Ask Jack: The Man Who Flexes From WRXes To Lexus?

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: everything, and I mean everything, is utterly and absolutely context-dependent. It’s literally true on the atomic level, where we cannot accurately measure both position and velocity at the same time. It’s true at the quantum level, where “quantum entanglement” governs behavior that is currently beyond our ability to understand. It’s even applicable in your dating life; the same size-six girl who feels insubstantial to you in the long evenings at home will acquire new heft after you spend a drunken weekend away with a size two.

Since this is an automotive website and not The Journal Of Theoretical Physics And Deniable Adultery, let’s focus on what context means in the automotive sense. The definitions of fast car, big car, economical car, reliable car, and even full-sized pickup have all changed several times since the end of the First World War. Imagine you fell into a coma in 1975 and woke up today; you’d probably ask how and why cars got so tiny and trucks got so big. The first 911 Turbo was a “widowmaker” with 260 horsepower; today’s model delivers twice that much power and still isn’t the fastest car (around a track, at least) in its price range.

More importantly, our own personal context for an automobile often determines how much we enjoy and appreciate it. Think of all the people who spend their weekends restoring, cleaning and driving “classic cars” that other people threw away decades ago. Think of the over one million people who couldn’t wait to trade their Tri-Five Chevys in on something new, and of all the people who’ve spent major portions of their lives making those same cars better than they were when they left the assembly line. That’s the power of context.

Which brings me to today’s question for Ask Jack. It’s all about one man’s very unusual, but entirely understandable, definitions of “daily driver” and “weekend special”.

Ryan writes:

(a bunch of very complimentary and ABSOLUTELY TRUE things about your humble author) … I’m one of the lucky few who got out of school with a non-STEM degree and landed a decent job in finance in the New York metro area.

Currently, I have a late model WRX with summer and winter tires, a catback exhaust, and a warranty, so no major mods there yet. I like the WRX a lot, as it’s immature, engaging, loud, pisses off my cube monkey coworkers, and delivers me north to the fresh pow-pow. But it also sometimes grows tiresome … because it is immature, engaging and loud.

I’ve toyed with the idea of a second car for a while now and my eye has now turned towards the venerable LS400; particularly, a ’98-’00 model, although I wouldn’t be particularly opposed to a good condition ’95+.

Before I go ahead and pull the trigger, should I consider another ride for my luxury, hassle free, low-maintenance steed? It’s a car I wish to teach myself many basic car repair skills on, so something relatively simple (read: not a W220) would be ideal. I’ve thought perhaps an older Acura RL or maybe an Infiniti Q45 would be the ticket, but the LS seems like the “baller” choice (which I’m all about for a second car). Should I up my spending frame and consider an LS430? Am I excluding an oddball choice with my tunnel vision?

Now this is a perfect example of context at work. Nominally speaking, the Lexus LS — in all its various iterations — is the very model of a modern daily driver. But in Ryan’s case, his daily driver is actually a WRX with a loud exhaust. In the world as most of us know it, a Lexus is a completely reliable automobile and a WRX is a head gasket repair waiting to happen. In Ryan’s world, the WRX still has a warranty and the Lexus will be a chance to learn basic auto-mechanic skills.

Things fall apart! The center cannot hold! Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world!

Alright. Let’s take a serious look at this. I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind Ryan that you gotta be rich to own a cheap car, particularly when that cheap car was originally developed with no cost constraints, packed full of massively over-engineered components, and sold at a loss to people who expected it to require no more maintenance than would a Camry.

With that disclaimer duly supplied, we can start narrowing down the possibilities. As much as I love the Q45, both in concept and execution, I cannot recommend Ryan even think about buying one. The original cars — the ones that were Nissan Presidents overseas — are all worn beyond any possibility of salvaging. The second and third generation cars, which were based on the considerably less ambitious Nissan Cima, are pieces of junk. They’re chock-full of parts that might be common in Japan but are both rare and expensive on these shores. The juice here is not worth the squeeze, not by a long shot. As Neil McCauley once said, “Walk away.”

What about the Acura RL? The two generations of RL before the current RLX are charming, capable automobiles, built with meticulous care at Honda’s premier “global mother plant” in Japan. Properly maintained, they can last a very long time. The driving experience can be a touch anodyne but the road isolation and NVH will seem exemplary compared to a WRX. (There’s that context again.)

There’s just one problem with the RL: it was never that much better than whatever Acura TL or Honda Accord the Big H was selling at the time. Speaking in a very broad and imprecise sense, you can usually get the same experience for less money and hassle if you just buy the TL of the following generation. My Accord is just as big and spacious as the last-generation RL. There’s also a slight volume problem. The last time a “big” Acura did any volume was back in the days of the squish-nose second-generation Legend, so it’s tough to find a good RL. There’s also very little aftermarket infrastructure for the RL — and, like the Infiniti Q45, it contains a lot of parts that are sui generis in North America.

