The story of the LS 400 really starts in 1983. Toyota’s chairman at the time, Eiji Toyoda, challenged his employees to build a car that would be better than the world’s best. This project would be labelled “Flagship One” or “F1” for short and it would lead to the formation of a new luxury brand under Toyota’s wing.
The team working on the project made a trip to the United States midway through 1985. They wanted to conduct market research to find out exactly what wealthier American consumers wanted. While they were doing this, other teams working on the project conducted prototype testing in various locations from the German autobahn to U.S. roads and Tokyo streets.
The market research group soon discovered that Toyota would need a separate brand and sales channel that was clearly distinguishable from the regular company. Plans were quickly made to develop a new network of dealerships across the United States to prepare for the arrival of a new series of luxury vehicles.
By late 1985, the new luxury car was starting to take shape. It featured a low-slung bonnet/hood and a narrow front profile that gave it a more sports-car like appearance. This design morphed into a more upright, boxy appearance with a more prominent grill and a two-tone body by 1986.
Extensive work was also carried out on the interior. Toyota’s designers and engineers evaluated 24 different kinds of wood and a number of different types of leather so they could offer the best interior combinations for the new luxury car.
While this was going on, work on developing the new high-end brand was progressing forward. Toyota teamed up with advertising agency Saatchi Saatchi and image consulting firm Lippincott & Margulies to create a list of prospective names. Vectre, Calibre, Chaparel, Verone, and Alexis were all top runners, with the latter of which quickly proving to be the most popular. However, concerns were raised that the Alexis name applied more to people rather than motor cars and as a result the name morphed into Lexus, the luxury brand that we know today.
With the brand name settled upon, the new luxury car would become known as the Lexus LS. Subsequent design revisions were carried out throughout the year and in February 1987 the final concept was approved. After some more tweaks, the final production design of the LS 400 was ready three months later.
The Lexus LS 400 Makes its Debut
While the production design was ready, the LS 400 would not make its official debut until the North American International Auto Show in January 1989. Production would start four months later, with all cars being branded as 1990 models. Sales in the United States would begin on September 1, 1989, and limited exports to other countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia would start the next year.
At the heart of the luxury Japanese car was Toyota’s new 4.0-litre 1UZ-FE 32-valve V8 engine that was rated at 250 hp (190 kW) and 353 Nm (260 lb-ft) of torque. This was linked to a new four-speed automatic transmission that was made to be as smooth as possible. While performance was never Lexus and Toyota’s goal with the car, it could hit 100 km/h (62 mph) in around 8.5 seconds and go on to a top speed of 250 km/h (155 mph).
An independent double-wishbone suspension system was implemented alongside twin tube shock absorbers. A passive air suspension system was also made available as an optional extra for those who wanted it.
Compared to its main two competitors, the BMW 735i (E32) and the Mercedes-Benz 420 SE (W126), the LS 400 had a quieter cabin at a cruising speed of 100 km/h, a higher top speed, lower curb weight, and a lower drag coefficient. It also managed to avoid the United States Guzzler Tax that was implemented for less efficient motor cars.
On the inside California walnut and leather trim pieces were included as standard. Power-adjustable seats and shoulder seat belts were added as well, along with an automatic tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel with SRS airbag. Toyota’s engineers and designers also included a memory storage system that would remember the driver’s seat, steering wheel, seat belt and side mirror positions.
For buyers who wanted a bit more, the Lexus LS 400 could be optioned with a Nakamichi premium sound system that included hands-free cellular phone capabilities.
Table of Contents
Toyota Introduces the Celsior for Japanese Buyers
During the development of the LS 400, a growing number of Toyota dealers in Japan wanted to get their hands on the vehicle. However, there was a problem. Toyota already had four domestic dealerships in the country and the Lexus brand was really created for the export market. It was decided that the LS 400 would be rebadged as a Toyota and the name would be changed to the “Celsior”.
All Celsiors at launch were only available through Toyota’s range of Toyopet stores and while the car was essentially the same as the LS 400, there were some slight differences.
