By on January 3, 2022

Jo Borras/Toyota

When Toyota first entered the high-end American luxury market with the Legendary Lexus LS400 and ES250 in 1989, it wasn’t a forgone conclusion that it would succeed. Automotive buff books of the era wrote articles questioning whether or not the yuppies would be willing to trade in their BMWs and Mercedes for a Japanese luxury car. Some even questioned whether the Japanese could be trusted to build a V8 at all, such was the xenophobic belief that a V8 luxury sedan was inherently a Teutonic thing.

A few decades on, it’s obvious that Lexus could compete successfully against BMW and Mercedes – but Toyota approached the market cautiously with its first cars, nibbling away at the S class and, later, the 190E and 3 series markets. What if it hadn’t? What if, instead of going down, Lexus had had the stones to go up? In today’s episode, our Automotive Sam Beckett travels back in time to convince Toyota that the V12 powered Century would make the perfect flagship for Lexus, and bring a vulnerable Mercedes-Benz to its knees.

MERCEDES WAS VULNERABLE

MB USA

Before Mercedes-Benz decided that it had to have a vehicle occupying every conceivable automotive niche – including the high-riding, slant-back niche created, then abandoned, by the Pontiac Aztek (as shown above). It had a relatively small menu of offerings in the US in 1989, and the line-up that the first Lexuses (Lexii?) were put up against consisted of “just” the 190E, the mid-size E-Class, the S-Class, and the SL convertible. And, despite sitting at or near the top of every ‘80’s yuppie’s automotive wish list, Toyota figured out that MB’s US dealers were treating their customers – well, if not like outright garbage, let’s go with, “worse than they would today”.

That was especially true if you were in a Mercedes store buying a “baby” Benz, and only slightly less true if you were buying an SL (source: My stepdad, who still bitches about the shitty customer service he got from the local MB dealer after 20 years of buying Lexii exclusively).

Toyota rolled out the red carpet for Lexus customers, offering comfortable waiting areas, low-pressure salespeople, and free car washes that, in the context of the late 1980s and early 90s, made every Lexus buyer feel like a superstar. Sales followed, and Lexus expanded its offerings to include the ES300, SC300 and 430, and (eventually) the smash hit RX and other SUVs.

Instead of going after the smaller fish, Lexus could have – and should have! – gone after the grossest of grosser Benzes. The W140 S600.

WHY IT WOULD HAVE WORKED

Produced from MY 1992-1999, the W140 Mercedes-Benz is, to my eyes, one of the best-looking cars ever built – but, sadly, is also one of the most trouble-prone cars ever to wear the three-pointed star. It was plagued with electrical gremlins due in part to the fact that it had motors for just about everything (including adjusting the rear-view mirror), and also due to the fact that its wiring harness used a soy-based insulation material that would, when warm, summon rodents from far and wide to snack on it like those old Tom & Jerry cartoons where the smell of cheese would physically lift Jerry and carry him aloft from 20 feet across the room.

It was the 3.2-liter inline-six and 4.2-liter V8 powered versions of the S-Class that suffered most from the Lexus LS400’s success. But it seemed weird that Lexus never really went after the V12 cars, especially when they had the 1997 Toyota Century already in the pipeline.

For those of you not in the know, the Toyota Century is a big, heavy, ultra-luxury pseudo limo Toyota builds for politicians and corporate bigwigs in Japan. Think of that big Cadillac that POTUS rides around in, and you get the idea.

This is not a car for the poors, in other words. At 207” long, it’s about an inch longer than the long-wheelbase V12 W140. Its 5-liter, 60-degree 1GZ-FE V12 engine was good for a good deal more than the claimed 276 horsepower (the highest number then claimed by any Japanese manufacturer, by virtue of a bizarre “gentlemen’s agreement” they all had at the time to not get into a horsepower war), and was, by all accounts, smooth as silk.

It also sounds like a million bucks.

In contrast, the Mercedes M120 V12 of that era delivered a claimed 402 hp that, from personal experience, almost never dyno’ed above 300 at the wheels. With all the additional mass of the Benz (approx. 4,900 lbs. to the Century’s 4,500), the two would have been neck-and-neck, performance-wise, and the Toyota had the virtue of, you know, not summoning rats and chipmunks from all corners of the globe to come feast upon its electricals.

THE AFTERMATH OF THE MERCEDES W140

The largely negative customer experience provided by MB dealers of the era combined with the troublesome W140 to create a wide-open door for competitors like Lexus, Infiniti, and Audi to start eating Mercedes’ lunch, but they also created an opening for companies like Bentley that had, for decades, barely clung to life as an engine and wheel upgrade for Rolls-Royce. And it could be argued that the brand only thrives today because Lexus didn’t go after that ultra-high-end V12 niche on its own when it had the chance in 1997.

Had they done so, it’s hard to imagine BMW and Volkswagen spending billions to acquire Rolls-Royce and Bentley specifically to compete in this arena just two years later. Heck, it’s hard to imagine Maybach making much of a comeback, either – and I, for one, would have loved to see Toyota respond to the bi-turbo W2220 Mercedes M275 V12s with its own “double Supra” engined Century.

That’s my take, anyway – what do you guys think? Would the Best and Brightest have been swayed by the big sedan from the East, or was the V12 market in the late 90s just too much for Toyota to realistically take on? Head on down to the comments and let us know.

[Images: Photoshop created by the author using Toyota/Lexus media photos, Mercedes-Benz USA]

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15 Comments on “Quantum Leaps: 1997 Lexus LS600h L...”


