By on June 2, 2011

The relentless pursuit of perfection. A lot of companies like to pretend that they mean it. Six sigma certifications. Cutting edge technologies. All the adjectives and adverbs worthy of a PR press release. But very few of them do. Even those that warrant those words for a time and place fall short when it comes time for their next step.

Sometimes it’s when they try to make the great leap from a niche segment to the mainstream. Apple, Black & Decker, Chrysler… hundreds of companies throughout the 1990’s tried to redefine themselves through expanding their audience. Most came out with worse products through the double edged sword of ‘blanding’ their focus while cost cutting their offerings. Apple clones, B&D plasticized tools, Chrysler’s 2nd gen LH sedans. They all failed. Toyota succeeded with the Lexus LS400. Here’s why.

Rent: They focused on their genuine strengths. The 1st generation Lexus offered a level of precision and quality in craftsmanship that redefined the luxury segment. BMW was more exciting to drive. Mercedes offered more prestige and exceptional steering feel. Infiniti offered a great engine and terrible waterfall commercials. The Lexus LS400 was simply the most enduring Toyota ever made with the ‘best’ of everything when it came to manufacturing assembly and quality control.

It was quality incarnate at a time when Toyota was already two clicks ahead of most of the competition when it came to quality. The highly automated manufacturing plant. The assembly workers who were considered the best among Toyota’s vast empire. The stamping dies that would offer incredible molds that would make the SC400 the gold standard in the luxury coupe segment. The body panel fit requirements and the paint quality standards. There was no compromise and in the beginning, not even a glint of a profit at the $35,000 asking price.

The Lexus LS400 was a rolling tribute to Toyota’s decades long commitment to the Toyota Quality Management System and the Toyota Way. It redefined what a luxury car would be in the 1990’s and not too surprisingly, this 1992 model I bought for $2000 and it turned out to be money very well spent.

Lease: I didn’t rent it. Renters don’t always respect what they’re given. This one was financed to a retired Vietnam Vet who had already bought a couple of vehicles from me in the last couple of years. $700 down, 60 a week for 18 months. This Lexus had 195k on it. But it also had been garage kept and dealer maintained with nary a nick or ding in site. 18 years later it still drove like a rolling testament to Toyota quality. The leather was aromatic. The buttons all worked and the wear was but minimal. I was glad to have given it a good home even though I could have easily financed it for 24 months instead of 18 months. I was investing in the quality of a great customer who always honored his word, and giving him a ‘thank you’ for his own high personal standards.

Sell: Except the new economy ended up doing a number on the guy I financed it to. I won’t get into the personals. But long story short, he just ran out of cash and after a year’s of timely payments, six months of infrequent payments followed. I gave him all the time he asked for and finally he had his family members drive it back to my lot. He asked for me to hold it for 10 days. I gave him two weeks.

The time came and went, and I put it up on Craigslist. It had 230k on the odometer but other than the spinning wheels and mileage reading, everything else was still picture perfect. I put it online for $2995 and received about eight calls in the first 12 hours.

Keep: The hardest thing for me to do sometimes is to say no to someone when they’re already offering good money for the vehicle. But when I see something that has been lovingly kept by the prior owners I try to give it to an enthusiast. Someone who will keep it up in the way it has always been kept and honor their responsibilities as an owner.

I found that guy this time. He came down from North Carolina with another 1st gen Lexus LS400 with 280k Still running strong if a bit more ‘lived in’ than my model. He came by with those vintage pliers that LS400 owners use below the hood struts to keep those hoods upright. He also came with cash and a focus on vehicle inspection that only a true loyalist of a specific model would ever put the energy towards.

The Lexus was expertly analyzed form stem to stern. After a nice conversation about all things LS400 he offered $2500, and though I could have easily negotiated a few hundred more out of the equation, I accepted the offer. It’s better to know that a great car will endure with a loyal driver than to get a few hundred more from someone who will dog it out.

It was a quality experience from beginning to end.

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43 Comments on “Rent, Lease, Sell or Keep: 1992 Lexus LS400...”

  • avatar

    Great story about a great car.

    Just for the record, though, it’s “stamping dies”, not “stamping dyes”.

  • avatar

    A friend had one of these up until the mid 00’s. It finally developed a problem that even the dealer couldn’t quite diagnose. Fed up he sold and replaced with a Volvo S80. He regrets that decision dearly today.

