I recently spent a few hours with a 1990 Lexus LS 400, which may not sound especially interesting or exciting unless you’re a car geek, in which case you’re probably very curious about it. I know I was, which is why I went all the way to Lexus of Seattle to drive the original LS 400 back-to-back with the new LS 500 — the fifth-generation version of Lexus’s flagship sedan.
Why does the LS 400 make car enthusiasts so curious? Quite simply, because it was the first. The very first, original, seminal Lexus; the car that started the entire brand. Young people today take for granted the idea of Japanese luxury brands like Acura, Infiniti, and Lexus, but they haven’t always been around — and while the LS 400 wasn’t the first Japanese luxury car, it was the first Lexus — and it kicked off the idea of Japanese luxury in the minds of many consumers.
The reason for this is that the LS 400 was a vast step up from the status quo when it came out in 1990. Back then, the luxury sedan market was primarily made up of European models, which were expensive and offered questionable long-term reliability (especially Jaguar), and American models, which were outclassed by European rivals. If you wanted a luxury sedan and you didn’t want to spend a fortune, there was no great option.
And then came Lexus. The LS 400 was the result of nearly a decade of planning, researching and engineering — an attempt to provide an alternative to stale European luxury vehicles that was more efficient, more comfortable, more enticing and cheaper. The LS 400 went on sale in the fall of 1989 as a 1990 model, and Lexus pulled out all the stops, with a massive marketing blitz, stand-alone dealers separate from regular Toyota dealers and even an "upmarket" version of the Camry called the ES 250. Of course, the rest is well-known: The LS 400 was a huge success, its commercials are legendary and Lexus became a tremendously well-known brand, with several highly popular products to this day.
With this in mind, I wanted to see exactly what the LS 400 was like. I wanted to go back to 1990 and find out exactly how the Japanese luxury car got its start.
Here’s what I discovered: it’s funny that this car is so revered in the luxury car world. Because by modern standards, it could scarcely be more "just a car" than it is.
What I mean by this is simple. First, from an equipment standpoint, there’s basically nothing on the LS 400 I drove that you can’t get today on a moderately-equipped Toyota Corolla. Major "value-packed" features of its day were things like soft leather and memory seats, a 6-disc CD changer and automatic climate control. Every little bit of that is commonplace today.
Then there’s the driving experience: the LS 400 just isn’t all that special. Acceleration is mediocre — its smooth V8 was a huge selling point back then, sure, but it makes just 250 horsepower, and it’s dulled by the 4-speed automatic, so 0-to-60 is probably about eight seconds. Steering is vague, handling is average and ride comfort isn’t all that amazing, either. In fact, I was even surprised by how relatively loud the LS 400 is on the inside: It’s not loud like a supercar or an old pickup, of course, but it doesn’t even come close to luxury vehicles of today.
Now, I’m not saying any of this as if it’s a bad thing: I know the LS 400 came out nearly 30 years ago, and I’m sure it was revolutionary back then. What I’m instead saying is that, viewed through the lens of today, the LS 400’s primary benefit is not the way it drives, the way it feels or the way it looks, but rather the impact it had on the car industry — which was undeniably substantial. Otherwise, it’s almost amazing to imagine there was ever a time when this car was considered the luxury vehicle gold standard; the car that would take down the Europeans. It’s amazing how far cars have come.
Still, it’s also amazing how they got there, and I’m glad I got to spend the day with the LS 400. No, it isn’t a particularly special car when you’re actually using it — but it’s impressive to see exactly what was needed to be a world-beater back in 1990, and it’s interesting to see what years of research and development created. And it’s fun to imagine Toyota rolling out this car back then at the 1989 Detroit Auto Show, after spending tens of millions of dollars on development, attempting to create an entire brand on the precipice of either a massive success or a massive failure — all on the shoulders of a big sedan with soft leather seats and a smooth V8.
There was no way to know what would happen back then — but in hindsight, we know it worked. Even if a modern Corolla is better in every way.
Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.