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30 years of Lexus: how Japan took on the world and won

30 years of Lexus

Lexus sold its 10-millionth vehicle in February 2019 – a remarkable achievement for a brand with just 30 years heritage to its name. The LFA (pictured) is arguably the company’s most high profile vehicle, but the Lexus story begins in the mid-1980s with the development of bespoke luxury car. We’ll attempt to tell the Lexus story in just 30 captions.

Toyota Century

30 years of Lexus

The Lexus timeline begins in 1983, when Toyota chairman Eiji Toyoda asked his staff if they could build a world-beating luxury saloon. Merely competing wouldn’t be enough; this car would need to exceed the high standards set by Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and BMW. Toyota knew how to build a luxury car for the domestic market – the Century was proof of that – but creating something for export was a different proposition.

Toyota Camry

30 years of Lexus

Toyota knew the market was there, particularly in the United States. “The luxury car market is projected to be the fastest growing segment over the next several years as the ‘baby boomers’ enter their peak earning years,” it said with confidence. As much as their loyal customers liked the Camry, as they became more affluent, they began demanding more. A Toyota badge just wouldn’t cut it – not when they could afford a Cadillac, Mercedes or Jaguar. Yukiyasu Togo, president and CEO of Toyota US was highly supportive and actively encouraged the Japanese to progress the project.

Project F1

30 years of Lexus

The result was the F1 project – that’s F for Flagship and 1 for excellence. Amazingly, Toyota didn’t set a time limit for completion; the engineers and designers were given free rein in the pursuit of excellence. Researchers were sent to America for four weeks to explore the heart and minds of the US consumer. A five-person design team was dispatched to Laguna Beach to study the lifestyles of the traditional luxury car buyer. When Japan sets out to do something, there are no half measures – no stone is left unturned. Toyota identified which manufacturer led its field of expertise, analysed why, and then developed a plan to beat it.

Lexus LS 400

30 years of Lexus

The result was the Lexus LS 400: a car we waxed lyrical about in February. The car unveiled at the 1989 Detroit Auto Show followed 450 prototypes, millions of miles of testing and a team of thousands. No fewer than 973 prototypes engined were created, with Toyota opting for a 4.0-litre V8 because a six-cylinder unit wouldn’t have delivered the smoothness and efficiency required for a high-end luxury vehicle.

Lexus dealers

30 years of Lexus

The Lexus brand debuted a year earlier at the 1988 Los Angeles Auto Show, with the first 70 dealers named in May. A massive 1,500 US dealers enquired about a Lexus franchise, but each one was subjected to a careful and considered selection process. Toyota dealers were considered if they could demonstrate a track record of delivering first class customer service, but ultimately 121 outlets were selected for Lexus’ first year of business.

Lexus advertising

30 years of Lexus

Toyota’s incumbent advertising agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, was given the task of launching Lexus to the world, but a new outlet (Team One) was created to maintain a distance between the mainstream and luxury operations. “It’s not a car. It’s an invention”, proclaimed the press ads, laying the foundations for a brand that would hit a million US sales in 10 years.

Toyota Celsior

30 years of Lexus

Although rival companies wouldn’t like to admit it, Lexus made a huge impression Stateside, hitting 16,302 sales by the end of 1989, of which 70 percent were the LS 400. The following year, Lexus sold 63,534 cars. Roger Smith, chairman of GM, said: “It’s the customer that benefits from the increased competition, so I say to Lexus – or whatever its name is – come on aboard.” Meanwhile, in Japan, Lexus models were badged as high-end Toyotas. In the case of the Lexus LS 400, the Japanese equivalent was the Toyota Celsior.

Lexus LS 400 in the UK

30 years of Lexus

Early LS 400 owners were treated to a book on the history of Lexus, which included a wonderful paragraph written by Dr Shoichiro Toyoda. “In our language we have a saying for the occasion when a daughter is given away in marriage: ‘Here’s our cherished child – please take good care of her.’ That’s just how we feel about the Lexus LS 400. This beautiful motor is, indeed, our cherished child.” Lexus arrived in the UK in June 1990, and although its impact was less dramatic than in the US, the LS 400 was given rave reviews by the motoring press. Journalist Richard Bremner famously did a twin-test against a Rolls-Royce.

Lexus ES 250

30 years of Lexus

Lexus arrived in the UK as a single model manufacturer, but things were different in America. Sitting alongside the LS 400, you’d have found the ES 250, which was essentially a 24-valve V6-engined Toyota Vista or Camry with a new badge and all of the toys. It’s “more like a Camry that went to finishing school”, proclaimed Motor Trend, rather brilliantly.

Lexus SC 300

30 years of Lexus

This isn’t a definitive history of Lexus; listing every car and the company’s most notable achievements would require far more than 30 slides. That, in itself, demonstrates how far the company has come in a relatively short space of time. But Japan has a strong track record of upsetting the establishment. Witness the success of the Mazda MX-5, the original Honda NSX and Mazda’s and Toyota’s victories at Le Mans. The Lexus SC was aimed at the Mercedes SL market, with the exterior development handled in California. It was never officially sold in the UK, but many were imported from Japan, where it was known as the Toyota Soarer.