No, I’m afraid the Lexus LS is the only reasonable choice for authentic Japanese VIP Executive “Black Rain” style. The only question is: which one? The 1998-2000 cars represent a sweet spot of sorts, insofar as they’re just 1990 LS400s that have been kaizened for a solid decade. Yet there’s something awfully seductive about the “third-gen” Lexus LS430. It’s big, it’s fast, and it’s imposing-looking. The proportions are more modern, if that matters, and the in-car entertainment options are better. That would be my choice. Get the nicest one you can; I think there was an “ultra luxury” version for one or two years of that run.

As long as you’re prepared for maintenance costs commensurate with the car’s original purchase price, the LS430 is the one to have. But there’s one particular LS430 you should avoid. It’s silver, and it was originally titled in Ohio. My long-term readers will remember my ex-girlfriend, the Vegas stripper and all-around bad girl known as Vodka McBigbra. Prior to making my acquaintance, V. McB was the mistress of a UPS executive. This fellow bought himself a brand-new LS430 with all the trimmings. He was thrilled with it and very proud of himself for spending all that money, so naturally the first thing he did was make some excuses to his family and drive over to Vodka’s to show it off. They went out for a little bit of the ol’ clubbing. The lady got more than a little drunk. The moment she got back in the car to go back to her place — and remember, the guy’s children haven’t even seen the car yet — she projectile-vomited all over her side of the cabin.

“It was just a stupid car,” she recalled half a decade later. “He wouldn’t talk to me for a whole week. I could never understand why.” You see? Context truly is everything.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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4 of 152 comments
  • Burgersandbeer Burgersandbeer on Apr 28, 2017

    Not long ago I looked at an '06 LS430 for a quiet highway cruiser. By the measuring tape the car is not obscenely large, but it certainly looks it in person. The look was disappointing. What torpedoed the idea of this car for me was the transmission. I have a strong preference for manuals, but I don't think I am militant about it and have driven automatics that I am pretty sure I could live with ('12 Jaguar XF, '11 BMW X3, '08 BMW 550i, hell, even an '01 BMW X5). The LS 430 was incredibly slow to downshift, to the point where I found the power delivery too unpredictable to do anything other than drive like the proverbial grandma. It was so unexpected considering the class of car and the LS 430's reputation that I wonder if that example was broken. Since I'm not a fan of the looks, I don't think I care enough to drive another and find out. Oh well.

    • Salzigtal Salzigtal on Apr 30, 2017

      There are times when I step on the gas and swear the transmission and variable valve timing are playing "you go first, no, you go first". I'm an evil Gaijin and I imagine them bowing to each other as I re-plot the trajectory to the apex. FWIW, the same behavior on the same off-camber decreasing radius downhill off ramp in a Lincoln Town Car was terrifying. But still fun.

  • Lightspeed Lightspeed on Apr 28, 2017

    I drive a 2000 GS400 and I am absolutely convinced the 98-00 GS and LS are the single best used car bargain out there. A lot of these cars have been very well maintained, and were built to last forever. My own car is 17 years old and the interior looks virtually new. Mine is a daily driver in a place where we have 5-months of real winter, so it's chipped and scratched, but the paint still looks amazing. The 1UZ-FE engine is bullet-proof and I still cruise at 90mph away from the city. All with no breakdowns in 7-years owning. My next car likely to be the lowest mile, LS430 I can find.

    • EAF EAF on Apr 28, 2017

      Finally, someone mentions the GS. If I were in the market for a Lexus of that era, one that I fully expect to wrench on myself, then I'd want one powered by a 2JZ vvti. Parts are abundant, how-to's all over the web, bulletproof yet simple to work on with basic tools. GS300 or an IS300 would be my recommendations to the OP.

  • FreedMike Needs MOOAAARRR POWER.
  • Mgh57 I should just buy an old car where everything is analog.
  • FreedMike You mean, the "Hellcat all the things" plan failed?
  • Fred I've only had it for about 7 months and I like it. Mostly because I have a hard time seeing my phone screen. So even tho my Honda's screen is 6" it's a lot easier to see than my phone.
  • Cha65697928 I'm 48. Both our cars have it, I'm never going back. Being able to activate calls, messages, music, nav, opening/closing garage doors all via voice command is awesome. Now if Audi would just allow Google maps to mirror in the middle of the driver's display instead of only allowing the native nav...