Most legendary cars achieved their status thanks to unique ideas, original design, character (whatever may that be) or joy they bring to their owners and drivers. So, is it even possible for a pragmatic, coldly efficient and mostly derivative car to become a legend?
When the first Lexus, called LS400, was introduced in 1989, it certainly wasn’t the most original car on the market. In fact, it not only looked a lot like a W126 Mercedes S-class of the time, it was even named similarly (remove the L and the car would fit right into the naming system Mercedes started using a few years later). And it was no coincidence – the LS400 was a result of Toyota brass’ decision to move their business upmarket. The Voluntary Restraint Agreement between the United States and Japan limited the number of Japanese cars that could enter the country, making it a smart idea to charge more for each of them and clear more profit. The LS400 might have been a bit of a loss leader at $35,000 for a base model that nobody ever saw in dealerships, but it paved the way for hugely profitable successors and showroom companions like the ES300 and RX300.
If you think of the Mazda Miata as probably the best classical British roadster ever built, the LS400 may too very well be the ultimate Mercedes-Benz. While the venerable S-class itself got very fat and a little bit vulgar in its W140 iteration, the LS400 closely resembles the W126, probably the most elegant S-class ever – just improved in almost every way. And, while the Mercedes’ reliability record suffered greatly in the 1990s, the Lexus came in with unbelievable levels of quality and workmanship, and of course with fantastic reliability.
Case in point, the 1990 LS400 you can see on pictures here. I borrowed it from my friend and fellow motoring journalist, who bought it after he drove it in head-to-head comparison test with a new LS600h, and found out the old one is not only more comfortable than the current one, and even feels more solid. For a 23 years old car, bought for equivalent of little over $2,000 and which probably wasn’t exactly pampered, it is almost unbelievable.
For one, the thing feels much more modern than any quarter-a-century-old car has any right to be. From the cool illuminated instrument cluster with recessed idiot lights, creating a strange three-dimensional effect like something from Star Trek, to the well-muffled and very sophisticated sound of the four-cam, four-liter V8 providing 250 horsepower.
The only decidedly non-modern thing about this car is the suspension tuning. Especially for us Europeans, being force-fed with Germans’ idea of the “good suspension” (which basically means using rocks instead of springs, so your big diesel limo can handle precisely at your standard cruising speed of 155mph) the LS400 is a revelation. The fact that the car was designed mostly for American market resulted in a suspension that combines the Mercedes’ sophistication with Town Car’s plushness.
Which means that the big Lexus is able to corner quite competently, if you want it to, but it also means that you don’t want it to. Instead of provoking you into a hurry, like many big German sedans do, the LS relaxes you and makes you completely satisfied with going 55 mph – so you arrived to your destination about five minutes later, but also well-rested, not dripping with adrenaline like when you drive BMW or Audi.
It really does feel like someone took a big Benz and a Panther (or B-body), which count among my most favorite long distance cruisers ever, and combined the best things of both. So, it is only logical that I should totally fall in love with the LS, want to take it home, marry it and have little IS’s with it. And, in fact, I have been looking at those for quite some time, and I even watched this exact car in classifieds, with only lack of cash stopping me from buying it. Based on everything I read about it, I thought I will be stunned by it, and I was nearly sure this car was exactly what I need and want.
But it isn’t. And after a full day spent with it, I suddenly realized I don’t want to own it, and probably never will. But why?
It’s easy to answer and hard to explain. The car just has no soul. And while the absence of soul in Toyota Corolla sedan is pretty hard to explain to anyone who’s not a car guy, explaining the absence of soul in a rear-wheel drive, V8 sedan which is amazing in nearly everything it ever does is downright nightmarish proposal.
The LS400 mixes everything that’s good about a Town Car and S-class Mercedes, and makes it better. It drives right, it sounds right (when you can hear anything at all), it’s comfortable, it’s supremely relaxing to drive and never tiring, it is executed flawlessly and works well even after a quarter of a century. But driving it brings no joy.
Maybe someone of a different nature from mine might find joy and pleasure in the way the Lexus does exactly what it was designed to do. If it’s sophistication and comfort that rocks your boat, and if you like cars not to bother you with lowly chores of driving and even thinking about it, you will love it. And if you have to drive so much it gets tiring, you will love it even more, as driving this thing is hardly ever tiring to drive. I can imagine doing two or three hundred miles a day in this thing, and getting out more relaxed than when I got in each time.
But I love driving. And since I work from home, I don’t have to drive very far or very often. So I want every drive to be an event for me. I want to enjoy it and savour each minute behind the wheel and each mile driven. And LS400 doesn’t do this for me. It gets the job done, and it gets my admiration for its abilities. But it’s so good at isolating you from the experience, it ultimately becomes dull and boring.
Driving an LS400 is about as fun and memorable as sleeping. But also as refreshing…
Myth or Legend?
Legend. A new brand that took on the biggest names in the business, and got it right for the first time. And, even after quarter of a century, one of the most comfortable cars, ever.
Do I need to drive it?
Definitely. You will get out relaxed, and with totally new outlook on what “comfort” means.
Should I buy it?
If you need to drive much, and don’t fear 20+ years old automobile, definitely. If you want a toy, something you will enjoy each day, then look somewhere else.