Lexus GS 300

30 years of Lexus

The Lexus GS 300 arrived soon after, looking every inch the lovechild of the LS 400 and SC 300. The elegant Giugiaro-designed GS (Grand Sedan) – which was known as the Toyota Aristo in Japan – debuted with a 3.0-litre straight-six Supra engine, but a 4.0-litre V8 engine arrived later. Further versions followed, including the fourth-generation of 2012, which featured the world’s first 12.3-inch display.

Second-generation Lexus LS 400

30 years of Lexus

Meanwhile, work on the second-generation LS 400 began in 1991, just two years after the launch of the original car in 1989. Although it looked similar, 90 percent of the components were either new or redesigned, with Lexus working hard to answer many of the criticisms of the first LS 400. A 35mm longer wheelbase resulted in 65mm more rear legroom, while interior storage was up 300 percent. Other highlights included the world’s first six-disc CD autochanger, the first seat suspension, and the first production car with a collapsible steering column.

Lexus RX 300

30 years of Lexus

With the RX 300, Lexus was way ahead of the curve. The idea of a premium crossover was floated in 1993, before development started in 1994. The final design was approved by the end of 1995, with prototypes tested in early 1997. It launched in Japan as the Toyota Harrier in December 1997, before exports started in March 1998. It became the best-selling car in the range – at one point it accounted for half of all Lexus sales – with 370,000 RX 300s sold worldwide before the second-generation model debuted in 2003.

Lexus IS 200 and IS 300

30 years of Lexus

The IS 200 and IS 300 represented Lexus’ assault on the compact executive market, with the Japanese company hoping to woo buyers of the 3 Series and C-Class. Development was led by Nobuaki Katayama, who had previously worked on the AE85/86 Corolla, as well as being involved in Le Mans and rallying. Known as the Toyota Altezza in Japan, the IS arrived in the UK in 1999.

Lexus SC 430

30 years of Lexus

The much-maligned and misunderstood SC 430 was first shown at the 1999 Tokyo Motor Show as the Sport Coupe concept. A production version was unveiled at the 2000 Paris Motor Show, before being released in 2001 to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Toyota Soarer. Designer Sotiris Kovos took inspiration from Italian Riva powerboats, with power sourced from the 4.3-litre V8 engine found in the LS 430.

Lexus RX 330

30 years of Lexus

In the RX 300, Lexus claims to have created the premium crossover segment, and it soon became America’s best-selling SUV. The second-generation RX 330 went on sale in 2002, becoming the first Lexus vehicle to be manufactured in North America. The plant in Ontario was the first plant outside of Japan to produce a Lexus model.

Lexus RX 400h

30 years of Lexus

In 2004, Lexus sold its two-millionth vehicle in the US and introduced the world’s first luxury hybrid vehicle: the RX 400h. In the same year, Lexus unveiled the third-generation GS 300 and GS 430, along with all-new IS 250 and IS 350 saloons. A timeline will show that Lexus was churning out cars with a fair degree of regularity, but it was struggling to recapture the euphoria associated with building the ‘best car in the world’, aka the LS 400. It needed a halo model.

Lexus LF-A concept

30 years of Lexus

Step forward the LFA supercar, which by the time it debuted as the LF-A concept in 2005 had already undergone five years of development. For a brand built on the luxury of hydraulically-damped cup holders, ashtrays and coin holders, the idea of a supercar was straight outta the weird closet. This was Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda’s Volkswagen Phaeton or Bugatti Veyron. A project designed to show the world what Lexus can do when let off the leash.

Lexus LFA

30 years of Lexus

The five-year development plan turned to seven when Toyota decided to build a car entirely from carbon fibre. A second concept was unveiled in 2007, before the production version debuted at the 2009 Tokyo Motor Show. Power was sourced from a 4.8-litre V10 engine co-developed by Yamaha. Jeremy Clarkson said: “If someone were to offer me the choice of any car that had ever been made ever, I would like a dark blue Lexus LFA.”

Lexus in Japan

30 years of Lexus

The year 2005 was a significant one for the company, with Lexus-badged products sold in Japan for the first time. The likes of the Toyota Aristo, Harrier and Altezza bowed out with grace and dignity.

Lexus GS 450h

30 years of Lexus

The LS 400 might have laid the foundations for Lexus as a luxury brand, but the RX 330 and GS 450h (pictured) were two of the first luxury hybrid vehicles. Earlier this year, Lexus announced that it had sold 1.45 million hybrid cars, with sales of ‘self-charging’ vehicles up 20 percent in 2018.

Lexus IS F

30 years of Lexus

In 2007, Lexus unveiled the 416hp IS F. Designed to take on the might of BMW’s M division and Mercedes’ AMG, this was the first F product and it was, according to Lexus, “the most uncharacteristic car [it] had ever built”. Well, it did pre-date the production version of the LFA.

Lexus HS 250h

30 years of Lexus

Lexus likes ‘world-firsts’. The HS 250h might be largely unknown in the UK, but it just happened to be the world’s first hybrid-only luxury vehicle…

Lexus CT 200h

30 years of Lexus

This was followed by the CT 200h – the world’s first hybrid premium hatchback. In truth, low running costs and Lexus’ legendary reputation for reliability were its two strongest points, because the CVT transmission was woeful, space in the back was compromised and it wasn’t that great to drive. Still, if you wanted a Toyota Prius with a tad more luxury, the CT 200h would fit the bill.

