This may be the perfect luxury car.by Trish Robb
Base Price $53,395
Price as tested $60,640
The Lexus LS400 is the ultimate Japanese luxury car. And to Baby Boomers -- who came of age in Corollas, Camrys, Civics and Accords -- it may be the ultimate luxury car, period.
Aiming between prestigious European sedans and traditional American cars, Toyota's luxury division created an elegant luxury car that is just what many upwardly mobile Boomers want.
The LS400 offers a quieter, more comfortable ride than firmly damped German luxury cars. It offers a more compact size and better handling than its American counterparts. The LS400 may not provide quite the handling response of a BMW 5-Series or Mercedes E-Class on a winding mountain road, but it's close -- closer than any Cadillac or Lincoln. And the Lexus LS400 is unmatched for quality, durability and reliability.
The biggest change for '98 is under the hood, where sharp engineering has created a more powerful engine. But the LS400 also gets a sportier, more aggressive look, along with some high technology.
The LS400 now tops $53,000 and ours reached $60,640. No car has seen its price escalate as quickly as the LS400's during the '90s. On the other hand, it offers world-class quality and comfort.
The elegant lines of the LS400 are beautiful. No single aspect of the exterior design is striking, but the overall design fits together. Its squarish form is reminiscent of Mercedes shapes, which is not coincidental -- Toyota designers borrowed liberally from European ideas of luxury sedan size and style. The edges are sharp and distinct, not soft and curved. Eye-catching chrome trim, a staple of American and European luxury class cars, is sparse on the LS400. But Lexus added new aluminum wheels and a bigger grille this year, giving its a stronger, more eye-catching appearance.
The Inside Story
Put the key into the ignition and the steering wheel automatically slides down into position. As you look around, the car seems special. Unlike so many new cars, it feels instantly comfortable and familiar. LS400 controls and instruments are among the best in the industry.
The big tachometer and speedometer are flanked by smaller temperature and fuel gauges. Lighted, pure white needles appear to float over the background numbers. It's very modern and now imitated by other manufacturers.
Most driving controls are on three stalks. The one on the left controls the lights, the long one on the right the wipers and the short one just below it the cruise control. Though not quite as convenient as cruise control buttons on the wheel for the thumbs, the button and lever on the LS400 can be easily reached without taking your hands off the wheel.
The center console is elegant. At the top are a clock, digital thermometer and temperature controls. The LS400 uses large buttons for heating and cooling controls. Below the climate controls are the controls for a seven-speaker, 195-watt AM/FM/cassette stereo. The knobs are big and easy to use. The $1050 six-disc CD changer is in front of the passenger seat, cleverly hidden behind a door that looks like the glove box. The actual glovebox, and it's a big one, is just below that.
A new trip computer is standard this year. Gas mileage and other information is displayed on a readout below the speedometer. Drivers can click through the data with buttons on the steering wheel. While just about every luxury car has this kind of thing now, the green words and numbers seem out of place on the elegant Lexus instrument panel.
A new $2250 satellite navigation system screen dominates the center console; it features a touch-sensitive screen that displays colorful maps showing your travel route, while a pleasant female voice provides directions. The optional system integrates the heating and radio controls; your favorite radio stations can be selected by touching a menu on the video screen.
In the center arm rest are two levels of storage bins. In front of them are two cupholders that pop up at the touch of the finger. Actually, they glide up at the touch of a finger, at that trademark elegant, controlled pace. Even the coat hooks over the back doors deploy with a calculated elegance.
All of the safety equipment you'd expect is here: Dual air bags, and antilock brakes are standard, and this year side airbags are too. A $2020 traction control system is available to help keep this big rear-wheel-drive sedan steady on ice and snow.
We had no problem getting comfortable in the front seats of this car. Two electronic levers position the seats just so. The seats are a wonderful blend of the cushy, recliner-like seats found in American luxury cars and the much harder, heavily bolstered seats in European sport-luxury cars. An unusual, square button on the steering column allows tilt and telescope adjustments.
Two adults should find the back seats comfortable with plenty of knee and hip room. But those over six feet may brush their heads on the roof unless they slouch down. Putting three adults back there is not really an option because of the hump down the middle of the floor for the driveshaft.
Ride and Drive
The LS400 offers as satisfying and sophisticated a blend of performance and comfort as any car in the world. It won't outperform the Mercedes E-Class or BMW 5-Series cars on a winding road, but offers plenty of capability.
Where the Lexus excels is in everyday driving.
First, the LS400 is supremely quiet. Wind and road noise are virtually nonexistent, even at high freeway speeds.
Like the world's best sports sedans from Germany, the Lexus is equipped with rear-wheel drive. When it comes to high-performance handling on dry pavement, rear-wheel drive is the best. Lexus uses an independent suspension that is as sophisticated as anyone's. The $1850 air suspension system automatically adjusts ride firmness to driving conditions. Our test car was not equipped with this option, but the standard suspension works extremely well.
This car smoothes the worst of surfaces. It doesn't bounce up and down on washboard roads nor does it wallow through sharp corners. We found ourselves on a winter-battered highway, a semi-truck on either side of us and a pothole the size of New Jersey right ahead. We clenched our teeth, but the LS400 flew over the crater with barely a thump.
The most significant change for '98 is in the engine. Lexus says the new 4.0-liter, 32-valve V-8 will take the LS400 from 0 to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds; that's quick by anyone's standards. Toyota credits its variable valve timing system, called VVT-i. It's an intelligent system that constantly varies the timing of the intake valves to maximize performance at all engine speeds.
As a result, the new LS400 gets better fuel economy, creates less pollution and generates 290 horsepower, up from last year's 265. Combine that with a new five-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission that replaces last year's four-speed shifter, and Lexus has created yet another standard for luxury-car performance.
On the downside, the LS400 has become pricier. Conversely, its European rivals have held the line and, in some cases, have lowered prices during the past few years, so the LS400 is no longer the bargain it was when it was originally launched. But its pricing is still competitive, and not at all out of line for a car that has set new standards for its class.
This is a superb luxury automobile that's devoid of flaws. As the LS400 nears the end of its design cycle, a number of its competitors are still playing catch up. Unfortunately for them, they're shooting at a moving target.
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