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1990-1994Lexus LS400 Road Test


By Charles Ofria

Category: Used: Luxury Sedan
Who should buy this car: A person who wants a no-compromise Luxury sedan on the order of Mercedes and BMW that is affordable.
Comparable cars in this class: Mercedes Benz EClass, BMW 5 Series, Infiniti Q45, Cadillac DeVille, Lincoln Town Car.

The first-generation Lexus LS400 (1990-1994) is quite possibly one ofthe top five best cars in the world. In speaking to some owners of this car, I heardcomments like "…best car I've ever owned", "…this is a greatcar", "…fabulous ride".  One owner summed it up by saying "Thismay be the last car I ever buy."

In 1989 when Toyota introduced this car to America as a 1990 model, theautomotive press thought it didn't have a chance against the likes of Mercedes and BMW.Toyota knew how to build great economy cars and small family sedans but this is the bigleague. Jokes circulated about this folly, one of which I remember on a TV drama where acar thief who specialized in stealing expensive cars pulled up with a Lexus. When hispartner saw him and gave him a look, he said "it was dark, I thought it was aMercedes."  As a matter of fact, the only LS400 that I have ever known to breakdown was in the 1991 movie "The Grand Canyon" starring Danny Glover (a movie Iotherwise highly recommend.)

Well, it took less then a year for everyone in the automotive industryto change their attitude and give this car the respect it deserved. Lexus became thestandard by which other cars are judged. Only the Mercedes S Class and the BMW 7 Seriescould rightly claim to be better cars. But they cost $10,000 to $20,000 more than theLexus LS400 which had a starting price of under $38,000 in 1990.

Today, we know that the first-generation Lexus LS400s are quitepossibly the most reliable cars on the planet. The ’93 that we used for this reportwith 101,000 miles on it is more reliable than most new cars. And this is no fluke. Checkout its reliability rating in any consumer publication that rates used cars and see foryourself. Better still, talk to an owner. The owner of our test car purchased it over ayear ago from a wholesale lot (which means no warrantee) and has driven it about 16,000miles. So far, he has changed the oil 3 times and replaced a parking light bulb.

Of course, whenever you buy any used car, you must make sure that you haveit thoroughly checked out by a competent professional. You are looking for a car that hasbeen properly maintained and never been in an accident. One good thing about buying aLexus is that you can take the V.I.N. number to a Lexus service center and they will giveyou a printout of all the work that was ever done to that car by any Lexus dealer in thecountry.

The test car for this report is a 1993 Lexus LS400 with 101,000 miles onthe clock. The tires on this car are 225/60 VR16 Goodyear Invicta GA’s. These are therecommended tires for this car and are the same type as the ones that came on it when itwas new. This car has all the options that were available for this model except for thebuilt-in cellular phone. The options include full time traction control, heated frontseats, memory seat system, Nakamichi Sound System, trunk mounted 6-disk CD changer, PowerMoonroof and computer controlled air-suspension.

This car exudes quality from its fit and finish to the materials chosenboth inside and out. Look around the interior and you won’t find a single exposedscrew and very few seams in the trim. All the controls, from the radio knobs to thedirectional lever feel like they will last forever. The same goes for the glovecompartment door, the cup holders, the ash tray, and everything else you can touch, see orhear. The steering wheel has a nice feel to it with a thick rim that allows a good senseof control. The entire center pad of the wheel serves as a horn switch. I found it to bebit too easy to accidentally blow the horn while twirling the wheel with one finger duringparking maneuvers.  The instruments are illuminated both day and night while theignition is on. The numbers on the gauges seem to float in space with the needles in frontof them and any warning lights floating about an inch or so behind. When the ignition isoff, the panel goes dark and you can’t see the gauges at all.  

The perfect drivingposition is achieved with a host of power adjustments, all part of the optional his/hersmemory system. These adjustments include the 8-way power seat, a power tilt andtelescoping steering column, power seatbelt anchor height, power headrest height and poweroutside mirrors. Press button number 1 and all these adjustments move to the firstdriver’s preferences. Press number 2 and they all move to the other driver’ssettings.  Without the memory system, the adjustments are still there, but not allare power operated. 

The seats are verycomfortable for four people but, because of the deeply sculptured rear seat, a fifthpassenger, sitting on the center hump, will feel like he/she has been relegated tosecond-class citizen.

The ride on this car with its air-suspension is as perfect as you canget. Soft but controlled over any kind of pavement we could throw at it. We took itthrough Brooklyn New York where some of the streets have been heaved and tossed by acentury of bus and truck traffic and spot patched whenever absolutely necessary. On therare occasion where they would pave a section of street, you may see a Con Edison crew thefollowing week breaking it up again to make an underground repair.

In some cases, you knew you were going over a particularly bad sectionof road because you could see it out of the front windshield. But from inside, all youcould feel was a gentle rocking motion, with little or no sound from a suspension that youknew had to be working its heart out.

