true luxury is timeless

The 1990 Lexus LS400, Driven Today: We Need Cars Like This Again


September 19, 2019 Cars By Photo by Lexus

I was eight years old when the Lexus LS400 debuted at the 1989 Detroit Motor Show. My budding love for cars at that tender age manifested in my idolization of bella macchinas from Italy. I was aware Japanese cars existed — a Honda Accord and a Mazda 626 sat in my parents’ garage — but I didn’t fantasize about driving those slow, utilitarian boxes, not when I could drift away into posters of Testarossas and Countaches.

Three decades later, I’ve driven my pin-up heroes —  at least when they deigned to properly function and weren’t overheating or shaking to pieces on the side of the road. Then, a couple months ago during a Lexus event in Costa Rica, I sampled a pristine example of the 1990 LS400 — and realized I’d spent my boyhood worshipped at the wrong altar.

It shouldn’t really be a surprise that the LS400 still feels like an impossibly perfect vehicle 30 years after it was built. Any car that cost more than $1 billion in development over six years (in Reagan-era money, no less) and saw more than 450 prototypes precede the final iteration should emerge as a benchmark which future luxury sedan models ought to measure against.

Slipping into the plush driver’s seat today, it’s boggling how far ahead of its time this cabin was. Holographic, electro-luminescent gauges stare back at you, and there’s an electrochromic rear-view mirror at your disposal. Push-button dials for an equalizer for the radio were standard. There’s even a power switch for the height-adjustable seatbelt. The car is the epitome of omotenashi, a Japanese term that roughly translates into “anticipating your guests needs before they even know what they want — and exceeding them.”

The key turns over a 4.0-liter V8 engine that houses a stable of 254 horses — and, more importantly, simply purrs. The LS400 has the ability to run all the way up to 160 mph; sink your foot to the floor, and the shuffle from 0 to 60 transpires in 8.5 seconds. These numbers may seem paltry by today’s standards, but this car positively flew in 1990.

The main arterial highways of Costa Rica are clean and calm, but the pockmarked B-roads leave something to be desired…unless you’re in the LS400, that is. The luxobarge glides over the roughest crud with aplomb, a credit to the double-wishbone front and rear suspensions. (Air suspension was an option, too.) Toyota engineers nailed the steering feel and ratio; it’s direct and responsive, and you’re never adjusting or shuffling around to get a corner right. And the LS400 can hang in a turn, far better than some of its contemporary cousins.  When I sampled the new GX 460 (and its less-than-stellar road manners) afterwards, I pined for the comfort and handling of the LS400.

The LS400 was fabricated from sandwiched steel, in a bid to mitigate vibration; flush door handles and windows were employed to further reduce wind noise. The result is a cabin so quiet, it still rivals modern Mercedes-Benzes and Bentleys. In fact, the ride is so smooth, cushy and serene that were you to be blindfolded and asked if you were in the backseat of the LS400 or a Rolls-Royce Silver Spur from the same era, you’d be hard-pressed to determine which vehicle you were enjoying.

When Eiji Toyoda set out to create a luxury brand to recapture the buyers his business was losing when they graduated out of Toyota’s lineup, the marques that were defining the segment were Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Jaguar. The LS400 proves even today that Lexus had a winner right out of the gate. It had S-Class presence and drove every bit as well, but only set your wallet back the price of an E-Class.

When my short test drive ended — Lexus wants to keep the mileage on the vehicle low, though with unrivaled mechanical reliability, the brand needn’t fret — I didn’t want to relinquish it. Forget the LFA; create posters of the LS400.

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