When a car reaches one million miles on the odometer, you might expect some corporate fanfare. But not with Lexus. It took five years for U.S. journalist Matt Farah to take his 1996 Lexus LS400 from 897,000 miles to the hallowed seven figure mark, but Toyota’s luxury division didn’t offer to throw a party, nor make space in a museum.
“They pretty much told me, ‘Congratulations, that’s exactly what the car was designed to do, and you’ve proved the design works.’ And the whole of their support, aside from a couple of spare parts, boiled down to a single congratulatory Instagram post when it turned over.”
Farah added, “[Lexus] were very nice about the whole thing, and I have a good relationship with them on a professional level, but I gather they are quite used to seeing odometers displaying the ‘all nines’ by now, and my car and story weren’t particularly special.”
Certainly, the LS400 was engineered to go the distance. When it made its debut in Detroit in January, 1989, it was the culmination of a truly staggering project: 24 engineering teams, 3,700 engineers and technicians, 450 prototype vehicles, 4.5 million kilometres of testing, all at a price tag of more than a billion dollars.
The year 1989 was a watershed for the Japanese auto industry. The Mazda Miata marked the return of lightweight and affordable driving fun. The Acura NSX proved that Japan could build a mid-engined supercar. Overseas, the R32 Nissan Skyline GT-R absolutely blitzed its competition on the racetrack. And the flagship for Toyota’s new luxury division? Right out of the gate, it caught the established luxury brands napping.
Charged by company chairman Eiji Toyoda to build the best car in the world, Toyota’s engineers had spent six years working on the project they called F1, for Flagship One. In a commercial that would become iconic, a pyramid of champagne glasses was balanced on the hood of a black LS400 as its wheels turned on a dyno at speeds of 230 kilometres an hour. So smooth was the 250 horsepower V8, the glasses didn’t even shimmy.
In a Car and Driver test in December, 1989, the LS400 handily beat the pleated khaki pants off the likes of the BMW 7-series and Mercedes-Benz E-class. In January of the next year, the LS400 was pitched against far more expensive, V12-powered Bimmers, Mercs and even a Bentley. The verdict: “The Lexus may not be the car you want to arrive in, but it may be the car you’d like to drive there in.”
The combination of impeccable build quality, long-term reliability, and an effortlessly polished ride won many converts. Japanese luxury had arrived, and consumers flocked to it.
However, Lexus was also careful to hedge its bets with the ES250, a V6-powered front-wheel-drive sedan built on the bones of the then-new Japanese Camry. Just as a flagship needs tenders, the LS400 needed some entry-level company in its new showrooms, and together, the pair carried the brand forward.
By the end of the nineties, Lexus had added the LX450 to its stable, and the far more important RX300. The former was basically a fancy version of the unstickable Land Cruiser. The latter was one of the first luxury crossovers, offering ahead-of-its-time space and utility with a car-like ride. The RX breed was, and remains, the backbone of Lexus sales results.
So important were RX sales to Lexus’s overall financial health that a new, dedicated factory was built in 2003 – in Canada. For the first time, Lexus vehicles were produced outside of Japan, built by the good people of Cambridge, Ont. To this day, Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada remains the only Toyota/Lexus plant outside of Japan to win the top-level Platinum quality awards from J.D. Power.
As Lexus neared the end of the 2000s, it was a brand well known for quiet, quality and dependability. The company’s products were like hard-wearing, medium-priced, dark-grey business attire – and about as exciting. It was time to drop the F-bomb.
Enter the Lexus IS-F. Released in 2008 with a very un-Lexus-like eight-cylinder snarl, the IS-F was built around a 416hp, 5.0L V8. Designed by a special program that stood apart from the mainstream Lexus brand, led by a chief engineer who'd been involved in every generation of the Supra, the IS-F was a wolf in a three-piece wool suit.
Even a decade later, the IS-F still feels vital and burly to drive as it hurtles down a twisting desert road. It’s more precise than an AMG product, yet burlier than a contemporary BMW M3. Its launch pioneered the Lexus F series, which continues today with sport-tuned variants of the mainline Lexus cars and V8-powered hooligans such as the RC-F and GS-F.
Lexus followed up its snarl with a scream. Ten years ago this October, Lexus launched the LFA, a front-engined supercar propelled by a V10 banshee howl. The car was eye-wateringly expensive – $500,000 was just the base price – and not really a commercial success. Even today, a decade after its introduction, there are still a handful for sale new at U.S. Lexus dealers.
To truly understand the LFA, you have to drive one, a privilege only a few will enjoy. I can report back that if the LS400 was built to balance champagne glasses, the LFA was engineered to shatter them like an Italian sporano hitting the high notes. It is an utterly ruthless car to drive, as sharp-edged as a katana, as focused as a laser beam.
However, there are those who would point out that the time for screaming combustion engines is perhaps nearing an end. Looking ahead, Lexus is well positioned in its 30th year, with many models equipped with Toyota’s proven hybrid drivetrains.
And a hybrid doesn’t need to be boring. Witness the LC 500h, a gorgeous luxury coupe equipped with an incredibly complex drivetrain. When called upon, its combination of V6 and electric motors produce 354hp and a sprint to 100km/h in 4.7 seconds, yet its fuel economy is perfectly reasonable. It looks like an Aston-Martin, but only sips at its dry, gasoline martini.
A polished past. A riotous middle age. A technology-focused poise for the future. At 30, Lexus has reason to celebrate. But don’t expect confetti and balloons. That’s not what they’re designed for.
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