Lexus LF-LC

30 years of Lexus

Lexus has a habit of building drop-dead gorgeous or dramatic concepts. Or, in the case of the LF-LC, drop-dead gorgeous and dramatic. That’s Future-Luxury Coupe, by the way.

Lexus LC

30 years of Lexus

Lexus wasn’t lying when it said ‘Future’, because the LF-LC concept spawned the equally alluring LC performance coupe. We don’t think it’s possible to buy something more dramatic or eye-catching for less than £100,000.

Lexus RC F

30 years of Lexus

We could be closing this gallery with a look at the countless saloons and crossovers launched by Lexus over recent years, but you’ll forgive us for highlighting the RC F instead. This is Lexus’ response to the German performance saloons and coupes – a kind of BMW M4 with a Japanese twist. You can even get a Track Edition of this V8 monster, complete with a significant weight reduction and carbon ceramic brakes.

Lexus UX, NX and RX

30 years of Lexus

But as much as we like to watch videos of the LC and RCF – not to mention dream about the LFA – the future of Lexus will be underpinned by crossovers with hybrid powertrains, like the UX, NX and RX. Alternatively, you could buy a sub-£2k LS 400 to relive the glory days.

10 million vehicles sold

30 years of Lexus

In Europe, Lexus has sold around 875,000 cars since 1990 – less than 10 percent of the 10 million vehicles sold since the brand launched in 1989. However, the European market appears to be on the up, with sales increasing by 76 percent in the last five years. We’re expecting to see the first all-electric Lexus in 2020, while all models will have an electrified option by 2025.

The Loft by Lexus and Brussels Airlines is Europe’s best airport lounge

The Loft is the best airport lounge in Europe

The Loft by Brussels Airlines and Lexus at Brussels Airport has been named Europe’s best airport lounge at the 2019 World Travel Awards.

More than 450,000 travellers have enjoyed The Loft since it opened its doors in June 2018, with the votes of consumers and the opinions of industry professionals helping to secure the award at a gala ceremony in Madiera.

Zurich was named Europe’s best airport, while the Hilton London Heathrow was named best airport hotel. There were many other awards and you can view the full list here.

Lexus sees itself as more than just a car manufacturer, referring to itself as a “global luxury lifestyle brand”. Guests using The Loft can “immerse themselves in the world of Lexus”, enjoying an area of 2,040mand seating for 500.

The lounge is divided into areas with different ambiences and features, including a central bar, seating zones and a break-out space. The Lexus zone draws inspiration from Lexus brand experience centres in Tokyo, Dubai and New York.

Features include:

  • Japanese hospitality values brought by Lexus
  • Chocolate experience hosted by a Neuhaus maître chocolatier
  • At-home SPA Grohe shower suites
  • Individual nap rooms with starlit ceiling
  • Lexus LS shiatsu-effect massage chairs
  • Variety of fresh organic dishes and drinks by Foodmaker and Rombouts
  • Beer taps, including best Belgian beers
  • Eco-consciousness by banning plastic bottles
  • Award-winning artworks and inspirational design elements by Lexus
  • Dedicated Mark Levinson hi-end audio listening room
  • Regular events ranging from wine tasting to music ensembles

‘Exceptional hospitality’

The Loft at Brussels Airport

Pascal Ruch, head of Lexus Europe, said: “We are delighted that the travel industry recognised the unique experience brought to business travellers by Lexus and Brussels Airlines through our lounge partnership at Brussels Airport.

“For Lexus, this partnership is an exciting opportunity to bring our core brand values of design and craftsmanship to a global audience, reaching beyond the automotive world.

“This is a place where people can enjoy and get to know Lexus’s true spirit of omotenashi, the Japan-inspired personalised and exceptional hospitality and service experience we bring to our guests.”

The Loft is open from 5am to 9pm daily. We suspect many travellers might find it hard to leave.

Lexus launches monthly car subscription service

Lexus One subscription service

Lexus is the latest manufacturer to launch a subscription service offering motorists the opportunity to access its cars in exchange for a monthly fee.

Lexus One, which is operated in partnership with Drover, gives people the chance to drive a hybrid car for a fixed fee, with fuel the only ongoing cost. 

Prices start at £619 for the Lexus CT 200h, rising to £1,099 for the Lexus RX 450h. Fancy an RC 300h F Sport? It’s yours for £939 a month.

The fees cover delivery and collection, comprehensive insurance, routine servicing and maintenance, plus a weekly wash at a Lexus dealer. All vehicles are covered by breakdown cover, but given Lexus’ reputation for reliability, this might not be required.

Drivers are limited to 1,000 a miles a month, but this can be carried over for successive months for the same vehicle if the limit is not reached. All cars come with a BP fuel card giving customers a 5p per litre discount.

In common with other schemes, at the end of the month, Lexus One customers can choose to keep the car they have, opt for a different Lexus, or end the agreement.

Lexus One for all

Lexus CT 200h

Ewan Shepherd, director of Lexus in the UK said: “Lexus One opens up exciting new opportunities for people to experience our vehicles. It’s designed to be completely user-friendly, letting you choose the vehicle you want, when you want it.

“The subscription covers all the principal financial aspects of running a car and the customer can decide when they want a change of model, or to end their participation.

