low-speed freeway system--say New York to San Francisco--it's hard to think of any car better suited to the task. At any price.