The Lexus LS 400 is the ultimate Japanese car. And to Baby Boomers, who grew up with Corollas, Camrys, Civics and Accords, it may be the ultimate of all luxury cars. Aiming at a market slot between the prestige Europeans and the traditional American offerings, Toyota's luxury division created a uniquely elegant luxury car that is just what many upwardly mobile Boomers want.
The LS 400 offers a quieter, more comfortable ride than more aggressive German luxury cars, and a more compact size and better handling than its American counterparts. It's almost exactly the same size as a Ford Taurus sedan. And to put its performance in perspective, think about it this way: the LS 400 won't give you quite the same response as a BMW 540i or Mercedes E420 on a winding mountain road, but it's close--closer than any Cadillac or Lincoln. And it will match or beat any car for quiet and comfort on the road.
And for durability and reliability, it is unmatched--as everyone has come to expect from Toyota, the world's acknowledged leader in quality.
This is the second generation LS 400, with an improved V8 engine and every amenity you'd expect to find on a luxury car that sells for over $50,000.
It's a lot of money. No car has seen its price escalate as quickly during the '90s. On the other hand it is world-class in its quality and comfort.
Beautiful. That's our first impression of the LS 400. On reflection, strong simple elegance is a better way to describe it. Although no single aspect of the exterior design is striking on its own, the design all fits together.
Its squarish form is reminiscent of Mercedes shaping, which is not entirely coincidental. Toyota designers borrowed liberally from European ideas of luxury sedan size and style. The edges are sharp and distinct, not soft and curved.
Chrome trim, a staple of American luxury class cars, is sparse on the LS 400. The strong, pug nose has an understated chrome-framed grille with grey plastic louvers, and a single strip of chrome runs around the car.
Put the key into the ignition and the steering wheel automatically slides down into position. As you look around, the car seems like something special. Unlike so many new cars, it feels instantly comfortable and familiar. The LS 400's controls and instruments are about as easy to see and use as any car on the road.
The big tachometer and speedometer are flanked by two smaller, but still good-sized temperature and fuel gauges. In one of the LS 400's neatest effects, the lighted pure white needles seem to float over the background numbers. Very modern, and much imitated.
Most of the driving controls are on three stalks. The one on the left controls the lights, the long one on the right the wipers and the short one just below it the cruise control. Though not quite as convenient as cruise control buttons on the wheel, the button and lever on the LS 400 can be easily reached without taking your hand off the wheel, and are the next best thing.
The first thing you notice in the center console is its simplicity: just a clock, a digital thermometer, and the temperature controls. No buttons and displays to calculate instant gas mileage and date of the next oil change. We didn't miss them. Some luxury cars have perhaps made themselves seem complicated and imposing with all those high-tech toys.
The LS 400 does use buttons, instead of the usually easier dials, for the heating and cooling controls, but they're huge and obvious enough to not be a problem. Besides, the driver and front seat passenger each have an automatic climate control. Punch in the desired temperature and the car works the controls for you.
Below the climate controls is the seven-speaker, 195-watt AM/FM/cassette sound system. The various knobs for volume and sound tuning are bigger than you generally find, and easy to use. The six-disc CD changer (a $1050 option) is in front of the passenger seat, cleverly hidden behind a door that looks like the glove box. The actual glove box, and it's a big one, is just below that.
In the center armrest are two levels of storage bins. In front of them are two cupholders that pop up at the touch of the finger. Actually, they glide up at the touch of a finger, at the same elegant, controlled pace as all the LS 400's gadgets. Even the coat hooks over the back doors deploy with a calculated elegance that helps set the car's tone. So do the handsome wood inserts on dash and doors.
Along the same line, the car gives a little beep instead of honking when you use remote entry to lock and unlock the doors. One minor annoyance: we thought the beep was too quiet, in fact, and found ourselves straining to hear if the doors had locked.
All of the safety equipment you'd expect is here. Dual airbags, and antilock brakes are standard, and this year side airbags are too. A sophisticated traction control system is available ($2020) to help keep this powerful rear-wheel-drive sedan steady on ice and snow.
We had no problem getting comfortable in the front seats of this car. Two electronic levers will position the seats just about any way you want. The seats are a wonderful blend of the cushy, recliner-like seats found in American luxury cars and the firmer, heavily bolstered seats in European sport-luxury cars. An unusal square button on the steering column will tilt and telescope the wheel to any driving position you would like.
Riding in the back is a little iffier. Two adults will find the seats more than comfortable, and there's plenty of knee and hip room. But anyone over six feet tall will brush his head on the roof unless he slouches down. Three adults is not a real option, because of the hump down the middle of the floor for the driveshaft.
The LS 400 offers as satisfying and sophisticated a blend of performance and comfort as any car in the world. It won't outdo the Mercedes E-Class or BMW 5-Series cars on a winding Alpine road, but the LS 400 is still quite capable.
What the Lexus does superbly, though, is most evident in everyday driving.
First, the LS 400 is supremely quiet. Likening the silence inside the LS 400 to a cathedral is the most overworked metaphor in car reviews, and this car is the source of the metaphor. Wind and road noise are virtually nonexistent, even at high freeway speeds.
It has rear-wheel drive, just as you'll find on the German sports sedans. When it comes to absolute handling on dry pavement, rear-wheel-drive is still the best. And its four-wheel independent suspension is as sophisticated as anyone's. It's even more sophisticated with the optional ($1850) air suspension system, which automatically adjusts ride firmness to driving conditions. But our test car's more conventional steel spring setup served very well indeed.
This car doesn't bounce on washboard roads or wallow through sharp corners, and turns the worst of surfaces into a few minor bumps. We found ourselves on a winter-battered highway, a semi-truck on either side of us and a pothole the size of New Jersey right ahead. We clenched our teeth. The LS 400 flew over the crater with barely a thump.
The 4.0-liter 32-valve aluminum V8 develops 265 horsepower, plenty to get the LS 400 moving away from stoplights, going from 0-to-60 mph in a very respectable 7.1 seconds. Its top speed is 149 mph.
The four-speed automatic transmission changes gears without the slightest hesitation or jerk. It's a coddling performance that leaves you in awe of Toyota's enginering prowess.
The LS 400 has gotten pricier while its European rivals have held the line over recent years, so it's no longer the bargain it once was.
But its pricing is still competitive, and not at all out of line for a car that has set a number of new standards for its class.
This is a superb luxury automobile that's absolutely devoid of flaws. And as it nears the end of its design cycle, a number of its competitors are still playing catch-up.
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