“We are proud of our reputation for delivering amazing experiences and the highest standards of customer service and we see Lexus One as another example of how we can introduce more people to the great range of vehicles we offer.”

Men in Black: protecting the Earth from scum, in a Lexus

Men in Black Lexus

Lexus has announced that it will be the official vehicle supplier of the forthcoming Men in Black: International film, which premieres in UK and US cinemas on 14 June 2019.

The RC F is the vehicle of choice for the agents as they seek to protect the Earth from “the scum of the universe”. Not our words, but the words of the original promo poster for the film starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.

It’s a dirty job, but somebody has got to do it. And there’s nothing like a little product placement when it comes to defending the galaxy.

“We’ve added some advanced capabilities to the RC F to assist the Men in Black agents, creating a truly one-of-a-kind alien fighting machine,” said Lisa Materazzo, vice president of Lexus marketing. “We can’t wait for moviegoers to see the RC F as they’ve never seen it before.”

As if to ram home the message that it is a thoroughly modern reboot of a film franchise dating back to 1997, the RC F will be joined by the RX Hybrid and LX SUVs. Well, crossovers and SUVs are threatening to take over the world.

Black suits and Ray Bans

Men in Black Lexus RC F

Maybe Agent M (Tessa Thompson) and (Agent H) Chris Hemsworth can do a job on them, too. Here come the Men in Black, the black suits with the black Ray Bans on, here to champion the cause for the humble saloons and estate cars.

We suspect the Fresh Prince could make that line work a little better with some rapping.

The collaboration between Lexus and Sony Pictures includes integration in the film, a co-branded television spot, a custom Men in Black RC F and sponsorship of the film’s premiere.

“We’re excited to collaborate with Lexus on this multi-tiered campaign in support of Men in Black: International,” said Jeffrey Godsick of Sony Pictures. “The Lexus RC F sports coupe provides the perfect vehicle for our team of Men in Black agents, led by Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson as they protect the galaxy.”

Lexus UX review: hybrid SUV is a classier Qashqai

Good things are expensive, we all know that. It’s why we flock to buy Apple products. It’s how Rolex sells watches. And its why the Rolls-Royce is held in such high esteem. No one needs these things, but plenty of us want them.

How do you grow from ‘everyday’ to desirable? History counts for a lot: look at Rolls and Rolex. Yet Apple, which had already been around for a couple of decades, went from almost zero to hero overnight with the iPhone.

It’s that type of success that Toyota’s top brass aims for with the Lexus brand. Fortune has shined on Lexus in the States, but in Europe they still dream of selling 100,000 cars a year. The new UX is the major part of this ambition to grow.

So the Lexus UX is an SUV?

Yes, well… sort of. The trouble with the SUV acronym – which stands for ‘Sport Utility Vehicle’ – is it used to mean a full-blooded 4×4 with some creature comforts. Something like a Land Rover Discovery. Other things that looked like SUVs, but were really just tall cars? They’re crossovers.

Now SUV is the ultimate catchphrase, and woe betide any manufacturer that doesn’t have one in its range. So, led by Peugeot and Citroen, who have few scruples and even fewer proper 4x4s, the SUV tag is game for almost anything on four wheels. Basically, if you want your car to be an SUV, it is. Just call it that and you are a player.

The new Lexus UX thus qualifies as an SUV. The vast majority are likely to be bought with front-wheel drive, but you can get four-wheel drive as a £1,250 option. Brilliantly simple, there’s an electric motor that powers the rear wheels when required. So it can deal with snow and wet grass when the need arises.

Quality counts for a lot

 

In any customer satisfaction survey you care to look at, Lexus comes out very high – often top. The cars are supremely reliable and, if you do need help, the dealers are great. That’s a damn good reason to buy any car.

Yet to make its cars better than mere Toyotas, Lexus gets a bit anal. For example, neural scientists measured brain waves to create the most pleasing door closing sound. The wipers also stop when you open a door, so you don’t get splashed.

The tightness of the gaps between the doors is paper thin, and you only have to lift the bonnet to admire the neatness of all the pipework. It’s solidly good work. You feel more confident than you might in, say, a Land Rover, that it’s all going to work dependably.

It looks striking, but hardly elegant

So the Lexus UX seems well-built and is likely to be reliable, but is it really desirable? In the UK, Lexus sales have been on the slow-burn.

Pitched against Audi, BMW, Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz, Lexus has forged its own path rather than facing rivals head-on. Which means a distinctive design dominated by an insanely massive front grille that only a mother could love. Only by sticking a number plate across the middle, to break up this mishmash of chrome squiggles, does it start to look less alarming.

Elegant? I don’t think so. Of course, good design is partly down to individual preference, but the UX is unlikely to be bought by anyone desiring a great looking compact crossover.

What about the X1, Q3, E-Pace, GLA and XC40?

The UX is a direct competitor for compact crossovers from BMW, Audi, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo. Lexus is diving head-first into a busy sector already full of competence. The big difference here, though, is that every UK version of the UX is a petrol-electric hybrid.

And that’s definitely the flavour of the moment. Diesels are fading fast, and petrol engines are too thirsty, but hybrids answer the question that many are asking – without the apparent cost or unknowns of a purely electric car.

