When you think “indestructable”, what do you think of?
No, I’m not talking about superheroes or wristwatches or cockroaches. Let’s restrict our analysis to cars. After all, that’s our obsession, right? 🙂
The Lexus LS400 has to be one of the most reliable, durable luxury cars ever made. It’s not uncommon to see early 1990’s models running around with 200k or even 500k miles. The is a fairly popular youtube video out there of a million mile Lexus being driven around a track (see embedded video at the bottom of this article).
To really understand this and put it in context, we have to consider how the LS400 came about. The Toyota leadership team decided in 1983 to secretly develop a premium sedan. After many years of development, the LS400 was launched as a 1990 model year. Although it basically birthed the Lexus brand in the US, Lexus didn’t even exist as a brand in its home market in Japan until 2005.
As you can imagine, Lexus (Toyota) had a lot to prove. To take market share away from staid competitors like Mercedes, BMW, and Cadillac, they had to develop something incredible. The LS was litterally the face of the Lexus division, and had to be perfect.
It’s reported that Toyota spent over one billion US Dollars developing the LS400. The story is incredible, and I’m surprised nobody has ever written a book about it. And yes, I searched Amazon! Maybe I’ll publish something on this one day.
For that billion dollars, they logged nearly 2 million miles of prototype testing on a number of different continents. Including engineers, designers, technicians, and support workers, almost four thousand people were involved in the development of this new benchmark luxury car. I’ll also point out that they did not use any carryover parts from the Toyota shelves; they claim to have designed it brand new from the ground up.
The first generation (from 1990-1994) launched with a 250 hp engine, the 4.0 liter V8. It would do 0-60mph in 8 seconds. It was quieter, had a higher top speed, and got better gas mileage than its competitors. Also, it was initially priced at $35,000 which was much lower than other luxury cars at the time. Given it’s design and durability, many even accused Lexus of selling the LS400 below cost, effectively “buying” market share.
First gen sales in the US:
The 158,548 total is significant considering it’s an expensive luxury sedan. But it actually becomes astounding considering it is the initial introduction for a brand new car company.
It’s pretty much widely acknowledged that Lexus over-designed that first gen car. It is basically built like a tank. Pretty much any vehicle has it’s flaws, but the LS has damn few of them and would almost inevitably run to 100k miles without a single failure.
Even today, as an early 90’s LS400 approaches 27 years old, you can hop into a low-mileage or well-maintained car and appreciate how well built and well designed it is. The thunk of the door, the feel of the steering and suspension, the responsiveness of the engine, how quiet it rides at 75 mph – all of these things are still striking the right chord.
I remember in the mid 90’s I had a family friend who owned an LS400 as a company car. He took myself and a buddy of mine out on a joyride one night to let us check out his luxurious Japanese car. Hammering the thing on the highway with the windows down and the sunroof open, it felt like it would keep accelerating until it ran off the edge of the earth. Now obviously they aren’t blindingly fast by today’s standards, but back in the mid-90’s they were incredibly impressive luxury cars.
This is a semi-random LS400 I found on ebay with fairly low (70k) miles. It’s a 1990, and appears to be in good shape. The ad is pretty horrible, with no history about maintenance or repair, no detailed description of the interior or exterior. It’s located in Kentucky, and has a buy-it-now price of $5,500.
I have to admit, if I was looking to drop $5,500 on a car, this LS400 may not be at the very top of my list. But I honestly think this is a little piece of automotive history. It reflects an industry-changing effort from an upstart who set a new bar for luxury, reliability, and value.