Normally, a car that rides this softly is a bear to control, bounding upand down after a dip in the road or wallowing like a boat when you tried to take a turn.Not so this Lexus. I found the steering to be quick and responsive and the cornering to beflat and steady. The excellent tires gripped the road with a vengeance both in corneringand stopping while maintaining a very quiet ride.  A rare achievement.  Whengoing over a dip in the road that would send other softly sprung cars bounding up and downand getting their passengers seasick, this car will sense the dip in the road andinstantly tighten up its electronically controlled shocks to stop any bounding before ithad a chance to start. As soon as the energy from the dip is absorbed, the shocks returnedto their soft setting. If the computer senses that you are driving fast, making quicksteering movements or braking hard, the shocks will stiffen up to their sport mode andstay that way for as long as necessary. At highway speed, the car will lower itselfautomatically by about an inch for improved aerodynamics.  Another advantage tohaving air-suspension is when you have a full load of passengers and/or heavy items in thetrunk, the car will level itself automatically. There are two controls on the console toallow you to modify the behavior of this system. One switch allows you to manually changefrom normal to sport shock settings, the other switch lets you increase the groundclearance by about an inch or so for when you are driving through snow or on bad roads.

I also had a chance to drive another Lexus with the standard coil springsuspension without all these bells and whistles. I can tell you that, while the ride wasnot quite as good as the air spring car, it still had an excellent ride while providinggood handling and control on winding roads. In both cases, you are dealing with a car thatrides as good as any in the world.

One thing that you should remember is that this is a rear wheel drivecar. Because of this, traction on slippery roads can be a problem and if you don’tknow how to handle a rear wheel drive car in a skid, you could easily spin out. To avoidthis, make sure the car you plan to buy has traction control. This system will sense awheel that is starting to spin and apply the brake on that wheel thereby transferringpower to the wheel with the most traction. If applying the brake is insufficient to stopthe spin, the computer will reduce power to the engine until the skid is under control.This process takes place so quickly and seamlessly, in many cases the only way that youknow that you almost lost traction is by the flashing Trac light that tells you that thesystem momentarily took over.  Of course, 20 years ago most cars were rear wheeldrive and none had traction control. I guess that we all just drove more carefully backthen and perhaps knew our limits.

The V8 engine is world-class. With 250 horsepowerthis engine will accelerate the car from a standing start to 60 MPH in 7.9 seconds with asound that is akin to ripping silk. This car is quieter at full throttle then most carsare at light cruising speed. The transmission is a perfect match for the engine. At lightthrottle acceleration, the only way you will know when the transmission shifts is bywatching the tach needle. It’s that smooth.  A 4 liter V8, is not a very largeengine for a luxury car.  Lexus kept the size down in order to keep the gas mileageup and avoid the gas guzzler tax.  Other cars in its class like theInfiniti Q45couldn't make that claim.  The disadvantage to a smaller engine is that it lackssharp throttle response.  Tap the throttle to move up into the traffic flow with anInfiniti Q45 with its 4.6 liter engine and it goes right now.  With Lexus, yousometimes have a slight lag while the transmission smoothly shifts down before it takesoff like a silent rocket.   But, for conservative driving and an occasional blastonto the Interstate on-ramp, the Lexus LS400 can't be beat.

Cruising down the highway, this is one of the quietest cars on the road,right up to its 150 MPH top speed. (No, I didn't test Lexus’ top-speed claim for thiscar.) If it can reach that speed, then you know the engine is loafing at all realisticspeeds. On the other side of the coin, this car needs premium fuel and the gas mileage ison the low end of acceptable at an EPA rating of 18 MPG city and 23 highway.

The trunk is fairly large and usable with a large opening. Since this isa rear wheel drive car, the trunk doesn't extend up under the package shelf (That’swhere the gas tank is.) Under the trunk floor, there is a full size spare tire which ismounted face-down. Seated in the center of the spare wheel is a shallow plastic bucketwith a handle. You can use it to store rags or gloves or maybe a set of booster cables outof sight. In the left wall of the trunk, there is a flip-down compartment that contains asmall set of Lexus monogrammed tools, a Lexus flashlight and a terrycloth rag with a Lexusemblem embroidered on it. On the right wall of the trunk, there is a compartment for thefirst-aid kit and the 6 Disc CD changer.

Parts for this car are not cheap. But I consider this a moot point sinceyou rarely have to replace any.  I asked Lexus if they knew of any problem areas butthey couldn't think of any. They told me that there were some problems with the '95 andlater cars but the "first generation" LS400 was very trouble-free.  I alsoasked them if they ever had a problem with the timing belt failing.  The servicemanager said that the only timing belt that he ever saw fail was on a car with over150,000 miles on it with a belt that has never been changed.  They recommend changingthe timing belt at 90,000 miles (a $475.00 job). Most other cars require that the timingbelt be changed at 60,000 miles.

How does the Lexus LS400 fit your driving style?

If you are a conservative driver, thisis your car. Smooth, quiet and comfortable in all driving conditions with effortless,silent acceleration. Since this is not a front wheel drive car, make sure that you findone with traction control.  This car is near bulletpoof in reliability if you find aclean one that was properly cared for. 