  • avatar
    KOKing

    If they did, it would’ve had to be a LWB LS, not a rebadged Century. I suspect one reason why something like that didn’t happen until the actual LS600hL was that even in the late 90s Toyota saw Lexus as the ‘sensible’ choice in the market.

  • avatar
    ThomasSchiffer

    The early 1990s was the time when what we now know as the European Union began heavily interfering with the industry by coming up with new rules which the industry had to follow. Some of those rules and regulations were good, but many were bad. If I remember correctly the biodegradable wiring aspect in European cars was part of some recycling scheme enforced by the EU; it would make recycling cars at the end of their product life cycle easier.

    And yet, my experience with cars from this era and current vehicles has been good. My brother also owned a taxi business at this time and his fleet heavily relied on the W124 and W210. No car is perfect, but from what he told me these cars were generally reliable. Ironically the late-model W124s have heavy rust issues over earlier W124s because of a switch in lacquer to water-based paint (another EU regulation in order to ‘save the environment’) and the rust issues of early W210s are known.

    I personally would not want a W140 S-Klasse because I find them bland and ugly. The previous W126 was a masterpiece in styling and even the successor W220 S-Klasse looked sleeker, athletic and far more elegant than the W140, which to me was shaped like an aerodynamic brick. Bruno Sacco’s worst design, if you ask me.

    • 0 avatar
      Sundance

      “The previous W126 was a masterpiece in styling and even the successor W220 S-Klasse looked sleeker, athletic and far more elegant than the W140, which to me was shaped like an aerodynamic brick. Bruno Sacco’s worst design, if you ask me.”

      Absolutely.

  • avatar
    wjtinfwb

    In the 70’s and 80’s my Dad owned a series of Euro luxury cars; Two S-classes, a 733i, an XJ6 and an Audi 5000. All great cars but all cursed with average to poor dealer experiences. The M-B’s, a ’76 280SE and ’79 300 SD we’re fantastic cars, the Miami dealers at the time only sold a few cars each month due to availability and therefore weren’t swamped with business like they are today. The service was expensive, but personal and generally a positive experience. As the European cars became more popular and prevalent, the dealer experience got worse. After a mid-life crisis in ’86 caused Dad to impulsively trade the XJ6 for a new Corvette convertible, he retreated to the sanity of the new Lexus badge and an LS400. What a revelation! Dealers who didn’t see you as a walking checkbook, cars that held up, required little maintenance and almost zero repair and strong resale value led Dad to owning 5 Lexus through the ’90s and mid 2000s. But, everything runs in circles, in 2009 Mom and Dad drove his LS460 down to the Florida panhandle to see me and their grandchildren. While there the drivers seatbelt buckle broke or jammed, the closest Lexus dealer was about 100 miles awy in Mobile. A call to Lexus customer service was pretty unsatisfying, their suggestion being to go to the local Toyota dealer for help. After leaving the car for a day, the Toyota store called to say the part would have to be ordered and it would be a week before it would come in and the repair would cost about $350, if we wanted we could send the bill to Lexus and ask them to reimburse us. I asked about bringing it to the dealer in Mobile, they said they too would have to order the part and didn’t have any loaners for customers who didn’t buy their Lexus from them. Another call to Lexus cust service in CA was again unhelpful. Dad said the hell with them, drove back to Atlanta without a seatbelt and traded the LS for a new E350. He lived for another 10 years and several other cars but never considered another Lexus.

  • avatar
    slavuta

    Cool but not ZIL-cool

  • avatar
    jmo2

    Remember all the commercials about how smooth the LS400 engine was? If they offered a V12 it would make the V8 look like sloppy seconds. I don’t think it would fit in with their marketing at all.

  • avatar
    jack4x

    If it’s just the V12, what’s the “h” for?

  • avatar
    DungBeetle62

    I worked at an “old money” country club at the time the LS400 , Q45 and the redone STS first appeared. It was a subject of intense debate between those members who insisted on more proven prestige brands, and those who knew frugality was key to not dipping into principal for their next car.

    Very quickly, anyone was wasn’t taken enough with the Lexus to get one at least respected them. I didn’t see much drop-off in Cadillac or Buick and most Lincoln owners tended toward the Town Car; but the Germans did take a hit.

    One of the members had a 750iL that I parked quite a few times. Yep, if Lexus could’ve matched that with their trademark knack for reliable hardware at a reasonable price… ouch.

    But another question might be if they could’ve out Allante’d the Allante and out SL’ed the SL with a more serious SC? We all know the plot got lost when the SC430 came out but that SC400 was sex on wheels.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    The Mazda luxury brand Amati, which never came to for was planned to offer a top range sedan with a V12.
    It was to compete with the 7 series BMW, S-class Benz and XJ Jaguar.

  • avatar
    Tele Vision

    I’ve had a few car-related revelations in my 51 years.

    1) A ride in a friend’s new 1986 Jetta. After a childhood life of GM it was a breath of fresh air;

    2) Owning a 944. I’d never experienced real handling before that car; and

    3) Driving my brother’s mother-in-law’s new SC400 on an errand for her. It was like nothing I’d driven before. This was before the 944, mind. I was gobsmacked, to put it lightly, as I owned a Parisienne wagon at the time.

    Distant 4) Trying to drive a Testarossa for an afternoon. My then-girlfriend and I brought it back in less than an hour. It was too wide and too low and other drivers were doing stupid things to get near enough for a flip-phone picture of it, I assume. It reeked of unburnt gas and the clutch would have been almost manageable had I been able to get both feet on it. It was horrible in the city.

  • avatar
    ThorS

    I don’t really think it would cut it back in those days, ‘cos it looked like it came right out of the 1970’s. Still does, and while that’s a cool thing these days, it wasn’t back then.

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