Some people might wonder what a luxury car is. After all, when you can get leather in a Neon, walnut trim in a Camry and power windows or locks on any car, what makes the luxury car worth the extra money? Drive a 1996 Lexus LS400 and find out. There are lots of superlatives one could use to describe the effortless experience of driving this car. But it's no use -- the guys at Lexus are good. Go on, put the key in the ignition. Every time, you get a free show. The wheel tilts down automatically and the 3-D gauges light up. The whole effect is dazzling. Then you turn the key. The engine starts, but you'd never know it. The 32-valve four-cam V8 generates 260 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque. This aluminum alloy plant is remarkable in its power and silence. Mated to a four-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission, this powertrain performs with a serene, no-fuss, no-bother attitude. It doesn't let you know it's there unless you really press it and a subdued roar makes its way into the cabin. The suspension is a double wishbone design and provides good insulation from the road. Bumps are smothered with authority and there's no rear-end hop around corners. You'll know there are bumps, but their presence will barely be felt. Steering is progressive and quick, yet light. You won't have to work out regularly at the gym to hustle this baby through the corners. Not that you'll hear very much when you do. There's no tire noise, wind noise or mechanical noise to spoil the enjoyment of driving in such a wonderful cocoon -- even with the power moonroof open. This car is dampened. From the ride to such minor interior amenities as cup holders (front and rear), ashtray, and even the coin holder -- which is felt-lined -- everything just oozes luxury. The interior is lined in sumptuously sinful leather, and the dash offers beautifully polished walnut. The multi-adjustable front bucket seats are heated. Dual automatic climate control is standard. The air filtration is electrostatically charged to remove odor, dust and pollen. The intermittent windshield washer has a time delay that activates the wiper blade a few moments after the final swipe to catch the last dribble down the windshield. But the real treat is the optional Nakamichi 280-watt sound system. The six-CD auto changer is sandwiched in the dash between the glove box and passenger airbag. This system is as impressive as the car. The sound is clean, no matter how high you turn up Haydn. It's so good, you'll sit in the garage and listen to it. Safety is also impressive, with the usual dual airbags, anti-lock brakes, 1997 side impact protection, front-seat belt pre-tensioners, electrochromatic rear-view mirror, and traction control. Keyless entry activates the driver's door, trunk and panic button. About the only thing this car is missing is a bedroom option, so you could live in it. EPA mileage rating is 19 city, 26 highway. A round of mostly city driving and some highway driving netted 17.6 mpg on the premium fuel the LS400 requires. The Lexus basic warranty is four years or 50,000 miles. The powertrain is covered for six years or 70,000 miles. So this is definitely a luxury car, full of all the smothering creature comfort and good road manners that define this category. But is it enough? The luxury car market is in decline, as buyers opt for sport utility vehicles. Lexus also faces challenges from revitalized European manufacturers with a clear heritage, such as BMW, Jaguar and Mercedes. The overall blandness of the Lexus styling also is problematical -- but not as much as what the soaring yen has done to the sticker price. A well-optioned test car like this one costs nearly $60,000. To a lot of people, this is the price of a home. But to those lucky enough to have the means and the sense to purchase this car, they'll dis over what true luxury is. It isn't just leather and wood. It's a sublime driving experience that rewards its driver every time the key is turned. 1996 LEXUS LS400 Standard equipment: Four-liter V-8, four-speed automatic transmission, front and rear stabilizer bars, power rack-and-pinion steering, 225/60 R16 V-rated tires, dual airbags, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, dual heated power mirrors, leather trim, walnut trim, outside temperature gauge, power windows with auto down feature, retained accessory power, power door locks, power windows, power driver's seat, power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, dual climate control, AM/FM cassette 195-watt audio system, power antenna, glass-imprinted cellular phone antenna. Optional equipment: Lexus memory system, power moonroof, traction control, heated seats, all-season tires, Nakamichi premium 280-watt sound system, in-dash six-CD auto changer, wheel locks, carpeted floor mats, carpeted trunk mats. Base price: $52,900. Destination charge: $495 Total price: $59,738
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