The sportydriver will like the near-silent silky acceleration thatthis car provides but this is a pure luxury car and you may be disappointed with the roadfeel and the throttle response. For the same price, you may be happier with a one yearnewer Acura Legend LS or the more performance orientated Legend GS.  They are just asreliable and have more of a sports sedan feel. If you still want the Lexus, get a ‘93or’94. They have larger brakes and wider tires better suited for sporty driving.

The fastdriver can get into trouble with this car because the onlythrill this car will provide is through its silent speed and thrust. Since there is novisceral feedback you will often find yourself going faster than you thought. As with thesporty driver, stay away from models before ’93. Tire grip with the larger tiresfound on the '93 and '94 is exceptional right to the limit. These are definitelyperformance tires. It is amazing how smooth and quiet they are during normal driving.Braking is strong and powerful as well.

Clickhere for more pictures of the 93 Lexus LS400

Model year differences

  • 1990 The first Lexus LS400
  • 1991 There is a slight refinement in the front brakes to provide better pedal feel.
  • 1992 No changes
  • 1993 Larger tires and brakes, Passenger side air bag added, CFC free air conditioning with a pollen filter, Automatic headlamps, styling touch-ups and several interior refinements. ( '93 also rates as the most reliable of this reliable group.  This is the year to look for.)
  • 1994 No changes,  Same as '93

 Specifications  

Engine Type 4.0-liter DOHC 32-valve 90 V8, Cast aluminum block and heads
Horsepower 250 @ 5,600 RPM
Torque 260 @ 4,400 RPM
Fuel Recommended Premium Unleaded
Transmission Four Speed Automatic Electronically Controlled with intelligence
Tires 1990-1992: Goodyear Eagle GA P205/65VR15
1993-1994: Goodyear Invicta GA P225/60VR16
Overall Length 196.7"
Width 72"
Turning Diameter 36.1 ft Curb to Curb
Max. Towing Capacity 2000 lbs.
Curb Weight 3,858
Fuel Tank 22.5 Gals.
Miles Per Gallon EPA city 18, hwy 23.  Observed during aprox. 1000 miles of road testing, 19 MPG
Acceleration 0 to 60 7.9 seconds
  Year Average Retail Average Mileage
Average used car retail price for a clean car with average mileage as of June 1999 1990    1991
1992
1993
1994
$12,000
$14,000
$16,000
$20,000
$24,000
108,000-116,000
96,000-102,000
84,000-90,000
72,000-77,000
60,000-65,000
Price for a new 1999 LS400 1999 $54,300
+ options
For current pricing information, check out   Edmonds Buyer's Guides    or  Kelly Blue Book
Standard Equipment
  • 4.0-liter DOHC 32-valve V8 Engine
  • Four-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission with intelligence
  • 4-wheel independent double wishbone suspension
  • Speed sensing, progressive power rack and pinion steering
  • Four-wheel disc antilock brakes
  • Driver side air bag 1990-1992,  Driver and front passenger air bags 1993 and later
  • Vehicle and audio Theft Deterrent System
  • Automatic air conditioning. (CFC free with filter only on '93 and later.)
  • Automatic headlamps ('93 and later)
  • Fog lamps
  • Dual power heated outside mirrors
  • Liquid crystal day/night inside rearview mirror
  • Power windows and door locks
  • Leather  seats and door panels (earlier models had a cloth seat option.) California Walnut wood trim
  • '90 - '92, 8 way power seat for driver, 4 way power for passenger,  '93 and later, both seats were 8 way power.
  • Tilt and telescoping steering column with automatic tilt-away when exiting car.
  • AM/FM stereo cassette high output audio system with 7 speakers including sub-woofer
  • Tool kit and first aid kit.
  • Outside temperature gauge ('93 and later)

Major Available Options
This is a list of the major options that were available on these cars when they were newalong with a guide on how to recognize whether the car that you are considering has thatoption.

Option

How to recognize it

  • Memory seat system
Look for buttons marked 1, 2 and Set by the drivers door handle
  • Traction control system & Heated seats
Look for a Trac off button and two seat heater buttons marked L and R just below the radio and above the ash tray
  • Power tilt and slide moonroof
Big hole with a glass cover in the roof
  • Trunk mounted 6-disk CD changer
Located in the right wall of the trunk.  Make sure there is at least one 6-disk magazine included.  Additional magazines are available from Pioneer or Lexus.
  • Built in cellular phone
In center console, factory unit has a switch marked 1, 2, 3 attached to the left side of the steering wheel
  • Electronic Air Suspension with ride control

 

There are 3 rocker switches next to the transmission shifter instead of 1 rocker switch. They are marked Sport/Normal, Height  and ECT Pwr/Norm
  • Nakamichi Premium 280 watt sound system
Look for the Nakamichi name on the radio face.
Note:  The first 3 items were popular options andfound on most used LS400's. The last 2 were expensive options when new and may be hard tofind. Lexus service managers tell me that these options do not affect the excellentreliability of these cars, so if you can find cars with them, don't be afraid to buy them.
Of course, it is up to you to have any prospective car checked out thoroughly by aprofessional mechanic familiar with that model before you buy it.

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