Lexus turned the luxury car market upside down in America when it introduced its big LS 400 luxury sedan in 1989. Suddenly, it seemed as if you were a sap if you bought a Cadillac or Mercedes instead of the Lexus LS.
It was especially true in trend-setting places such as Beverly Hills — although Lexus had no luxury car track record in America and came from Toyota, which had still had a definite economy car image.
Along with the LS 400, Lexus introduced a new, smaller, less expensive Lexus sedan. Called the ES250, it was clearly a thinly disguised Toyota, whereas the LS 400 looked as if it had just arrived from the heavens.
I was at the media preview of the LS 400 near Los Angeles, where a Toyota spokesman said Toyota/Lexus felt most Americans would opt for the less-costly ES250.
Boy, was he wrong. The LS 400 was the instant hit. It had features of Mercedes models that cost thousands more and were driven by many former American luxury car owners who couldn’t understand the Mercedes’ stiff seats and hard ride.
Compared to a Cadillac, the fast LS 400 also had comfortable seats and a soft ride. Importantly, it possessed more allure than a Cadillac partly because it was more mechanically advanced than a Caddy, but largely because it was something new—an alternative to even a BMW.
As with the Mercedes at that time, the LS 400 was no thing of beauty, but it looked imposing, had a posh interior, wonderful construction and great paint.
Rivals cried “foul,” claiming that Toyota was “dumping” the LS 400 on the U.S. market for thousands less than it should have to give Lexus a foothold here. Some still argue that was the case, but Americans know a bargain when they see one, so they snapped up the LS 400.
The “LS” naturally has been improved since its debut, including a redesign for 2007, although it never has been much fun to drive despite a strong engine. This never was designed to be a sports sedan you bought to tackle twisty roads. Rather, it was a big, roomy, comfortable cruiser, with decent enough handling.
The more refined 2013 Lexus LS comes in a variety of models, including the $119,910 LS 600h L gas/electric hybrid. The hybrid has standard all-wheel drive. But it hardly seems worth the money because its estimated fuel economy is 19 city and 23 highway, partly because it weighs a hefty 5,115 to 5,202 pounds.
The all-wheel-drive gas engine $74,935 Lexus LS 460 I tested weighs approximately 4,651 pounds and delivers an estimated 16 city and 23 highway. (The lighter 4,233-pound rear-drive version costs $71,990 and delivers 16 city and 24 highway.)
Both regular and hybrid LS models call for premium gas, but are fast. The regular LS has a 4.6-lite V-8 with 386 horsepower, while the hybrid has a gas/electric setup with combined horsepower of 438. The gas engine works with a smooth eight-speed automatic with a manual-shift mode, while the hybrid version has a CVT automatic transmission.
The regular-length rear-drive LS 460 is 200 inches long, while the long-wheelbase version is 205 inches long and costs $78,290 to $81,775. The regular-length LS version actually has plenty of rear legroom, but some folks like limo-style room back there.
There’s a new LS 460 F Sport model with more-aggressive exterior styling, sport seats, paddle shifters, a sport-tuned air suspension that lowers the car nearly half an inch and 19-inch forged wheels. However, the Sport has the same engine as regular gas models.
A driver can use a console button to select “Eco,” “Normal” or “Sport” driving modes. The car felt a little sharper and had a slightly firmer ride in Sport mode, but Normal mode was fine most of the time. The Eco mode did nothing, as far as I could see, but maybe pays off on a long highway trip.
All LS models have a new “spindle” grille that looks rather odd, compared to the old grille. It also has added body rigidity, more-accurate steering with better turn-in response and improved brakes with greater pedal feel and electronic brake force distribution.
In fact, the LS 460 is offered with a collision avoidance assist system that fully stops the car by itself below 24 miles per hour if a driver fails to take action to stop from hitting an object.
Safety items include an advanced air bag system, stability and traction controls.
Handling is decent even in Normal mode, and the ride pampers, no matter what mode the car is in. The LS 460 is even quieter than its predecessor, which is saying a lot because the LS always has been one of the quietest cars on the planet. Its drag coefficient is a super-low .26. That’s outstanding for a big sedan.
The LS 460 has a new lush-life interior and is very well-equipped. There’s a 12.3-inch dashboard high resolution split screen with a multi-mode display, 10-speaker premium sound system—and so on. And on.
You can even get optional power rear seats with climate control.
Worthwhile options include a blind spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert. My test car’s heated wood steering wheel looked like a work of art.
After all these years, Lexus still makes highly rated upscale LS models that command respect from the luxury vehicle crowd, despite far more intense competition than the original model had in 1989.
Pros: Luxurious. Powerful. Roomy. Comfortable. More responsive. Available all-wheel drive. New sportier version.
Cons: Not a city fuel miser. Almost too large for urban driving. Not sporty.
Bottom Line: Continues as a big, fast, posh comfortable sedan.
Dan Jedlicka has been an automotive journalist for nearly 45 years. To read more of his new and vintage car reviews, visit: www.danjedlicka.com.