I'm sorry to say that this ingrained negativity and quite frankly, blatant prejudice, tarnished my whole attitude towards Japanese cars. However, these days, I'm very well aware that Japanese motor cars mean reliability and superb build quality. Some models may be utterly hideous to look at but I have to confess that the old codgers were right about the fundamentals. I'm therefore forced to eat huge chunks of humble pie and face the reality that (shock-horror) my spotty faced younger-self really didn't know as much about cars as my testosterone-pumped brain liked to believe.
But, like it or lump it, it's hard to deny the impact that Toyota's Lexus had on the luxury car market. When the original LS400 came out in 1990, it changed attitudes towards luxury motoring forever. After my first drive in a Lexus back in 1989, I knew that something important had changed in the world of luxury cars. The cat was well and truly out of the bag. Coventry, Munich, Stuttgart and even Crewe had to seriously pull up some socks. And - FAST!
Back in the 80s, Japanese car brands were best known for their well-built economy cars. The ones traditionally favoured by old Harry and Maude. But, on the sly, many began to ask whether the Japanese could turn their hands towards making a decent luxury cruiser. Well, the LS400 provided a pretty definitive answer. Absolutely, YES, they damn-well could!
The new LS400 was quite unlike anything motorists had ever beheld before. Whilst it looked a bit like the Mercedes S-Class of the day, it was a lot less ostentatious, almost to the point of being overly understated. However, provenance came in the form of a super-smooth 250-horsepower 4.0-liter V8, as well as Lexus' prowess at instantaneously achieving build quality that few previous luxury brands had managed to-date.
Inside the LS, instead of American car-like sticky on wood veneers and cheap chrome, Lexus produced an airy and opulent leather-clad cabin that was very well appointed. As soon as you sat in the car, everything looked and felt top quality, luxurious and expensive. Even German luxury interiors seemed austere and a bit samey in comparison.
Whilst the LS400 was never the most exhilarating car to drive, it nevertheless exuded a sense of absolute solidity, sensibility and consummate dignity. Without a doubt, this was the thinking person's luxury barge. It was a case of why compromise reliability and functionality for the dubious privilege of wearing the right badge?
Naturally, as time went by, some changes were made to the first-generation LS400, including a host of updates in 1993. Many were made as a direct response to both customer and dealership feedback. A range of stylish new colours were offered as well as some slight changes to the trim. On the more technical side alterations to the suspension, brakes, steering as well as upgraded wheels and tyres made for markedly improved driving dynamics.
When the first full LS400 redesign came in 1995, it was outwardly pretty difficult to tell the difference between the new and the old. The wheelbase was stretched by a modest 1.4 inches but this miraculously translated to a two-and-a-half-inch gain in rear-passenger legroom. Again in 1998, the LS400 received another refresh, this time with more significant styling upgrades. Under the bonnet, a variable valve timing system brought the V8's output up to 290hp. A super-slick five-speed automatic box was added in lieu of the previous four-speed unit. A notable equipment upgrade came in the form of a cutting-edge GPS navigation system featuring easily upgradable maps loaded via CD-ROM.
2001 brought an all-new third-generation LS. This time the car was different enough to deserve a brand new model reference - the LS430. This referenced a bigger 4.3-litre V8. The new engine still produced the same 290 horsepower but with increased torque. Styling-wise, the new Lexus bore a closer resemblance to the huge slab-sided 1992-1999 Mercedes S-Class (W140). New features included adaptive (intelligent) cruise control which used laser equipment to measure the distance to (and the speed of) traffic ahead.
2004 brought the LS some minor styling updates alongside a brand new six-speed automatic transmission system. Radar (instead of a laser) was used to make the necessary measurements for the dynamic cruise control to function. Radar was proven to work better than lasers in poor weather conditions.
When the Lexus LS460 was unveiled in 2007, it was a complete departure from any previous incarnations. It was far more aerodynamic and streamlined than any previous LS. A brand new 4.6-litre V8 produced an astonishing 380 horsepower, which was a significant uptick. The new model offered regular as well as long-wheelbase (L) models. The LWB could also be specified with an optional "executive" package including reclining rear seats, a fold-away table and massaging seat functions. By this juncture, hybrid variants were made available for all those environmentally conscious executives. The hybrid was called the LS600h or LS600hL (for LWB variants).
2010 brought styling upgrades as well as a new Sport model complete with tuned air suspension and powerful Brembo brakes. Further facelifts were again bestowed upon the LS for the 2013 model year, this time adding the 'spindle' style grille design featured on Lexus' other models. A performance-orientated F-Sport model was also added to the LS line-up.
2018 brings the motoring world a fifth-generation LS. The car was now known as the LS500. Gone were the V8's in favour of more frugal and environmentally palatable twin-turbo 3.4-litre V6's capable of delivering a very respectable 415 horses. Gone too were the LWB versions but all the executive toys were offered in a single wheelbase configuration. The hybrid model, now known as the LS500h uses a 3.5-litre naturally-aspirated V6.
Once again Lexus facelifted the LS, this time for the 2021 model year. Styling changes were only mild but the car came with even better sound insulation. The most notable addition was a state-of-the-art touch-screen for controlling the infotainment system. It replaced the fiddly touchpad system which had been used in previous LS models.
Luxury and reliability
When it comes to luxury and reliability, the LS has no equal. All generations are luxurious, silent and relaxing to drive. There's no question that these amazing cars will prove far less troublesome and less expensive to run than most of their European counterparts. However, unlike some German luxury saloons, an LS might generally prove to be somewhat less thrilling to drive. However, sensibility denotes that this might be key to the LS's secret to durability and longevity. A car that doesn't invite aggressive driving styles is bound to be subject to far less wear & tear in the longer term and a safer pre-owned bet than a racy Jag or BMW. Whilst an LS will doubtlessly prove to be comparatively inexpensive to maintain, its upkeep will still be dearer than any standard saloons. But the LS' exquisite build quality and legendary reliability will help keep those unwelcome repair bills at bay.
Douglas Hughes is a UK-based writer producing general interest articles ranging from travel pieces to classic motoring.
A Japanese car that's not just for grandads!
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