Lexus is keen on the term ‘self-charging hybrid’, which is a bit self-serving because it doesn’t have a plug-in version of the UX. No matter, though: this is the technology of the Toyota Prius, honed into its fourth generation. No-one knows better than Toyota and Lexus how to get the best out of a hybrid.

Tell me about fuel economy

The numbers certainly stack up. You should be able to get close to 50mpg in the front-wheel-drive version, although opting for bigger wheels or the E-Four (4WD) version hits economy a little. The CO2 emissions of the front-wheel-drive UX sneak below 100g/km, which is also an excellent result.

It’s all very easy to live with, too. An automatic transmission is standard, the (all-new) 2.0-litre engine is powerful and there’s extra punch from the battery when you need it. If the battery has a decent amount of charge, the UX will drive away on electric power before the petrol engine chimes in.

You won’t go much more than a mile on the battery alone. You’d need a plug-in hybrid to get 20-30 miles of electric range, and then, of course, you’d need to plug in your car once or twice a day to recharge it.

A 181hp output? Sounds like a hot hatch

It isn’t. There are people at Lexus who’d love you think the UX was a sporting drive, but it doesn’t have the engine refinement at high revs. Also, the CVT automatic gearbox works in a way that discourages getting the most from the car.

That makes what will likely be the most popular version, the UX F Sport, seem slightly incongruous. Yet this doesn’t really matter, because you’ll buy a UX for its refinement around town, relaxed motorway cruising and quiet demeanour.

The ride is also very good: best on the 17-inch wheels that come with the lesser models.

Blending the boundaries

It’s good fun going to a Lexus press conference. They desperately want you to believe their new car has some sort of magical quality that could only come from a deep-rooted Japanese fable. Here’s it’s engawe, a blending of the boundaries between the interior and exterior. Like wide-opening doors from a lounge onto a patio.

Here, though, we – rather obviously – have glass that gets in the way. Maybe it translates better at home.

Snipes aside, the interior, with a facia firmly focused on the driver, is a nice place to be, even though calling it luxurious is stretching things a bit. The seats are very comfortable. In the rear, however, it’s more of a two- than three-seater. Luggage space is a disappointment: more shopping-friendly than weekend-away usable.

How much does the Lexus UX cost?

Prices start at a shade under £30,000, rising to just over £40,000. If you want a few choice options, including leather seats, a UX is going to cost a minimum of £35k.

So the Lexus UX is far from a bargain. As a company car proposition, though, it looks a strong option. The CO2 levels are very low for a petrol car, while there is no dastardly diesel penalty to contend with.

Yet the UX has to face competition from an unexpected quarter: electric cars. The latest models from Hyundai and Kia, the Kona Electric and Niro EV, are electric cars that offer the best everyday practicality seen so far, including a range as high as 250 miles, for a touch less outlay than the UX. They are certainly worth considering.

Lexus UX verdict: 4 stars

By moving into a more compact segment of the car market, Lexus is following the well-trodden path of the other luxury brands. Affordable cars inevitably sell in greater numbers.

There’s much to admire about the UX, not least its easy nature and pleasing levels of comfort. The hybrid system is as good as you’ll find in any car, and the ownership costs – whether you buy privately or run it as a business expense – will be very competitive.

For those who aren’t quite ready to go fully electric, it makes a great deal of sense.

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Lexus UX: rivals

Audi Q3

BMW X1

Jaguar E-Pace

Mercedes-Benz GLA

Volvo XC40

Lexus UX: specification

• Price: £29,990-£39,100

• Engine: Four cylinder, 1987cc, electric motor

• Drivetrain: Front-engine, front-wheel drive

• Transmission: CVT automatic

• Chassis: Steel with aluminium doors, front wings and bonnet

• Suspension: McPherson struts

• Wheels: 17 or 18 inches

• Power: 181hp@6,000 rpm

• Torque: 140lb ft@4,400rpm-5,200rpm

• 0-62mph: 8.5 seconds

• Top speed: 110mph

• Fuel economy: 46.3-53.3mpg

• CO2 emissions: 94-103g/km

• Length/width/height: 4,495/1,840/1,540mm

• Kerb weight: 1,540-1,680kg

How Lexus defeated ‘the best car in the world’

Lexus LS 400 1990

When Chris Goffey tested the Lexus LS 400 for Top Gear in 1990, he claimed that it was “petrifyingly good”. A rather appropriate turn of phrase, because the bosses at Mercedes, BMW and Jaguar must have felt a little petrified when Japan’s first global luxury car wafted into view at the 1989 Detroit Auto Show.

Thirty years on, it would be easy to be a tad dismissive of the LS 400, maybe rolling out the tiresome reference to the ‘Japanese S-Class’ as if this would be a suitable replacement for a fit and proper analysis of the car’s impact on the luxury car market.

Lexus didn’t just get within a hair’s breadth of the luxury establishment, it made itself comfortable at the top table, enjoyed a hearty lobster thermidor lunch with a half a bottle of Chablis, before heading outside to win a three-ball against a German and a Brit.

Building the perfect beast

Building the best car in the world is easier said than done. Armed with a billion dollars and with a team of the best designers and engineers in the business, creating automotive excellence sounds straightforward enough. But expectations are higher at the top of the market, and there’s a long way to fall if you get it wrong.

