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Last of the LS400s

Worth a long look

by Julian Edgar

Click on pics to view larger images

At a glance...

  • Superb economical and powerful V8
  • Important updates in this model
  • Well equipped
  • Excellent reliability
  • Less interior space than expected
  • Steering not good
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This article was first published in 2006.

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It seems an inexorable process: as each year goes by, cars lose their value. The mega-dollar cars of today are likely to be the dirt cheap cars in ten years’ time, or, the mega-dollar cars of ten years ago are now dirt cheap. But sometimes these cars can be a real trap – spare parts prices, servicing costs and complexity mean that you might not pay much to buy the car, but after that – watch out! Audis and BMWs are particularly well known for these belated-bite-you-in-the-arse characteristics.

But the Lexus LS400 is not a car that falls into the same trap. Its service and parts prices are just a bit more than Toyota, while the build quality and longevity are right up there with Mercedes. And with the last of the breed – the UCF20R – you get the benefit of seven years of development of fundamentally the same car but with some added and important technical and equipment advances.

Introduced in November 1997, the last of the LS400 models held sway until 2000, when the new-shape LS430 was released. The 1997 car cost AUD$155,000 and by 2000 it had risen only marginally to $162,000. These days you’ll pay anything from $25,000 to $35,000, depending on year, kilometres and condition.

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So what makes the UCF20R the pick? Mostly, it’s in the driveline. The 4-litre, all-alloy, quad cam V8 was regarded as amongst the world’s best sedan engines from the moment it was released but in 1997 it got a significant upgrade – variable valve timing. Rather than a single step process, this is continuous on the inlet cams, swelling peak torque to a neat 400Nm at 4000 rpm. Peak power is the (then) Japanese regulation 210kW – in reality, probably a tad more. In addition to the VVTi, this model also got a 5-speed auto, a significant upgrade over the previous 4-speeder. (However, note that there is no ‘tiptronic’ style function.)

With a mass of 1770kg (lighter than many full size cars currently being sold) the LS400 has a 0-100 km/h time that’s claimed to be 6.9 seconds but is realistically – and repeatedly – 7.5 seconds. Fuel consumption for the size of the car and its performance is excellent – it’s quite possible to average 12 litres/100km around town, 10 litres/100km with some freeway driving thrown in, and 8.5 litres/100km on the open road. Factory figures are 12 litres/100km (urban) and 7.6 litres/100km (highway).

However, the best aspect of the engine is not its performance or economy but the incredibly creamy way it goes about its work. This is one ultra-smooth engine that develops good bottom-end torque and yet still revs easily and sweetly to the redline. It really is that good – a killer of an engine.

The 5-speed auto, despite using plenty of computer intelligence and a switchable sports mode, is not up to the same standard. Left to its own devices, it performs fine most of the time but when you’re really going for it, it can be slow to react and get confused as to which gear to quickly select.

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The other major advance of the 1997+ models is electronic stability control. This is a mixed blessing. Working as stability control – that is, correcting understeer and oversteer – it is very effective. But also in the package is a traction control system which is a real kill-joy, intruding very early and then really yanking back on the power. You can switch the system off but then you also lose stability control. (See the series starting at Modifying Electronic Car Handling Systems, Part 1 for a way around this dilemma.) We think electronic stability control is a real and important safety innovation and so the fact that this model has it is a huge benefit – but it’s a pity that Lexus decided to make the traction control element so severe. Incidentally, you can easily differentiate the two effects – stability control is accompanied by a loud beeping sound while traction control just flashes the dash warning lamp.

Also new for this model was a revised front-end – all LS400s run double wishbone front and rear suspension but the UCF20R has some major front suspension changes. The benefit is a tighter turning circle but the downside is the use of semi-longitudinal tension rods and bushes that are subjected to a lot of strain and so tend to wear prematurely. The result is a clunking noise in the front-end, especially at low speed over metal grates and the like. Replacement involves complete tension rod assemblies.

Handling? Well, it’s a mixed bag. If you’re looking for the well tied-down handling of current Falcons and Commodores (eg the sports models) you won’t get it. The Lexus has plenty of body roll but the long travel suspension (and its excellent geometry) keeps the car in the hunt, even on demanding back roads. Upgraded (lower profile and wider) tyres make a large difference – although then the roll angles become even greater! So a flick through a roundabout is likely to bring the stability control into action as understeer (or, with a heavy enough right foot, power oversteer) occur, but get the car on a country road and it can be bloody fast. (In fact, someone known very well to this author once enjoyed a contest with his lady partner. He was driving a new-shape 5.7 litre Monaro and her, the standard Lexus. At speeds of up to 150 km/h on a dark, windy, treacherous and difficult back country road, the cars were dead even.)

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The ride is good but fairly soft – this isn’t a car with firm springs or dampers.

The equipment includes dual climate control, four airbags, a CD stacker sound system, electric seats and the rest of the stuff you’d expect. However, while you can now find most of this equipment in quite cheap cars, it needs to be stated clearly that the LS400’s equipment is really very, very good. The sound system is superb, especially on CD. The climate control never blows hot (or cold) air at your face when it’s unwanted, and incorporates a complete rear air-conditioning system. All the switchgear is beautifully labelled and works with precision. It sounds a bit odd, but the interior controls – along with that engine – are areas where the Lexus has a clear advantage over current cars available for similar money. Simply, it’s a joy to operate.

The brakes are large – very large on the front – and the ABS is well calibrated. However, the same cannot be said of the steering. If there’s a major weakness in the dynamics of the car, it’s the steering. Lifeless and increasingly light as speeds rise, it makes the car hard to place accurately and can be quite tiring on a long drive on difficult roads. (See Mapping Power Steering Weight )

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Mechanical reliability is excellent. Always look for factory Lexus servicing and on cars of this age expect to see that the water pump and cam timing belts have been replaced. The suspension – not only those tie-rods but also the dampers and upper strut mounts – can be getting tired, and the interior leather can also show signs of wear. The paint on the bumpers crazes but body rust is unknown. If parked on an uphill slope, the boot can leak as water pools in the forward gutter around the boot opening. Unlike previous LS400 models, the LCDs on the centre part of the dash don’t go dark.

Interior space is not particularly well proportioned – the local Commodores and Falcons have lots more rear legroom and boot space and the Lexus rear seat does not fold down (there’s a fuel tank behind it).

But if you like the feel of a very well put together and engineered luxury car and one of the world’s best V8s, the last of the line LS400 makes for an excellent used car buy. They won’t be easy to find – they’re the rarest of all the LS400 models - but you may find the search worth it.

Footnote: Author Julian Edgar owned this model LS400 for 5 years. The car shown here was his: it has been fitted with non-standard wheels and tyres.

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