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Georgina's New Car - Part 1

Our household acquires a Lexus LS400.

by Julian Edgar

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Nope, this isn't Julian's new car. It might park under his house, but it's not his. Instead, it belongs - name on the loan papers and all - to Georgina, his fiancé. And why has a 161.5cm, 50kg woman ended up acquiring a 10-year-old big-arse Lexus?

It certainly didn't start off that way....

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With our move to Queensland, we'd needed to quickly acquire a new car. And that had been the auto '89 Saab 900 Turbo 5-door (quaintly named by Saab the 'Combi'). A car with some very strong virtues - wonderful stability, sure-footed handling with bags of grip and excellent passing acceleration - it was also one with its fair share of negatives - terrible NVH, fuel consumption that with the daily Gold Coast Hinterland climb to the clouds struggled to better 12 litres/100km, and absolutely woeful off-the-line performance. In fact, in the latter regard the Saab felt almost of the '70's school of turbo design, where there was nothing, nothing, nothing - then whoomph!, turbo boost arrived.

Though, to be honest, the Saab will always hold a special place in our memories - its simply enormous rear space, the styling incorporating a tiny wheelbase that reflected the numerous nose- and tail-jobs performed on the original 99 model, and its idiosyncratic approach to everything from seating position to ignition key location (between the front seats, if you don't know).

But between us we'd now got the Car Crazies - looking through the Saturday papers, browsing the car classifieds on AutoWeb and Drive and Carpoint, slowing down whenever we were passing a used car yard... The Saab was now being evaluated more on its trade-in value (low) than on the merits of its body stiffness and electric seat warmers. The automotive options were both eclectic and eccentric. Dep Ed Michael Knowling and I incessantly discuss potential car buys; we can honestly say that there is zero bias in any direction, and the talk as easily turns to a low-kay AU Falcon as it does to a pristine 6.3 litre Mercedes 300 SEL to a Japanese-import Mira Turbo 4WD. And perhaps that bug has infected Georgina, for literally any brand and any model was up for discussion.

But still - in the end - probably only a dozen cars were actively considered.

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Firstly, we thought of new cars. Or, specifically, of a single new car. My AutoSpeed review ("New Car Test - The Mercedes A160 Classic") of the Mercedes A160 was variably positive and doubtful, but of one aspect we were sure: the utility of the body design is simply fantastic. And you can also add that the safety of the small car is beyond question.

And those were two aspects always under consideration - it had to be a car that was practical (so no two-seaters and no tiny cars) and safe. In the five months since we've moved to Mount Tamborine we have seen no less than four major accidents on the narrow, winding and challenging piece of bitumen that leads to our elevated town. A car that was both passively safe (ie you're ploughing through the scenery) and actively safe (you're more likely still to be on the road) was an important consideration. So what of the eccentrically shaped Merc?

An A160 was never in the ballpark - but the 23 per cent more powerful A190? With a claimed 0-100 of 8.8 seconds and a price of $41,230, it was worthy of consideration. Pardon? No, we don't have that sorta money lying around, but DaimlerChrysler offers a guaranteed buyback and with a lease able to be organised, it was an option. All only a vague thought - but then we happened to be passing a Mercedes dealer, had an hour or so spare, and so....

Gotta say that the dealer - Centenary Classic of Brisbane - was a delight. I am obviously getting very old - and or we happened to be looking prosperous that day - because the staff member was both helpful and courteous. And if he didn't know as much about the A-class range as I thought he should, he at least was reluctant to bluster his way through, simply suggesting that their staff back at the dealership would be able to answer my specifics. And the car? Well, too slow, basically - I think to do the advertised times you'd have to start off on the top of a tall hill.... And Georgina thought the quality of interior plastic substandard for a car of these dollars. But her greatest complaint was that she'd be paying off $918 each month for 3 years - and at the end of that time, she wouldn't even own the car....

Then it was time to head off and look at a secondhand Golf VR6.

Very secondhand, as it turned out.

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This was one car also on Michael Knowling's shortlist - he'd driven it and delighted in the potent 128kW 2.8-litre V6. The hatchback Golf weighs only 1180kg, and with 235Nm to push it along, it is quick and refined. And it's got twin airbags, an electronic diff lock and ABS. But the high-kay one that we were looking at was stickered at $16,500 - when most are in the mid-twenties - and it simply felt tired. At the minimum I could see new dampers and bushes, tyres and perhaps a full engine service. At the maximum - brakes, gearbox and clutch. But there was no doubting that the engine was sweet and strong, the package practical and the overall car one that simply couldn't be dismissed.

But this particular example? Nope.

