The Toyota Museum in Gardena, Calif., is unlike most car barns. The light-industrial building has no sign indicating what it is. The inside is poorly illuminated. The cars are jammed cheek by jowl. And there is rarely a trailer queen to be found.
In fact, the museum curators seem to take pride in finding the best-condition, but hardest-driven, cars they can find.
This holds true for their single example of the first-generation Lexus LS 400. This car turned the luxury segment on its ear for its quality and price. One would think the museum would have Serial No. 1 in its possession.
To the contrary, the example on the museum floor has 192,350 miles on it. The interior has been worn hard. The seats are cracked in places and have most of their bolstering beaten out of them. The air-conditioning unit long since has run out of Freon. The stale traces of gasoline in the fuel tank cause the fuel injectors to knock like the percussion of a Gipsy Kings song.
And all the while, all I can think is ... Dang, this is still a fine automobile.
When Toyota Chairman Eiji Toyoda insisted that his flagship needed to be the best car in the world, chief engineer Ichiro Suzuki took him at his word. And it shows in this model, even after nearly 20 years.
Neither the engine nor transmission has been cracked in its hard-driven life. There is nary a hint of valve clatter or piston slap. Acceleration is brisk, with 60 mph arriving in slightly more than six seconds. Heck, back in 1989, a Porsche 911 could barely beat it off the line.
Even though the Lexus is "just" a four-speed automatic, the shifts are supersmooth, almost as if you can't feel the gears changing. The double-wishbone suspension steamrolls over steel plates with impunity. Cornering still is flat, with very little body roll. Man, aren't the bushings worn out yet?
But it's the confident luxury of the interior that made Lexus a hit.
Lexus took some ribbing for creating the ultimate automotive appliance, bereft of character in exchange for excellence. Not so fast, my friend.
There is a real permanence in the LS 400's interior design that carries through to Lexus vehicles today, and not in an ain't-broke-don't-fix way, either.
The electroluminescent instrument dials tend to wash out in direct sunlight, but the glowing, floating numerals are a very cool feature — in both fashion and ambience — for any era.
The cushioned detents of the audio/climate buttons and soft tactile response of the signal/wiper stalks scream elegance. The ashtray, glove box and headliner grab handles all have dampers to slowly open and retract them. Add in the motorized tilt and telescoping steering wheel, and you have the standard that all luxury cars had to follow.
Then there's the reverse-cylinder construction of the ignition key. Sleek, cool, machine-etched, rather than ground down like the million spares made at the hardware store. That's class.
But some of the pieces smack of the last-minute scramble to hit that endaka price point. While most automakers had gated shifters for their automatics, the LS 400's straight-down shifter screams Camry. The lift-out door handles are a little cheap and are notorious for ruining manicures.
One area Lexus didn't scrimp on was sound-deadening materials. Even after 20 years, this sedan still has one of the quietest interiors on the road. It's not quite sensory deprivation. More like the solidity of keeping the unwashed masses at bay.
When new, the LS 400 cost $35,000 and was the steal of the century. Many of them are still going strong and now can be had for well less than 10 grand. Still a steal.
— Mark Rechtin