This article was first published in 2001.
The first Lexus was the LS400, built in 1989 and released in Australia in 1990. In the US market, September 1989 was the vital date. Powered by a quad cam, 32-valve 4-litre V8, the car - and its engine - made an immediate impact. And it's the engine which has featured mostly in the fast car circles since. The darling of modifiers wanting a relatively light, powerful and durable mill, the 1UZ-FE has appeared in low-volume cars as diverse as heavily modified Mazda Miata MX5s to kit car replicas. It's common in these circles to refer to the V8 as one of the best ever made - with its forged pistons, forged crank, 190kW and eerie smoothness.
However, what about the actual car?
But who cares about the car - isn't the LS400 a huge, heavy tank suitable only for transporting big-arse rich people from place to place?
Well, the latter's not the case any more! You can now pick up a well-maintained LS400 for around $25,000 and, as for the 'big' and 'heavy' points, you'll be surprised!
It's hard to realise that only 12 years ago the brand name 'Lexus' simply didn't exist. Created by Toyota specifically to carry a new premium line of vehicles, it was viewed by many in rival companies - such as BMW and Mercedes Benz - as a non-starter. After all, what could a mere Japanese company do that could match decades of producing what were arguably the best cars in the world?
In fact it was in August, 1983 that Toyota Chairman Eiji Toyoda determined that work should start on a true, world-level luxury car.Sure, Toyota had made plenty of prestige cars before - Crowns, Cressidas, and others - but these had always been mostly aimed at the domestic Japanese market, where handling and performance took back seats to interior glitz and a pillowy ride. But this car would be different...
Toyota took up the task with both bucketloads of cash and a huge engineering commitment. By May 1985 a study team had visited the US, while a short while later a design team set up shop in California to "develop concepts". Just two months later, the first LS400 prototype was built; by May 1986 performance testing was being completed on German Autobahns. In May 1987 management signed off on the final design. In all it took six years and a staggering 2300 engineers to develop the new car.
Toyota was not alone in attempting to set up a prestige brand. Three other Japanese manufacturers also instituted luxury arms - Mazda (Eunos), Nissan (Infiniti) and Honda (Acura) each took the step. Lexus was, however, by far the most successful.
When the LS400 was released, world reaction was mixed. However, it wasn't that some commentators loved the car and others hated it. Instead, the motoring media initially had difficulties in coming to terms with the idea of a Japanese car that took the fight up to the rival Germans simply so well. Potential customers who drove the car usually became buyers...
Universally, late Eighties reviews of the Lexus asked the question: how could a brand new player establish the cachet and sheer snob power of marques like Jaguar, BMW and Mercedes? However, what Lexus realised - and the car magazines didn't - was that many of the wealthy buyers of these cars had made their bucks because they could instantly recognise a good thing when they saw it. And many decided that in the Lexus here was a good thing....
So while Car Australia was saying in June 1990, "Perhaps the biggest question hanging over the Lexus is that of perceived status and resale value," Wheels magazine took the unusual step of actually putting three potential buyers into the car - and also brought along the Mercedes 420SEL, BMW 735iL and Jaguar Sovereign. They then asked how the potential buyers rated the Japanese impostor in this company. These guinea pig drivers - who owned Audis, Mercs, BMWs and Saabs - voted on aspects such as Design, NVH, Safety, Suspension and Cabin. The Lexus won....
Wheels said ruefully in the story intro, "Possibly you will be as staggered as us by their verdict...."
Within a year the monthly mags were making comparisons of the LS400 with cars costing nearly 85 per cent more (Car Australia, July 1992 versus the Mercedes Benz 400SE) and the LS400 was even featuring in stories aiming to find the Best Car in the World (Wheels, April 1992 versus the BMW 750il, Jaguar XJ12 and Mercedes Benz 600SEL). Not surprisingly, given that the Lexus was the cheapest car by up to $200,000 (the 600SEL was $305,000; the Lexus $105,000...) the Lexus didn't win the latter contest. Some comments were indicative, though. After the crown was given to the 600SEL and the Jaguar was dismissed as an anachronistic hangover from the past, the magazine said this about the potential second placegetter. "Choosing between the BMW and the Lexus is less easy. On a value for money basis the Lexus is far ahead of the others of course and, if it had decent seats, it would be a decisively better car than the BMW. But it doesn't, so it is the BMW in second place....." An astonishing comment, given the then relative pricing and market positions of the two cars....