  • avatar

    The Lexus story disappoints and enrages me for two reasons:

    A) Why not Cadillac or Lincoln or even Chrysler? The LS400 exists as a shameful testament to how wrong US manufacturers went in not much more than 15 years from the mid-60’s to the early 80’s when the Lexus was under development. Detroit had nothing–NOTHING–at all to counter the LS400 when it came out, and in many ways they still don’t.

    B) Lexus has since gone on to do . . . not much . . . other than to be a still-not-quite-so-decontented Toyota. Toyota more or less has squandered that costly slam-dunk, and the brand basically stands for not much more than fancy Highlanders and Camrys.

    • 0 avatar

      And now Hyundai has leapfrogged the US manufacturers with both the Genesis and the Equus.

      But wait – Cadillac is busy building a new FWD flagship that shares a platform with the new Impala – I can just see all the rich guys lining up to buy one of these winners…

    • 0 avatar

      Like the joke says: I don’t have to outrun the bear; I just have to outrun you. So Toyota is content to just outrun Honda…

  • avatar

    First picture shows Gen 2 LS (95-00), not the 89-94.
    Otherwise great story. LS was a shock to everyone, except those familiar with the JDM Toyotas of the time. They had all technical ingredients in place for quite a while then – it was a matter of clever introduction to the outside world.
    Still, snobbish and brand-dependant Europe never really caught up with the whole “premium Japanese” concept.

    • 0 avatar

      Toyota market share is to small in Europe and they are not good in diesel. That is the main reason and not snob-appeal.

      • 0 avatar

        If you dont build diesels Europeans dont buy your cars Perhaps Toyota need to follow Ford and BMW and do a joint venture with PSA they make the best car diesel engines and allways did

      • 0 avatar

        I think it is more that Europeans actually care about driving feel. Lexus drive like American cars used to – disconnected and floaty. Even the largest S-class is a FAR more involving drive, and a 7-series is simply in another realm. Considering what an LS400 feels like at 70 on an American Interstate, 150mph on the Autobahn would be pretty white-knuckled in comparison to the home team entries.

        Of course, disconnected and floaty is exactly what Americans seem to love, so it is no surprise that they were a huge hit here. And at a bargain price.

  • avatar

    Excellent article, Steve. I never owned a Lexus of any kind (yet) but my wife’s parents started leasing them after Lexus first came out. They’ve been buying them ever since. Buying! In the real estate business all their working lives, perception is everything to project a successful image. So, prior to the LS-series they drove an assortment of Cadillac and Lincoln cars. They never were as enthusiastic about those as they have been about their Lexus vehicles. Having fought in Germany with the US Army in WWII and having witnessed the atrocities committed by the Germans, he was never keen on buying Mercedes or BMW landyachts, although he could well afford to do so. Had he fought in the Pacific theater he may never have bought a Lexus either. They have never had any issues with any of their Lexus vehicles and each one of them was sold immediately by the dealership where they traded it, in spite of the high mileage. People do recognize value in a well-maintained car.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Not my pics. Apparently the ones I used on CL may have been too low of a resolution for the site.

    I’ll contact Ed. Thanks for the heads up.

  • avatar

    Agreed. This indeed was Toyota’s finest hour.

    Even though the windows were framed, in the finest GM 4-door late 60’s – early 70’s hardtops, check out how those windows lowered into the rear door! I never could figure out the geometry and hardware to make that work, but work it did! Quite nicely!

    I’m sure the car will be well-cared for.

  • avatar

    I remember when we got the first one of these in @ GM and pointing out that the door jambs on the LS had a better paint finish than the primary surfaces on Caddys.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      That I can believe. My uncle worked in a steel mill in the mid 1990s. It was a joint venture between a U.S. company and a Japanese company. Toyota placed an order for some steel to use in one of their U.S. plants. My uncle was in quality control and was interested to learn that the Japanese were using steel that Chrysler considered to be “exterior quality” for “interior jobs.” Toyota told them flat out that their steel was not of high enough quality to be used on the exterior of their vehicles.

    • 0 avatar

      And GM’s door jambs still have awful paint finish (I heard that some of the early GMT 900s were finished in primer only).

      • 0 avatar

        That’s interesting, because when you look at a faded old car you’re thinking of restoring you look at places like the door jambs to see what color the paint was when it was new.

      • 0 avatar

        You’ll need to provide some better evidence than “I heard” on that statement to convince me.
        I worked on a lot of 900 stuff and never saw one like that, even in the proto stage.

  • avatar

    The one thing I really have to give Lexus credit for is the design of the audio and HVAC controls in these cars. Look at a Lexus center stack from this era, and then look at a BMW or Mercedes from a similar model year. The electronics in the German cars look and feel 10 years older. Otherwise the LS has no real interior styling at all.

