BY JONATHAN CROUCH
It wasn't so long ago that the big European carmakers could rest easy about the Japanese threat in the luxury saloon sector. All right, so the Orientals made excellent small cars, superb high performance coupes and creditable luxury saloons. One thing they'd never be thought of though, was a force to challenge Mercedes, BMW or Jaguar. All that changed in 1990 with the arrival of Toyota Corporation's Lexus LS400, at a stroke redefining quality and refinement in its sector. The folks at Stuttgart, Munich and Coventry couldn't believe it; the Japanese had got it right pretty well first time.
Models Covered: FIRST GENERATION LS400: 1990-1994 4.0 8CY SALOON SECOND GENERATION LS400: October 1994-1997 4.0 8cy Saloon THIRD GENERATION LS400: October 1997-2000 4.0 8cy Saloon
The LS400 was launched in the UK in June 1990 as a one-specification model. It had a brand-new 4.0-litre V8 engine which set new levels for smoothness and refinement. All cars featured a state-of-the-art automatic transmission that made even the best Mercedes-Benz automatics seem suddenly second best. There was a minor upgrade in October 1991, when the vanity mirrors were given illumination - believe it or not. A passenger airbag was fitted from January 1993 and this model also received a slightly remodelled grille. The replacement second generation LS400 looked very similar, though it was an all-new car, and it arrived in October 1994. Neither car has sold in particularly high numbers, so finding a good selection of used examples may prove a little difficult. Late in 1997, a much-modified but still similar looking third generation car appeared. Changes centred on revised frontal styling, along with a more powerful V8 engine, now with variable valve timing, a new five-speed automatic gearbox and some technology delights such as a 'touch screen' navigation system. The LS400 was finally replaced by the LS430 late in 2000.
What You Get
A good-looking, beautifully built executive limousine. These really are excellent cars, even today. Performance is also good, though acceleration is not as brisk as some of the bigger Mercedes, BMWs, Jaguars or Audis. It's all so smooth and silent, though. Some have criticised the dashboard design as being a bit bland but wood trim finished by piano maker Yamaha and what many consider the best factory-fitted audio system of any car made go a long way to compensate for the fact there are no more dials than in a Corolla. Standard equipment was extensive - to the point where options consisted only of carpet mats, a first aid kit or a towing pack. Air-conditioning, electric windows, remote central locking, leather upholstery, electric sunroof, electric mirrors and seats with memory and a CD autochanger were all part of the package and the third-generation cars also have satellite navigation.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
There is, amazingly, almost nothing to report. Toyota were determined to make these cars as faultless and long-lasting as possible and it seems they've succeeded. The main worry with a Lexus will be accident damage or mileage clocking. The panel gaps on the LS400 set new standards for consistency and flushness of fit, so a second-rate repair will be obvious. If you can, check the car's service records and cross-reference mileage with the dealers who carried out the scheduled maintenance. That way, you'll have peace of mind that the immaculate, low-mileage car you're looking at, really is just that. Any car imported privately or unofficially from Japan will have started life badged as a Toyota Celsior; if a car's history is at all suspect, walk away.
(approx based on 95/96 LS400) A new radiator is around £850. An alternator should be close to £710, an starter motor around £450 and rear brake pads would be around £65. A headlamp will be around £340, and expect to pay close to £970 for a full exhaust system (inc Catalyst).
On the Road
The big Lexus was designed primarily for the United States as the suspension set-up shows. It tends to ride less firmly than its German opposition, but the handling suffers only a little. The steering, likewise, is designed to feel a bit more removed from the road than, say, a BMW's, and may be overly light for some drivers. Roadholding is first-class, however.
As one Lexus executive once remarked, "Ten years ago, people wondered if Toyota could build a luxury car. Today, that seems an absurd question." How very true - the LS400 is a car that's very difficult to fault and makes a great used buy. If only there were more cars from which to choose.