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Luxury, Japan-Style: Revisiting the Original Lexus LS400

From the December 2017 issue

A lot can change when a new generation of Americans discovers its wallet. World War II resentment of the Japanese people meant that Americans in the immediate postwar era avoided Japanese goods. Japanese stuff was the original junk, and their cars were nothing but tin cans. At a certain moment in time, this was true.

But it neglected the divergent trajectories of growth and ambition. When Ameri­cans were getting rich postwar, honing their appreciation for fancy cars and other signifiers of wealth, Japan was honing its blade.

This often meant exploiting some economic advantage. The first was the oil embargo of 1973, and Honda and Toyota had fuel-efficient commuter cars at the ready. When boomer Californians started buying them for the sake of home economics, they found that the cars weren’t junk and they didn’t break. Japanese cars flooded the West Coast and migrated east, rejections of old orthodoxies, symbols of frugality but also forgiveness.


Japan, Inc., saw another economic opportunity in the early ’80s, when the gap between its currency and the rest of the world’s was cosmically wide. With a weak yen and, by then, state-of-the-art production processes, Japanese carmakers realistically surmised that they could produce simulacra of German luxury cars for the American market at nearly half the price. (American luxury cars, by this time, had become complacent and shoddy but fooled their makers into thinking they were still competitive by dint of a robust dealer body. German cars were the new bogey.) Acura emerged first, more as an expression of Soichiro Honda’s daring than anything else. But Toyota was more focused, pitting its first big luxury sedan against the world’s best car: the Mercedes-Benz S-class. It worked. The 1990 Lexus LS400 looked almost like an S-class, drove almost like an S-class, and was quieter than an S-class. Who cared if it had no heritage? It was priced like an E-class.

The first LS400 did what all watershed products do: force consumers to recalibrate their expectations and assumptions of an entire industry.

And so set a pattern: Honda as Acura, Nissan as Infiniti, and Toyota as Lexus built reliable, refined, high-value cars to reshuffle the luxury-car deck. There were differences of dynamic tonality among the three, but none had any real backstory, no significant competition trophies in their cases. The thing was, they didn’t break. And they exposed some important things about the people who buy luxury cars: By and large, they care a lot about their money, they care a lot about their time, and they care a lot about how they’re treated. The first Acuras, Infinitis, and Lexuses—especially Lexuses—had great and accommodating dealers, and the cars were not finicky or pricey like their German counterparts. They didn’t require much care and feeding. They just coddled and comforted. The first wave of the Japanese luxury invasion proved that frugality and forgiveness—mechanical in this case—were more important than history.

Specifications >

1990 Lexus LS400*

VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan

PRICE AS TESTED: $39,563 (base price: $35,350)

ENGINE TYPE: DOHC 32-valve V-8, aluminum block and heads, port fuel injection

Displacement: 242 cu in, 3969 cc
Power: 250 hp @ 5600 rpm
Torque: 260 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm

TRANSMISSION: 4-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 110.8 in
Length: 196.7 in
Width: 71.7 in Height: 55.3 in
Trunk volume: 14 cu ft
Curb weight: 3750 lb

Zero to 60 mph: 7.9 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 15.9 sec @ 90 mph
Top speed (drag limited): 150 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 188 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.79 g

EPA combined/city/hwy: 18/16/22 mpg
C/D observed: 19 mpg
*Specs and results, November 1991.