    Lexus’ huge interior tech lead continued for quite awhile. The early COMAND and iDrive systems infamously stunk. Around 5 or 6 years or so ago though the tables turned. Now its Lexus dragging up the rear, the last holdout to offer cassette decks while everyone else has in dash hard drives and Bluetooth stereo streaming.

    • 0 avatar

      To be fair, Lexus only offers the cassette deck in the lame-duck SC430 while everything else has CD/MP3/USB.

      And the ergonomics are, considering what these cars have, still pretty good: buttoms are big, sensibly placed and decently marked. The problem is “pretty good” looks downmarket.

  • avatar

    I’ve always thought Chrysler’s 2nd gen LH sedans were a nice improvement over their predecessors (and nice cars in general). Don’t quite get the connection with plasticized B&D tools.

    • 0 avatar
      Steven Lang

      Feel free to refer to the following car review site.

      Notice the cliff-like dropoff from 1997 highs (last of the 1st gen LH sedans) to 1998 thru 2004 epic lows owner satisfaction.

      Also notice the amount of folks who responded negatively to the 2nd Gen LH vs. other models from the same era (Lumina, Camry, Accord, etc.)

      • 0 avatar

        And to think– all because owners didn’t follow their service schedules. I want to live in a world wherever my shortcomings can be laid directly at the feet of others.

        I really do.

      • 0 avatar

        And to think– all because owners didn’t follow their service schedules.

        Maybe Chrysler should have researched the maintenance habits of customers before deciding to use such a temperamental engine for a mainstream car.

        The 3.3 or 3.8 should have been the base engine for the LX and 2nd-gen LH.

      • 0 avatar

        Also,remember, somewhere in there Daimler showed up on the scene… and look what happened.

        I blame Daimler as much as I blame Chrysler for their woes before Fiat.

        And I have been a Mopar fan from way back too.

      • 0 avatar

        There are quite a bit of negative reviews even on the first-gen cars. There seem to be a greater proportion of negative reviews on the second-gen, but it’s a pretty mixed bag for both generations.

  • avatar

    I’ve spent some time behind the wheel of a ’94 LS400 and we currently have a ’99 SC300. I’ve also driven a number of MBZ models, a Jag or two, a Peugeot and Rolls Royces.

    The Lexus is without question a nice car. But they don’t have the performance feel of a European car at all. The LS is firmer than a Caddy or a Lincoln, but I feel disconnected from the road. The SC300 has lots of get up and go, but over rough road it feels just like the Toyota that it is rather than a capable sports coupe. It’s not a “driver’s car” at all.

    I understand the appeal to the silver hair set who want reliability, luxury appointments and a boulevard ride and I applaud Toyota for reading the market as well as they did back then. I think it’s unfortunate that they stopped trying to improve their vehicles and fell back on their reputation.

  • avatar

    I wish luxury car engine bays still looked like that.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    So what year did the LS become “not quite worth the money”? I ask as someone who could seriously look at Lexus LSs from a few different generations as used car buys.

    • 0 avatar
      Greg Locock

      The first version of the LS400 as in this article is the best one in my opinion. Ride is too floaty, handling is barge like. But for driving long distances there is none better, great stereo (nakamichi) with the best sound quality I have ever heard in a car (no booms, etc), and the engine sounds nice when you stick the boot in.

      The ABS is te suck though.

  • avatar
    healthy skeptic

    I have a ’97 ES300 that I bought 18 months ago for under $6K. It had 144K miles. Turned out it needed some strut work and a couple of other things, but once those were squared away, it runs as good as the day it was born. Arguably, the 90s Lexi were among the best-built, most reliable cars ever made.

    It may just be a dressed-up Camry, but so what? It rides great, feels luxurious inside, and should last many more years and miles.

    • 0 avatar

      There is a market for these “Barcaloungers” on wheels.
      But compare a Lexus of the years we are talking about here and compare to the competition when it came to reliability and durability. Most Lincolns and Cadillacs are long dead at 18 years and 200 000 miles, and those who survived have had megatons more glitches and repairs. And I’m not even mentioning BMWs and Mercs that cost a fortune to maintain, from the time the warranty expires.

  • avatar

    I think that mint examples of these first-gen cars will be bona fide collector cars in the future, for the reasons outlined above. It was clear that Toyota were building the best car they could regardless of cost. Things like the driveline being on one axis from crankshaft to diff pinion for minimum vibration. They were trying to break into a new market and took every measure necessary to succeed and I’ve always had the opinion they would be exceptionally durable. On a similar vein a friend has held onto his 1989 MX5 (Miata) as a collectible also.