This reality wasn’t lost on Eiji Toyoda when he launched the Circle F project in 1983. The F stands for ‘Flagship’ – as if to emphasise the task in hand.

Toyota wasn’t entirely a luxury car virgin. But while the Crown and Century could cut it in the domestic market, they were unlikely to make an impact on the global market. Wool fabric seats and lace curtains don’t tend to feature on the list of demands for the majority of luxury car buyers.

Yukiyasu Togo, the president and CEO of Toyota’s US division, was convinced that Toyota could build a luxury car. More importantly, he knew that there was a gap in the North American market for such a vehicle. A generation of increasingly affluent ‘baby boomers’ were growing out of their Toyota compacts and sedans and upgrading to something German.

Baby come back

Toyota Camry 1986

Toyota was losing loyal customers left, right and centre – a Camry had neither the brand or the prestige to join the ‘baby boomers’ on their climb up the social ladder. Reintroducing the Crown was given serious consideration, but it was too small, underpowered and out of touch with American tastes.

Which is why a team of researchers were dispatched to the US to get inside the hearts and minds of the American luxury car buyer. Hundreds of potential buyers were interviewed, with videos sent over to the designers and engineers in Japan. Such insight proved to be invaluable during the development of the LS 400 – no guesswork was involved, and nothing was left to chance.

For the next six years, the team led by chief engineer Ichiro Suzuki sweated over the tiniest details in the pursuit of greatness. Meanwhile, the marketing team had to settle the small matter of what to call the car.

It turned out to be a launch, not just of a car, but an entirely new brand. The original plan was to badge it as a luxury Toyota, but research showed that this wouldn’t cut it, so a new brand was required. But what to call it?

Say my name

More than 200 names were considered, including Alexis, Calibre, Chaparel, Vectre and Verone, but Lexus was chosen after project manager John French had a play with some letters. The ‘A’ was dropped from Alexis to create Lexis, with the ‘i’ substituted for a ‘u’ because it sounded smoother and more upmarket.

Meanwhile, the engineers were breaking new ground and charting fresh waters with the development of the luxury car. From the outset, Ichiro Suzuki insisted that the LS 400 should feel the same at 50,000 miles as it did when it rolled out of the factory, which created an unbelievable amount of work for this team.

No fewer than 450 prototypes were built – the first one was finished in 1985 – with the exterior design approved in 1987 after the production of 14 full-scale models. The car visited a wind tunnel on 50 different occasions, with the engineers placing microphones all over the vehicle in a quest to eliminate wind noise.

Supra trooper

It underwent three million miles of testing, including high-speed runs on the German Autobahn. At the time, Toyota had just the one car that could travel at speeds in excess of 110mph, but the Supra was aimed at a different clientele.

The obsessive nature of the development extended to the creation of the stiffest body shell, featuring welds 1.5 times stronger than a regular car. The development also included the world’s first laser welding techniques, while the computer-measured panel gaps were designed to be as narrow as possible.

Interestingly, the distance between the bonnet and front wings, and boot lid and rear quarter panels were designed not to be parallel. This was so that when the car was viewed head-on, the perspective of a slightly tapered gap actually appears more parallel.

Other details included windscreen wipers angled to change position as the car’s speed increased, an automatic transmission with its own ECU for smoothness, a prop shaft engineered to be vibration free, and double wishbones at each corner for dynamic handling. Such was the blend of ride comfort and sharp cornering, the optional air suspension was almost surplus to requirement.

Power and glory

Lexus LS400 interior

On the inside, Toyota spent two years deciding on the right tanning methods, textures and feel for the upholstery, with the designers calling upon the help of Yamaha’s experience with pianos and violins when creating the wood finish.

In truth, the interior felt somewhere between American and German styles, and while the quality was first-rate, it lacked a genuine wow factor. That was until you fired up the 4.0-litre V8, at which point the black fascia would reveal a set of Optitron gauges that glowed with a 3D effect. A subtle and sophisticated take on the more traditional dials.

In creating the 1UZ-FE engine, Toyota tested a total of 973 prototypes as it endeavoured to build the smoothest and most efficient V8 in the world. Lightweight aluminium cam followers in the valve train were designed to maintain smoothness at high revs, with the engineers reducing the machining tolerances of all moving parts by up to 50 percent.

The result was a super-smooth and virtually vibration-free engine, as ably demonstrated by the ‘glass of water test’. Try perching a glass on the motor of the LS 400’s contemporary rivals, and you’d be left with a soggy engine bay.

Appetite for destruction

Toyota left nothing to chance in the pursuit of perfection – all parts were tested to destruction and subjected to an accelerated ageing process. Little wonder, then, that the final production version caused such a stir in 1989. There were no concepts or teaser models before Detroit – Toyota went straight for the jugular, catching the Germans off-guard.

Although the LS 400 was built alongside the Soarer and Supra at Toyota’s Tahara plant, it had its own exclusive assembly line and was subjected to 1,600 different quality checks. No LS 400 would leave the factory until it was fit to woo Mr Merc, Mr BMW and Mr Jag.

In a rather ingenious and mischievous move, the great and the good of the automotive press were invited to Germany for the international press launch. Sure, it meant that the journos could experience the smooth operator on the de-restricted Autobahns of Germany, but it was no coincidence that Lexus was playing in its rivals’ backyard.

