Myths and Legends: Lexus LS400

Vojta Dobe
by Vojta Dobe
myths and legends lexus ls400

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.

Join the conversation
2 of 156 comments
  • Anoldbloke Anoldbloke on Jun 02, 2014

    I am a big fan of of the ls400, I own a 1990 UCRf10, which was complete with air suspension which I really liked, sadly had to replace the worn units with coils/strut suspension as being an old pensioner peasant, adjustable damped air struts delivered to Australia are an arm and a leg these days, regardless of that it still drives and rides very well and is amazingly quiet even at 24 years old, not many cars you could say still feel and drive like a quality car at 24 years of age, and the little 4.0 litre v8.... bloody magnificent, another vote for legend class.

  • Noises Noises on Sep 23, 2014

    Ah, the UCF10. The original and still the best Lexus. It's an acquired taste to drive, that's for sure. As a luxury saloon its quality and workmanship set a whole new standard in what luxury car owners expect. As a passenger or as a driver, you can't help but notice how relaxing, how serene this car is to drive. Now, about that soul. I consider myself a passionate driver. My first few weeks behind the wheel of my Lexus were, to be frank,a bit boring. Power came on later than when I wanted it. The handling, while precise, wasn't tight, and body roll was an issue. In every way a serious driver cares about, the LS400 is lacking. Not by much, but it's lacking. But then, something weird happened. I began to connect with the car, to get to know its idiosyncrasies. I gas on earlier, knowing the engine is going to wallow until it reaches around 3000 RPM, then the cams are going to kick in and the car is going to accelerate hard from 3000 to 5000. I learned that whale like body roll is just that, the body rolling, the wheels stay planted and the handling stays precise in spite of it. The biggest surprise came one afternoon coming down a notoriously long and dangerous decent down the Great Dividing Range on Australia's east coast. I know the road well, it was a weekday so there wasn't a whole lot of traffic and I was cruising quite comfortably down the range. I always take it easy on that road, I never push a car up or down the range because if you get a corner wrong, you are dead, simple. This was after I'd got to know the car better and began to compensate for its little quirks. Now, in the soundproofed cabin, cut off from all but the most aggressive exhaust and engine sounds, the ride is peaceful, relaxing, sedate. I think I'm taking it easy. All of a sudden I'm coming up on traffic, and fast. I was doing almost 25kmh over the speed limit without even realizing it, handling the road so nicely and so far within my safe driving comfort zone that I didn't even realise how fast I was really going. Now, 25 km an hour over the limit doesn't sound like a lot, but the advisory speed signs are 40 km an hour, I'm taking those corners in the Lexus at 65, but it feels like 40. It's not until you look at the speedometer and realise how fast you're going and how well the car is handling that the LS400 shows it's true form. It's a fast car that doesn't feel fast. And from the inside it doesn't sound fast, but you open up that throttle wide and and everyone on your block is going to know all about it. Now, these cars are knocking on a quarter of a century old. You can find them cheap and high mileage isn't a problem. However, there's a few things you should do because there's a good chance nobody has done them since they were brought. First, clean your Mass Air Flow sensor. Next, replace the o2 sensors. Put an engine flush in before your next oil change and put a bottle of injector cleaner through the fuel system. This is in addition to the regular sorts of maintenance you might need to do. Once you've got clean sensors and blasted any sludge out of the injectors and the engine, take a look at the throttle cables, especially the one for cruise control, and take up any slack in them. These simple and inexpensive bits of work will reward you with the sort of performance the original owner would have got. Personally for me the most noticeable improvements were cleaning the MAF sensor and tightening up the throttle cables. I'm voting legend, obviously. Nobody is going to argue with the build quality, the It's not a sports car, but it's not trying to be one. It's an executive loungeroom on wheels. A V8 quad cam boardroom. Its a car that makes you feel rich and important every time you drive it or ride in it. The handling and power delivery take some getting used to, you're not going to connect with a LS400 your first time behind the wheel. But keep driving it, get to know it, learn to trust it, learn to be a bit brave with getting on the throttle early and you'll find it's got enough soul to qualify as a drivers car. It's just you don't notice from inside the inulated, sound dampened, leather and wood trimmed cabin. Ask the guy behind you if it's quick though. Also? All the ladies love a Lexus.

  • Wolfwagen I would rather have an annual inspection that may catch something early or at least the driver can be informed of an impending issue. Government vs private is another issue and unscrupulous mechanics is another.On a slightly different topic is the inspection of salvage or rebuilt cars. In NYS it is strictly to ensure that stolen parts were not used to rebuild the vehicle. I would rather see an inspection to ensure that the vehicle has been properly put back together.
  • PeterPuck For years, Ford has simply reworked existing designs originating from Europe and Japanese manufacturers, not being capable of designing a decent car in the USA.What’s the last clean sheet design from the USA? The 1986 Taurus?And they still can’t manage to get things right.why is this? Are they putting all of the competent engineers and designers on the F150? Is woke diversification affecting them, as some rumours suggest? Are they rewarding incompetence?
  • Brandon What is a "city crossover"?
  • Tassos What was the last time we had any good news from Ford? (or GM for that matter?)The last one was probably when Alan Mulally was CEO. Were you even born back then?Fields was a total disaster, then they go hire this clown from Toyota's PR department, the current Ford CEO, Fart-ley or something.He claims to be an auto enthusiast too (unlike Mary Barra who is even worse, but of course always forgiven, as she is the proud owner of a set of female genitals.
  • Tassos I know some would want to own a collectible Mustang. (sure as hell not me. This crappy 'secretary's car' (that was exactly its intended buying demo) was as sophisticated (transl. : CRUDE) as the FLintstone's mobile. Solid Real Axle? Are you effing kidding me?There is a huge number of these around, so they are neither expensive nor valuable.WHen it came out, it was $2,000 or so new. A colleague bought a recent one with the stupid Ecoboost which also promised good fuel economy. He drives a hard bargain and spends time shopping and I remember he paid $37k ( the fool only bought domestic crap, but luckily he is good with his hands and can fix lots of stuff on them).He told me that the alleged fuel economy is obtained only if you drive it like a VERY old lady. WHich defeats the purpose, of course, you might as well buy a used Toyota Yaris (not even a Corolla).