    Just by the by the 90-92 LS400s I can see advertised over here start at AUD$4500 for 200k+ mile private sales with a 43k mile one-owner car from a dealer at $12k to catch the eye but perhaps not wallet.

  • avatar
    Jack Baruth

    I took a lot of the first-gen LSes and SCes in on trade when I was selling Infinitis. The leather and interior plastics didn’t hold up in the hot/cold Ohio weather but they all ran pretty well.

    My father got 120K out of one before it tossed a rod through the block.

  • avatar

    He also came with cash and a focus on vehicle inspection that only a true loyalist of a specific model would ever put the energy towards.

    The Lexus was expertly analyzed form stem to stern.

    Steve, could you share what he was looking for? It would come in handy in case I decide to buy one of these.

  • avatar
    Japanese Buick

    This car is a topic close to my heart as you can see from my handle and avatar. I own a 1998 example which I bought CPO in 2001. It is by far the best car I have ever owned. That’s almost a drawback because I can never justify spending the bucks on something new when this car is so good.

    It turned 200,000 miles this January and it’s almost as good as the day I bought it. Except for some creaky shocks when it’s been carrying four people, some segments going out in the LCD stereo display, and a tach needle that occasionally sticks at zero, this car is flawless. It’s had only two unscheduled repairs in the 10 years I’ve owned it, each costing less than $500. It does seem to be hard on batteries, needing a replacement every 2 years or so, and that every 90K timing belt/water pump replacement is kind of a bitch.

    The one thing I do wish it had was bluetooth integration — but it is a 1998 car so I use a BlueAnt S4 clipped to my visor. The current stereo stack is so well integrated that when I’ve looked into replacing it with something newer that has bluetooth, installers urge me not to mess with it.

    I’m thinking I may get this car to 300k miles. I have yet to find a new or newer car that would not cost a fortune that would be an improvement.

    Re: the floaty, quiet ride — yeah, perfect for my 60 mile round trip daily commute, and for long trips. My other car for when I want to get closer to the road is a 96 Miata.

  • avatar
    Japanese Buick

    Steve, can you give me a little more info on

    “those vintage pliers that LS400 owners use below the hood struts to keep those hoods upright. ”

    I could use a pair of those myself.

    • 0 avatar

      I believe he means a pair of Vise-Grips!

      On my old Gremlin back in the 70’s, I used to use a radiator hose clamp and keep a nut driver in the car so I could keep propped open the back hatch window as the hydraulic strut was a bit worn to keep cooler in the summer! Worked great, and no fumes, either.

      • 0 avatar

        I took that to mean vise grips as well, used to do that on my Honda CRX after the hatch struts gave up the ghost. I was wondering what the “spinning wheels” referred to in “It had 230k on the odometer but other than the spinning wheels and mileage…”

      • 0 avatar

        I’d venture to guess that he implied that the car rolled along with nary a hitch or problem to show for the substantial use…

  • avatar

    My brother in law had one; it was his father’s. It had about 50K miles. He kept it as a third car in Boston and wouldn’t believe me that an optima battery could last 6 months. Every time he took it out the battery was dead. Eventually got rid of it for pennies….and got his wife (my sister) an X3.

    No taste.

  • avatar

    A good car built back when is still a good car today. For example, I love the late 70’s=80’s GM A/G-body cars. I own two of them. They have their flaws, but overall one of the best platforms GM ever produced.

    If a manufacture puts a lot of effort into engineering and manufacturing a product, 20+ years later, if the car has been kept up or refurbished, it can still hands down beat many newer products.

    • 0 avatar
      Kevin Kluttz

      One of the best platforms GM ever produced…but compared to the rest of the auto world, well, there are no words to describe how inadequate they were. Wasn’t that the heart of the mailaise era?

  • avatar

    I happen to have a 1993 LS400 right now and I am back in love with it. Had a off idle stumble/hesitation problem which was solved by replacing the ecu with a recycled one in a yard … other than that, ball joints and Upper control arms, replaced the climate control due to the display blacking out … but the heart of the car has just worked great. It was 92 outside today and the car cruised nicely with the interior staying at a nice 70 degrees. Having owned all sorts of euro trash exotics, I gotta say, this is an amazing car at 160K and likely will go another 100K with just a bit more maintenance.

    Am looking for a younger lexus now just in case this craps out in the next few years.

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