That the LS400 went on to establish a luxury performance marque is now the stuff of history - but it was that first model that was the make-or-break introduction. In Australia, the contemporary Nissan Q45 4.5-litre V8 disappeared without a trace - in fact most people have never even heard of the big Nissan!
Fast-forward to 2001 and the first LS400s are now 11 years old. Your twenty-five grand buys you a new Hyundai Daewoo Leganza - or an old Lexus. So, who wants a big, heavy old barge that will probably be as unreliable as all first models are?
But the LS400 has established a staggering reputation for reliability. Lexus-serviced cars with 300,000km on the odometer that have never experienced a major problem are legion; the US Lexus discussion groups are full of people mentioning cars with huge distances on them that are still operating pretty much as they were when new. Brake pads and tyres are used up with greater speed than might be expected, the alternator can cause problems, and the climate control LCD screen darkens. And that's apparently it. Oh yes, and in one case we've heard of a leaking rear main seal.
And big and heavy? Nope! No one has ever gushed enthusiastically over the car's stodgy styling, and its bulky slab-sided appearance also gives the impression of massive mass. However, one of the design intentions was that it weigh substantially less than its opposition - and it does. At 1690 - 1770kg (depending on the source) it's about the same weight as a current Holden Statesman or a VT Calais with one person on board. It's 150kg lighter than the aforesaid BMW 750iL and nearly half a tonne lighter than the massive Merc 600SEL! As for size, at 4995mm long and 1820mm wide, it's 242mm shorter and 27mm narrower than a current Statesman. In fact, it's a bit smaller all round than a VX Commodore wagon. So no, it sure ain't a small car - but it's no enormous limo either.
In Australia the UCF10R Lexus LS400 was released in April 1990 and continued until November 1994. The 90-degree, 32-valve V8 developed a peak power of 190kW at 5600 rpm and peak torque was a high 360Nm at 4400 rpm. Importantly, 90 per cent of peak torque was available from 2000 to 5600 rpm. The only transmission available was an electronically-controlled 4-speed auto, featuring both sports and normal modes. The tall-geared 4th ratio gave 46.6 km/h per 1000 rpm - so 110 km/h meant that the engine was revving at 2400 rpm.
Nought to 100 km/h was achieved in around 8.8 seconds (some tests are up to half a second quicker) with the standing quarter mile in the mid fifteens. Top speed of the slippery laser-welded shape (Cd = 0.29) was a high 245 km/h. A corollary of the low drag and relatively small engine was fuel consumption much better than expected. The AS2877 figures were 12.5 and 9 litres/100km (urban and country figures, respectively), while typical magazine test figures were around 12 litres/100km. In comparison, a 1990 5-litre V8 Holden Statesman had an AS2877 of 16 and 9.5, with similar vehicle size and acceleration performance.
Critical in the purchase of one of these cars is a Lexus service record. Interestingly, the Lexus service book is imprinted with a special die each time a service is completed - far more secure than a simple scribbled signature that could have been added by anyone at any old time! The cars seem to fall into two distinct classes - those one- or two-owner vehicles which have been kept in excellent condition with a full history, and those that have passed through many hands, frequently have aftermarket mags and often are also blessed with overspray on the door rubbers.... Surprisingly, the prices for the two vehicles are sometimes quite similar!
The paint - which is made up of many coats - can be difficult to match (so look for evidence of poor accident repairs), while tyres of lesser specification than the original 205/65 Dunlop Z-rated ones have often been fitted. The spare wheel in the boot should contain Lexus Valet and First Aid kits, and you should (of course) check that all of the electric gadgets work.
Behind the wheel you'll find the car supremely quiet (even by current standards), powerful and responsive. The throttle travel is overly long, the steering too slow in ratio (and the wheel too big) and the seats flat and hard. But it's not a car that feels particularly big to drive, the ride is excellent and the handling tenacious - though accompanied by a fair measure of body roll. The absence of a trip computer and (on most early cars) traction control is a bit surprising, but the rest of the equipment level is as long as your arm. A sunroof and phone were options on all cars.
And the original build quality is obvious - the doors shut beautifully, the switchgear is ergonomic and precise, and the engine is simply gloriously smooth and refined...
Picture credits: Wheels January 1991 and April 1992, Car Australia August 1989.