A Sales Success
At the start of development, Toyota wanted the sale price of the Celsior to be US$25,000. However, by the time of launch the deprecation of the Yen versus the United States dollar meant that the price had to be increased to $35,000. This massive price increase was cause for concern for the Lexus management. While they believed they had a car that could compete with the ones from the likes of BMW or Mercedes-Benz, they were concerned that the Lexus brand did not have the heritage or reputation of its competitors.
However, when the LS 400 launched all their fears were quickly put to rest. The LS 400 quickly proved to be a hit and was universally praised for its exceptional quality at an excellent price. Additionally, sales were in part helped by the fantastic reputation that Toyota had already established in America.
By 1990, sales of the LS 400 had already surpassed those of competing BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar models.
1992 – The LS 400 Gets a Refresh
By September 1992 it was time for an updated version of the LS 400. The refreshed LS 400 was sold as a 1993 model, and it featured more than 50 changes that were a result of customer and dealer feedback.
Adjustments were made to the suspension and power steering systems to improve handling performance and the brake discs, tyres and wheels were bumped up in size.
Some slight styling alternations were also carried out for the revised model. The side mouldings were changed, as was the grille, and Lexus now offered a much greater range of colour options. On the inside there was now a front passenger airbag as standard and some other slight changes as well. The Celsior also received the world’s first GPS navigations system with voice instructions.
With continual shifts in foreign exchange rates and high demand for the LS 400, Lexus had to increase the price of the car a number of times during production. By 1994, the base price of the LS in the United States now exceeded $50,000, over double what Toyota had originally envisioned for the car. However, despite this sales continued to be strong and by the end of production over 165,000 cars had been produced.
Lexus Introduces the Second Generation
The next version of the LS 400, the XF20, would be introduced at the end of 1994 as a 1995 model year. While the specifications of the second-generation LS 400 were roughly the same as the first gen model, the car did now feature a longer wheelbase by 36 mm (1.4 inches). This led to an overall more spacious interior and an increase in rear legroom of 66 mm (2.6 inches).
Despite featuring similar specs as the older model, over 90% of the car was new or redesigned. More strengthening and sound insulation was introduced, and Lexus/Toyota’s engineers updated the suspension and brakes. Lexus did retain the 1UZ-FE V8 engine, but power was bumped up to 260 hp (194 kW) and 366 Nm (270 lb-ft) of torque. While the car did gain a bit of weight during the development process, the 0 – 100 km/h (62 mph) time was reduced by about a second.
The cabin was completely updated to be more luxurious and feature full. Dual-zone climate control was now standard, along with a newly patented seat cushion design that used lightweight internal coil springs and stabiliser bars to improve comfort. One of the first in-dash CD changers was also available as an optional extra.
Safety improvements were also a key focus for the design team. Enlarged crumple zones, a collapsible steering wheel and three-point seat belts were just some of the changes to second gen LS 400’s safety features.
More Changes in 1997
In August 1997, the XF20 Celsior became the first production Toyota to be equipped with laser adaptive cruise control. Unlike future systems, this early cruise control could only alter the speed through throttle control and downshifting the transmission. Additionally, the system could only be used in good weather due to limitations with the technology at the time.
Just like with the first generation LS 400, an updated version of the second gen car was introduced later in the production cycle. The new LS 400 was introduced in September 1997, and it now featured significantly more power at 290 hp (216 kW). Lexus mated the more powerful 1UZ engine to a new five-speed manual transmission and as a result acceleration and fuel economy performance was improved.
Some minor tweaks were also made to the suspension and steering to improve cornering and give the driver a better feel.
On the outside, the wheels, front-end, and side mirrors were updated, while the inside also received some attention as well.
Some more features such as a CD-ROM based GPS navigation system and low beam HID headlights were added later in the production cycle. In February 2000, a limited edition LS 400 known as the “Platinum Series” was introduced for American buyers. The car was developed in partnership with American Express and it featured all of the most luxurious options as standard.
While sales of the second generation LS 400 weren’t quite as high as the first gen model, the car still proved to be a hit. It further solidified Lexus’s place in the luxury car segment and introduced new features that would be further developed on future models.