Then, out one afternoon on the Gold Coast, I picked up the local paper. I was musing my way down the car classifieds when I spotted a Lexus LS400. It'd only been a few weeks before when Michael and I were in Sydney and he'd got me to pull over on Parramatta Road - "Wonder what a twenty five grand Lexus is like?" he'd asked, having spotted a forlorn car yard occupant out of the side window. In the metal it had looked damn' good; insufficient time had precluded a drive.

Now here in the Gold Coast Bulletin there were no less than three of the cars, including one listed as being in "pristine condition" - and only a flat $20,000! We did a few other tasks, then wandered over to the yard. But even the early evening darkness couldn't disguise the cracked paint on the bumpers, the scrape down one side, the broken aerial. Maybe these guys don't use the Shorter Oxford....their definitions were certainly different to ours! The distance the poor battered car had wearied through wasn't apparent; too many kays and not enough loving care, anyway...

The other advertised LS400s couldn't be found or were private sales - and that precluded that. We didn't want to go through the hassle of selling the Saab privately, so we were looking to a dealer purchase. Anyway, as Georgina constantly reminded me, a Lexus LS400 "wasn't her image". I wasn't quite sure what actually was her image, but thought it wise to remain silent at this point!

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Time passed; I spent some of it looking up prices and specs on Peugeot 306 Gti6's (too expensive); late model Honda Accord V6's (too slow - oh why oh why isn't the Odyssey's fabulous 3.5-litre V-TEC engine available in the Accord?); and ICQ brainstorming with AutoSpeed reader 'Q'. A man of eclectic - albeit Euro-centric tastes - Q's nominations included the 1989 BMW 325iS ("too old-fashioned," she said), Mercedes 190 Cossie ("God, it's so old that it's leaded, I said) and Musso V8 things - which were so beneath our contempt that we said nothing at all...

Late at night we peered through the windows of a car-yarded mid-Nineties BMW 530i V8 (cheap but very slow); a late-Eighties Mercedes 300E (apparently a wonderful car but really showing its age now in its equipment and performance); even a VQ Statesman V8 got a look-in. The Peugeot 206 GTi was dismissed ("too small"), and the mighty Impreza WRX sighed over. (We'd have loved a Rex wagon, but getting insurance with Georgina as the primary driver would have cost literally 25 per cent of the value of the car per annum... she's never had comprehensive insurance before...)

Then we found another Lexus LS400.

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To differentiate it from the others we called it "Mr Shit Brown" - I am not sure what Lexus call that particular paint colour.... Later, it was more politely truncated to "Mister Ess Bee". Mr SB could be found in the used car yard of a Gold Coast Mazda Dealer. We peered in Mr SB's windows late at night - yeah, I don't know why most of our caryard forays were in the dark, either - and from what we could see, it was in very good condition. But - yeee-owie - 208,000 kays... And no sunroof.

The Saab had a sunroof, my Audi has a sunroof - it was apparently a must-have. I admired the fact that someone had kept the same-as-original Z-rated tyres shod on the old slab-sided beast, while Georgina peered in at the full leather trim. Stickered at $26K, it was what you'd pay for a good condition Golf VR6... but we'd conveniently forgotten that.

Surely a drive wouldn't hurt?

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Now, I have a confession to make. At around the time of which I am speaking, I had in my clutches for a week the absolutely wonderful 4.2-litre 250kW Audi S6 V8 press car. And I just loved that instantaneous V8 grunt. I've owned 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 cylinder cars - but never a V8. And, it must be said - along with the awesome Commodore Gen III V8 - the S6 had really inspired me to own (or at least drive frequently!) a straining-at-the-leash V8. And this here Lexus had got a 190kW, 4-litre, all-alloy, 32-valve V8 under than bland exterior.... Hmmm, wonder what it drives like?

It drove incredibly well. Utterly smooth, quiet, powerful and responsive - and unfortunately, slow in steering and with a slightly unresponsive auto trans. But - hell! - now I know what all those motoring writers were on about a decade ago.... It may be 50 per cent bigger than we - er, Georgina - needs, but so what? This was something very, very good....

Georgina didn't have a turn behind the wheel; she was content (at this stage!) to accept my opinion. And I was very, very positive.

We went away, very thoughtful. I did plenty of research - much of it contained in last week's (" The Lexus LS400") article - and considered the up- and down-sides.

The booming Japanese wrecker import market in Australia means that a LS400 engine and transmission can be purchased for relative chickenfeed - scratch one enormous potential cost if something went wrong. It appears that all Soarer and much Supra stuff fits the LS400 - and that opens up brake upgrades and bigger wheels as quite cheap acquisitions. Although it's a big car - but smaller than a current Commodore wagon - its fuel consumption looked on paper as if it could rival the Saab turbo. But then it's totally lacking in the styling grace of (say) a contemporary BMW 7-series, and this particular one had an awful lot of kays on it....

This was getting interesting.

Next week: Mr SB and the last-minute Volvo turbo interloper....

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