With the fanatical urging of absolutely no one (except my most recent ex-ladyfriend, who was just excited that I was interested in buying a Toyota product), I began researching LS400s in the last month in hopes of buying a different daily driver as I tended to the cosmetic needs of Shourmobile v4: a hail-beaten 2002 Miata. Having found a suitably-priced candidate eight hours away from my residence, I contacted a friend in San Antonio to give the car a preliminary test-drive on Monday the 21st. With the car checked out, I hopped on a flight Tuesday morning, got a cab from the airport to the dealer (Panther!), and did my own test drive before purchasing the vehicle.
Full disclosure: Lexus wanted me to buy a 1st or 2nd generation Lexus LS400 so much that they bombarded me with countless testimonials of the LS400’s bulletproof reliability, build quality, and overall Oppo-ness. They even went so far as to use features by Mr.Regular and Matt Farah to convince me that an LS400 would be a better choice for my needs than a Panther. (To be fair, BigNSlowEH’s ModBox still ranked higher than the LS400 on my list, but we all know that he wouldn’t be selling THAT anytime soon, let alone for my modest budget of $5000.)
Born in ‘78, I am very much a car-child of the ‘80s. I love the ‘80s three box look, what can I say? First and second gen Maximas, the first three gens of 626s, second and fourth gen Accords, as well as Volvos, ‘79-’90 Panthers, even the ubiquitous K-car...all are visually appealing to me. I wish I could explain why...other than growing up in the ‘80s. The second gen LS is a muscular variant on the ‘80s three-box, despite being a ‘90s car. While first reviews of the LS400 tended to denigrate the LS’s indistinct, derivative, and conservative styling, I personally find it perfect. Understated, yet refined, it neither begs for attention nor does it look cheap or lazy. This particular example is in silver, with a few nicks and scratches here and there. I mean, it’s 16 years old, and I got it for $4000, so it’s not like I was expecting it to be immaculate.
Other than the black leather and wood trim, there is nothing on the inside that is distinctive or memorable...nothing other than the badge that says, “Clearly, I’m a Lexus.” That’s not to say that the interior is bad. It is comfortable and well appointed, with generally good ergonomics, clear and sensible displays and button layouts, and excellent visibility. And really, that’s just fine.
Except the black leather. From March to November in El Paso, I’m going to be visiting the hospital for skin grafts quite often.
When you step on the go pedal, your head does NOT snap back. Not surprising, since it IS a slushbox. But the 4.0 liter v8 lights up quickly, the tach rises alarmingly fast, and my whole body sinks back into the leather seat with a great deal of force. The Lexus settles onto her rear haunches, then moves with a firm, strong shove. Even with an exhaust leak which may or may not be sapping a little power, the LS moves with both urgency and authority, like former governor Schwarzanegger in a non-descript suit late to a meeting. I haven’t gotten the tail to step out yet, but I have unintentionally spun the rears more than once leaving stop signs and green lights. Passing on the highway is effortless, if a little noisy due to aforementioned leak. At quarter-throttle, she feels every bit of her 3,889 lb curb weight, but with the hammer down, she feels lighter than the Miata. Until you hit the twisties. The car also has three different throttle settings: power, normal, and snow. Setting it to the power setting makes her jump harder.
Sporting the standard double-wishbone setup rather than the optional air suspension, the LS’s ride is a mixed bag. Were I planning to track her, or even give her a spirited drive through the mountains, the soft suspension would likely have her sliding all over the road. Right-angle maneuvers are prone to a fair amount of body roll, although she can still handle such turns at a higher speed than most pickups, thanks to a lower center of gravity. But clearly, this is not a Lotus or a Miata.
What the suspension DOES do very well, however, is soak up bad road like no one’s business. Ripples, tears, bumps, dips - it matters not, for she handles them all with grace and casual indifference. At a full stop on I-35 near Temple, I took her off the highway and onto the frontage road (following pickups and SUVs), through a gravel ditch, and she didn’t even flinch.