Shiny happy customers

1990 Lexus LS 400

Lexus and the LS 400 were scoring points all over the yard. Toyota had thought of everything – design, engineering, PR, marketing and customer relations. Even when a brake light recall threatened to take the shine off the LS 400’s polished image in the US, Lexus scored points by sending technicians to the houses of each owner to rectify the problem before Christmas.

And, in a masterclass of turning a negative into a positive, each car was even treated to a valet and a full tank of fuel. Brilliant.

All that American research paid off. The initial batch of 1,000 cars was snapped up, and by the end of 1989, Lexus had hit its forecast of 16,000 sales. It was sold alongside the Camry-based ES 250 with a remarkably low price tag of $35,000, which led to BMW circulating rumours that Lexus was making a loss on every car it sold.

One could argue that its rivals remained just ahead of the LS 400 in key departments – the S-Class in terms of quality and refinement, the 7 Series for driver appeal, and the XJ6 for the cabin and brand heritage. But the LS 400 offered consistent qualities across the board, delivering exceptional value for money.

Absolutely flawless

‘In all our years of evaluating cars, we’ve rarely had to work this hard to discover faults with a particular automobile,’ proclaimed Motorweek in a gushing review.

Car magazine was similarly positive, saying it beat the S-Class ‘hands down’, judging it to be better than the Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit. Was it perfect? Of course not, but the fact that it came mightily close to perfection is remarkable for a company with no experience of building a luxury car for a global audience.

Opinions varied – some road testers loved the quality of the leather, while others said it felt cheap alongside its rivals. It was a similar story with the wood, switchgear and plastics. With the benefit of hindsight, the LS 400 probably lacked one crucial element – prestige.

At the time, the Lexus logo on the centre of the steering wheel had no heritage and zero provenance. It might have featured a banging stereo, a trick fascia and a level of finish to rival the very best, but without the brand equity, it would be playing catch up for years to come.

Anti-establishment

Lexus LS 400 UK 1990

The LS 400 arrived in the UK in 1990 and soon became the choice of the enlightened and the educated. Armed with a price tag around £35,000, Lexus had the ammunition to rip down the establishment in a display of stealth-like precision.

Only a lack of brand awareness and the fact that the LS 400 was being sold alongside the likes of the Starlet and Corolla in 44 of Toyota’s 200 or so dealers could hold it back. Arriving in the midst of a recession didn’t help, but the LS 400 was good enough to enable Lexus to establish a foothold on the luxury car mountain, and it has been climbing ever since.

Today, the Lexus LS 400 remains a canny choice for the used car buyer in search of luxury on a budget. While spending sub-£3,000 on an equivalent German car would like putting your life savings in the hands of a Las Vegas gambler, the LS 400 is a less risky affair.

Why settle for a ‘German LS’ when you can drive the best car in the world?

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Hardcore Lexus RC F Track Edition wows Detroit Show

Lexus RC F 2019 Track Edition

The updated Lexus RC F has debuted at the 2019 Detroit Auto Show, complete with a hopped-up, be-winged Track Edition. What has Lexus done to kick its BMW M4 rival into shape?

Beauty in the eye of the key-holder

Lexus RC F 2019 Track Edition

Well, it’s certainly not softened up the styling. The RC F still features the marque’s aggressive ‘Predator’-style schnoz, with a bit of added chin and snarl to denote sporting intent.

The lights are updated, with single-piece units at the front and a cleaner design at the back. The RC F, for the most part, looks the same. It remains a visual tonic to some and just a bit fussy to others.

Lexus RC F 2019 Track Edition

Under the skin of the standard car, bushes and mounts have been tightened to sharpen up the chassis. New, specially-designed Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres are said to reduce understeer, improve lateral grip and be more durable. Launch control now comes as standard, too – you’ll get to 62mph in 4.5 seconds with it engaged.

The lovely old V8 remains and is up on power slightly. An increase of 5hp gives the 2019 RC F 472hp, while torque is up by 6lb ft to 395lb ft. We’d wager the fundamental rev-happy character goes unchanged and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

What’s new for the Track Edition?

Lexus RC F 2019 Track Edition

There’s no mistaking the Track Edition for anything else. That massive carbon rear wing, heat-treated exhaust tips, carbon bonnet, black wheels and satin paint are a dead giveaway for the more track-honed model.

Lexus RC F 2019 Track Edition

The fixed wing takes the place of the active item on the standard car and is said to reduce drag while increasing downforce by 26kg. As you’d expect of a track-focused model, weight is down – in this case by between 70kg and 80kg.

A major focus has been put on unsprung weight, with a view to improving driving feel. As a result, carbon ceramic brakes are standard for the Track Edition, as are new GT3-inspired 19-inch forged BBS alloy wheels. All in, that helps lop 25kg off the unsprung weight at the front alone.

Lexus RC F 2019 Track Edition

Elsewhere, carbon fibre helps fight the paunch, including that enormous bonnet and the roof panel.

An exotic-looking exhaust is made of titanium and helps save even more weight. It should make for a spectacular musical accompaniment, too, given the 5.0-litre naturally aspirated V8 remains.

Lexus RC F 2019 Track Edition

What’s the RC F like on the inside?

Inside, the pleasing ‘1990s hi-fi’ aesthetic remains. Lurid leather and ‘F’ badges make sure you never forget you’re in the quick one.

