There is a league of gentleness that is delineated by whispering engines, the slide of evening silks on glove leather and the production of enormous power by motor cars that simply must not pant nor perspire at exotic speeds.
For decades, the only true rivalry has been European: always BMW, Mercedes and Jaguar, Volvo to a somewhat lesser degree and Audi in a previous life.
Lap of Luxury
Next week–in a development really no more extraordinary than the way it has snitched world superiority from Europe in everything from manufacturing cameras to producing Formula One racing victories–the tussle to sit in the lap of luxury cars is joined by Japan with the $35,000 Lexus LS400.
The car officially goes on sale next Friday.
It should be transforming consumer loyalties by the next day.
And the gentle folk from Europe may be forgiven some uncharacteristic gasping and sweating because this discreet, lush-to-the-gunwales Lexus has an indefatigable notice to serve: It may be too new, too soon to displace the mid-range aristocracy of high-performance luxury cars–but it’s a vehicle that certainly belongs in their company.
One other thing. Early trade paper and business world interpretations of the Lexus threat held that here was a car to compete against Cadillac and Lincoln.
In truth, with one introduction, by all the standards of performance, price and quality, Lexus has rendered Detroit’s down-stuffed cruisers obsolete to all but die-hards who winter in Tucson and are on their sixth Fleetwood.
Yet conquering only U.S. luxury vehicles wasn’t what Toyota Motor Corp., the company behind the neoteric Lexus line, had in its sights. It wanted to knock off everyone. Or as chairman Eiji Toyoda challenged his management and engineering team in 1983: “Build the world’s finest luxury performance sedan.”
Segment of Market
Away from hyperbole and closer to reality, a Torrance spokesman for the company believes Lexus has landed squarely atop a segment of the market (“the infamous baby boomers, that bulge in society entering its prime earning years”) that can afford a mid-range Mercedes or BMW but currently drives cars by Nissan, Toyota or Acura.
“A (Japanese) luxury car isn’t presently available for this group . . . that wants to drive something saying they are a success in life,” he continued. And this group, he maintained, isn’t interested in the blatant status of up-market European cars. “It is a question of backlash against ‘conspicuous consumption.’ If you drive a BMW 735, everybody about knows what you paid for the car. But if we can offer a product of equal performance for considerably less, they (owners) will be seen as the smart buyer.”
But what of the smart buyer who recognizes the value of heritage and prestige (to say nothing of the piddling depreciation rate) attached to own ing a Mercedes 300E (at $44,850) or a BMW 535 (at $43,500)?
“We think it will be hard to win over BMW and Mercedes owners,” said the representative. “But in the years ahead we will get them. Probably not in the next five or six years, but we are here for the long haul.”
The long haul. That’s exactly what we did with the Lexus LS400 (top of a two-car Lexus line supported by the smaller, slower, less expensive entry-level ES250) while jamming it for more than 1,000 miles in two days.
The run was from Los Angeles to San Francisco with a pause in Danville to wallow in the automotive treasures of the year-old Behring Museum.
Up 101, Down 5
Up via U.S. 101–suffering trucks, meandering tourists and marauding CHP Mustangs clotting every promising stretch from before Santa Barbara to after Monterey.
Back via Interstate 5–with duller, yet broader lanes and a more liberal speed limit made for cars with longer legs.
Either way, in terms of gluteal calcification and the mental rigors of long distance driving, the ride by Lexus was no more wearying th an taking USAir.
Luxury, of course, is relatively easy to build into any car. It’s an amalgam of leather upholstery, a softer ride, automatic this, remote controlled that, sound-booth insulation and, in the Lexus, prewiring for a cellular phone and a steering wheel that lifts and retracts automatically to enhance the dignity of exiting the vehicle.
When an automotive development team comprises 1,400 inventive engineers in search of merit raises, one must expect technological innovations that would boggle Marconi.
With Lexus, it’s a system of dueling computers–one on the engine, anotheron the automatic transmission–that ‘talk’ to each other to reduce the snap of shifting gears. There’s another black box to control brakes and throttle–no matter a driver’s abuse of either–for maximum traction on glistening roads.
Antilock brakes, of course. Super-high tolerance engineering and special materials for maximum sound dampening, naturally. And the cleanest, lowest aerodynamic numbers in the luxury car field.
Expected Power Plant
Add to this the expected power plant for the job–a trusty, aluminum, 4-liter V8 sophisticated by fuel injection, four overhead cams and32 valves.
The secret of motoring rapidly in firm comfort, however, is not a question of all the right pieces. It is the sum of those parts and how total the cohesion?
With Lexus, the melding of its portions, major and minor, performance and comfort, design and styling, seems close to absolute.
It shows in the balance and chunk of closing doors and ultra-smooth performance that is finesse at any speed. No mechanical whimpers or creaks escape the functions of acceleration, braking and steering.
Lexus’ engine note is a whisper (save for a magnificent, ripping whine during serious traveling) and wind noise doesn’t exist. Even the walnut-fronted ashtray responds to a touch and hisses open to recall the subtle elegance of the Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit.
The clincher of total integration emerges when realizing this is a heavy car of healthy acceleration and enormous top speed that still manages to offer gas consumption of 23-miles-per-gallon–while some among its luxury competition are content to pay gas guzzler taxes.
Coil springs are standard on the Lexus with an optional air suspension system that automatically varies spring and shock-absorber settings.
In either “Sport” or “Normal” modes, we found the air suspension acceptable for high-speed cruising. But it adds a noticeable lean (to say nothing of the discomfort of body weight oozing to the outside) when entering even tame turns at speeds a smidge beyond posted recommendations.
The LS400 is attractive enough in a docile sort of way. But the duck tail rear is somewhat Mercedes. Overa ll there’s a definite look of Taurus. White bread, noted one critic. Wake me when it has passed, said another.
All of which suggests a need for a second-year styling review to add not flash, but maybe some touch of crisp, external distinction to a car that internally and mechanically, is highly distinctive.
With the LS400, the Japanese auto industry moves up-market and to acceptance by many who thought they’d never live to pay $40,000 for any Toyota.
A month from now, Nissan enters the same niche with its V8-powered Infiniti M30 carrying an identical $35,000 base price.
Neither will reach into the very expensive, top drawers of BMW and Mercedes. But, suddenly, both manufacturers must be finding life pretty crowded in the luxury fast lane.
1990 Lexus LS 400
The Good Ultra smoothness throughout performance range. Luxury based on elegance and finesse, not opulence and flash. Design unity Driver-friendly contro s
The Bad Severe case of the leans with suspension option. Styling that moves from discreet to dull.
The Ugly The future for some European luxury cars.
Cost Base: $35,000. As tested: $42,300
Engine 32-valve, four-cam, four-liter V-8, developing 250 horsepower.
Performance 0-60, as tested, 7,8 seconds. Top speed, as reported by Automobile magazine, 150m.p.h. Fuel economy, EPA average, 23 m.p.g.