Four thousand pounds of metal and man moving at 70 mph is hard to bring to a stop under ANY circumstance. Stand on the brake pedal, and the steering wheel shudders as the ABS works, at least until you get her below 45 mph or put less pressure on the pedal. But she DOES stop, at least with more confidence than the Rangers and Ridgelines I’ve driven.
The five-speed slushbox is better than most of the slushboxes I’ve encountered in my scant 37 years. The LS marks the first time in my life that I have owned a car with an automatic transmission, and I could have done a lot worse. Under typical driving conditions, shifts are only barely perceptible, most noticeable if you happen to be watching the tach. If you are aggressive with the throttle, however, the transmission senses, and holds off until you get close to redline. Shifts become firmer and more noticeable, but never rough or punchy.
Defeatable traction control, HID headlights, programmable seat positions, a sun visor to cover the crack between the rear-view mirror and headliner, moonroof, trip computer, fuel consumption computer, premium audio, ashtrays and cigarette lighters on the rear passenger doors, dual climate control, heated front seats, changeable throttle settings, reading lights for the rear passenger, enough rear footwell space for 5’8” me to stretch out...no wonder the Germans got so butthurt when this car appeared on the scene in 1989.
The speakers are VERY good, but being a factory stereo from 2000, there is no Bluetooth, satellite radio, or aux input. This leaves me with AM/FM radio, cassette, and the six-disc cartridge changer that loads above the glove box. I hate the thought of installing an aftermarket head unit, which would give people a reason to break into the car...but I may have to do so if I want to listen to music in the car like someone living in the 21st century.
Granted, it’s a sixteen year old car, but its a solid ride, and the engine is only barely getting broken in. It’s age is primarily betrayed by the lack of a big LCD screen on the dash, and Bluetooth/aux for the stereo. Besides that, it’s still a great driving luxury sedan that doesn’t feel 180k miles or 16 years old. In considering it’s original retail price of $54,000, paying $4000 for this clean, running example almost feels like robbery.
PENALTY: The Lexus Tax - 5 points
On the first night I had it, a low beam quit on me. So, that night, I flipped through the owner’s manual. No instructions on how to change a bulb, no no. Visit your Lexus dealer. For a BULB? I think not. I begin doing research. Because of the self-leveling mechanism, this was not going to be a DIY task for me. Call a Lexus dealer in San Antonio the next morning, $90 labor PER HEADLAMP (because of course I was going to replace both bulbs because that’s what you DO, isn’t it?). Also, would need to make an appointment and the soonest they could get me in would be Monday. Uh, I have to drive to DFW today, thank you sir. Ugh. Call Pep Boys (yeah, I know...save it), they can do it today, takes just over an hour, $60 labor. Stop by an O’Reilley’s and buy the bulbs...$85 A PIECE. So, day one, before I really get on the road, I’m already in for $250 (after tax). Get on the road by 2pm, hoping to get to DFW by 7, and while I’m on the Austin bypass (no longer 85mph boooo), a new warning light pops up: CHECK VCS. A quick check on my phone tells me that this warning message rarely means a problem with the VCS, but instead, that the battery has gone bad. Apparently, the LS has a reputation for eating through batteries every three years or so, and a cursory glance at mine told me that this one had some age. Stop in Waco, replace the battery. Remember when a car battery was only $40-50 bucks? As I discovered earlier this year, NOT ANYMORE! So, day one, now I’m in for $375. Granted, the cost of the battery had nothing to do with owning a Lexus, but knowing that my car will turn the battery bad every three to four years...*sigh*.
Total: 72/100 (I’m terrible at math.)
You’re not really going to go canyon carving in this boat, or even autocrossing in your local lot, unless you do some serious modification to the suspension. However, she’ll get you (and three others with their gear) where you need to go comfortably and reliably. It’s only been a couple days, but as far as I can tell, all the hype is real. As far as the bulletproof reliability, give me some time to put at least 25k on the odometer, and I’ll get back to you on that.