The Track Edition doesn’t appear to rob the standard car of any of its luxo-barge credentials.

Lexus RC F 2019 Track Edition

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Lexus LY 650

The new Lexus flagship is a luxury yacht

Lexus LY 650

It should come as no surprise to discover that Lexus has built a luxury yacht. After all, car manufacturers have filled just about every last niche in the automotive segment. Exploring new territories is an obvious next step.

So, when Lexus took to social media to tease the launch of a new flagship, it meant it quite literally. Forget boulevard cruisers and golf clubs, the Lexus LY 650 is about sipping Veuve Clicquot at the marina and sharing Instagram posts offshore at Palma de Mallorca.

This isn’t the first time Toyota’s posh department has taken to the high seas, and the LY 650 follows ventures into the worlds of culinary, design and film as examples of exposing the Lexus brand to those who may not love cars as much as you do.

Lexus handled the design of the LY 650 and left Marquis-Larson of Wisconsin to handle all the boaty stuff, including the build, sales and servicing.

Whether or not you can see the ‘L-finesse’ design language in the yacht is largely irrelevant – this is Lexus telling the world it can do more than build super-reliable cars for folk with a penchant for Pringle jumpers and white ankle socks.

‘Dream-like vision’

Lexus Yacht

The 65.5ft yacht is powered by a choice of Volvo engines, features three staterooms and sleeps six. There’s no word on price, but as the first LY 650 won’t be finished until the second half of 2019, you have plenty of time to save your dollars.

According to Lexus, the development of the yacht was fuelled by executive vice president Shigeki Tomoyama’s desire to “present a dream-like vision of the luxury lifestyle [that] expands the potential of Lexus mobility to the ocean.”

Which is all well and good, but deep down you know you’ll use this news as an excuse to check out bargain first-generation LS400s on Auto Trader. Yours for a dozen bottles of Veuve Clicquot.

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Lexus LS for sale

Are you brave enough to buy this ‘million-mile’ Lexus?

Lexus LS400

What car brand has a reputation for high miles? Old Mercedes-Benz famously do, but so too do Japanese brands such as Toyota, Honda… and Lexus, which launched with a bang with the mightly LS400 pictured above.

Almost three decades on from the premium Toyota division’s launch, there are now some pretty leggy Lexus out there. Such a this one, in America, pictured below. It is for sale on Craigslist, with a heady 985,000 miles, for $2,600. That’s just over £2,000, for a car with just under a million miles on the odo.

Indeed, the owner proudly opens with, “this is my ‘million mile Lexus”. It’s still got its original V8 which allegedly has never had the heads off. Regular maintenance including spark plugs every 20,000 miles, oil every 3,000 and water pumps every 50,000.

The brakes are clean, with the machining of discs and the refurbishment of callipers being carried out very recently. The cabin is referred to as ‘mint’, as is the bodywork, with all the necessary precautions and beyond taken to keep it as such: parking far away, not smoking – standard procedure.

Lexus LS for sale

The transmission ‘shifts like new’ without being opened up and the air-con ‘blows cold’ without so much as a re-gas. All told, this Lexus LS could be the ideal one-owner buy for someone interested in a well-heeled luxury classic. Whether “this car can last another million miles” remains to be seen, though…

This is one of many LSs floating around that have done mega miles. Matt Farah of The Smoking Tire has a 950,000+ mile example that he’s put near 80,000 on since purchase. These cars are well-known to be able to pile on the miles. 

The LS was Lexus’s hammer-blow first entry to the market, to show the world what it was made of. Ironic that the fullest effects of its over-engineering are only most evident nearly 30 years later.

Most other cars with this kind of mileage will have an element of ‘Trigger’s broom’. Do enough miles and little beyond the body in white and the block isn’t a consumable.

Not so with the original Lexus LS: is this the most prolific ‘million-mile’ hero car, or do you know of one that’s done more?

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2018 Lexus LS teased: luxury saloon will rival Mercedes S-Class

2018 Lexus LS teased: luxury saloon will rival Mercedes S-Class

2018 Lexus LS teased: luxury saloon will rival Mercedes S-Class

Lexus has released this teaser picture of its new range-topping LS saloon ahead of its debut at January’s Detroit Auto Show.

While the picture doesn’t reveal a great deal about the new LS, it does suggest its styling will be similar to the Lexus LC500 coupe.

The current Lexus LS has received only minor changes since 2006 and is looking dated alongside rivals such as the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7 Series.

With prices of the outgoing model starting at £99,995 (in 600h L guise), buyers are right to expect something a bit special – and Lexus will be looking to offer that in the new model, which will be packed with technology.

Based on the same GA-L platform as the LC500, the 2018 LS will feature autonomous driving functions, front and rear touchscreens – and it’s likely to use hydrogen power.

The hydrogen-powered LF-LC concept car, which previewed the new LS at the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show, used two in-wheel electric motors at the front, while a larger electric drive motor powered the rear wheels.

More conventional powertrains are expected when the LS first goes on sale in 2018. Expect the line-up to mirror that of the LC500 – so there’ll be a hybrid 3.5-litre V6 on offer, alongside a range-topping V8.

We’ll find out more about the 2018 Lexus LS at the 2017 Detroit Auto Show in January.