Lexus book-ends: driving the LS400 from 1989 and 2006’s LFA supercar

Published: 09 February 2015

► Driving two Lexus legends back-to-back
► The 1989 landmark LS meets LFA supercar
► Chalk and cheese or a common bond?

Lexus blew out 25 candles over the winter and we recently had a chance to sample the cars that book-end the company’s range.

The LS400 and LFA sit at opposite ends of the Lexus spectrum and provide a fascinating insight into what has made Toyota’s luxury arm stand out over the past quarter century.  

Lexus launched at the 1989 Detroit motor show with the LS400, the fruits of a six-year development programme codenamed F1, for Flagship One. The car you see here was the original limo from the car’s UK debut at the London motor show - and it’s in rude health for a car that’s amassed 119,435 miles over 25 years.

Driving the 1989 Lexus LS400

Slip behind the wheel and it’s reassuringly familiar. The LS is set-square straight, with a pleasing timelessness to its shape. No Germanic fashion chasing for Lexus in here, and it’s all the better for it.

It’s this resolute focus on luxury, on comfort - and the way the LS spurns sportiness at all costs - which lies at the heart of its appeal. It set a crystal-clear proposition as the bedrock for what Lexus stood for. 

Where BMW and Audi were busy pursuing a sporty strategy, Lexus promoted the original LS400 by stacking champagne flutes on its bonnet to prove the silken refinement of the V8.

Even today, this hard-worked-but-now-cherished example is as silent as many contemporary limousines, the V8 idling imperceptibly unless you introduce the throttle to carpet. Naturally, there’s a little transmission creep and road shudder from tired shocks, but the whole driving experience is a lesson in engineering focus and the ride is shockingly good for those weaned on a diet of low-profile-shod modern execs.

There’s no feedback through the wheel, because you almost sail this car, the tiller lazily pointing the good ship LS on its way as you creep silently across the countryside, admiring how all the minor switchgear still works and how the cabin is a byword for well equipped sensibleness. This must have really shocked Mercedes back in 1989. 

While Lexuses’ responses have improved somewhat over the years, many of its models retain this demure, slightly otherly quality that I admire. In fact, when I hear senior execs pining for more dynamism, I fear they may be about to throw out the baby with the bathwater… 

And the Lexus LFA

Jump from the whispering LS400 into the LFA and you’re in for a big shock. This is one of the landmark supercars of this century, and something of a beast. It couldn’t be more different from the LS if it tried.

There is an evolutionary twist at play here. Lexus started with exceptional refinement, then added hybrid tech to the mix before sprinkling a veneer of sportiness on performance models. The wonderfully leftfield IS-F came first, indicating that Lexus wasn’t satisfied with refinement alone. 

But the LFA concept car of 2005 - again back in Detroit, tellingly - announced to the world that the brand wanted a proper range-topper to savage its Teutonic rivals. A painfully long gestation stretched four years and beyond, and it wasn’t until Tokyo 2009 that we saw the finished car, production cars arriving in 2011.

The reason for the delay is visible when you slide into an LFA today. It’s an exquisitely engineered car, its pure carbonfibre construction a joy to behold. It’s light, too; the 4.8-litre V10 weighs less than Lexus’s 3.5 V6 - yet it’s twice as powerful. You don’t half feel this on the road.

That V10 is at the heart of the Lexus experience, howling and shrieking as you flow down the road. If Yamaha helped tune the original LS’s engine, I can only imagine that Def Leppard assisted here. And where an LS’s helm is effectively rudderless in terms of response and tactile feel, the LFA’s is alive, the composite coupe darting this way and that like no other Lexus before it. 

Lexus: where next?

In isolation, both these Lexus cars are impressive statements of intent. But it’s their juxtaposition that rams home the intriguing nature of this company. Japanese firms often retain that ability to surprise and delight and baffle the hell out of us. Long may that continue.

Here’s to the next 25 years of Lexus’s journey…

By Tim Pollard

Editorial director of CAR's digital publishing arm. Motoring news magnet