“I’d say the fox is about to find his way into the henhouse.” Thus spake Automobile founder David E. Davis after inspecting the then-new 1990 Lexus LS sedan prior to its official market launch. 23 years later, those words seem rather prescient: thanks in large part to the path blazed by the LS, the Lexus brand has matured into a serious competitor for the established European luxury automakers.
As Lexus prepares to launch a new LS for the 2013 model year, we decided to dig through Lexus history and our own archives to recap the history of Lexus’ most esteemed – and longest-running – model line.
1983: In August, Toyota Chairman Eiji Toyoda gives U.S. chief Yukiyasu Togo approval to pursue a luxury sedan, noting “it is time to build a car better than the best in the world.” By February of 1984, a fifteen-man committee was established to set benchmarks for the top-secret “Circle F” project. By 1985, a team of engineers took up residence in Laguna Beach, California, to immerse themselves within the lifestyle of the American luxury car owner.
1987: Toyota officially announces its new luxury brand, which it calls Lexus. Our earliest report in December predicts two launch models, including an all-new luxury sedan (true) and a version of the Japanese Soarer coupe (the Soarer became the SC, but didn’t launch until the 1991 model year).
1989: The Circle-F – now known as the LS 400 — formally makes its public debut at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. We describe the sedan’s looks as “an amalgam of BMW and Mercedes-Benz design cues, given an American spin with a Cadillac-esque egg-crate grille. It is nonetheless a very thoughtful, beautifully crafted luxury sedan.” One engine – a 32-valve, DOHC 4.0-liter V-8 – is offered, and channeled its 250 hp to the rear wheels via a four-speed automatic transmission. Officials predict a base price of roughly $35,000, which is roughly half the price of a comparable BMW 7 Series or a Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
Later that year, when pitted the new LS400 against rivals with similar price points, including the Audi V8, BMW 535i, Infiniti Q45, and Mercedes-Benz 300E. Guess which car emerged victorious? The LS 400 snagged the top prize, endearing us with its “swift, smooth, and silent” demeanor, and its build quality. “It feels as though Lexus has been building the LS for about ten years,” we wrote. “It’s all sorted out. It didn’t arrive with a bunch of loose ends flying.”
1990: Lexus quickly recalled each and every one of the 8000 LS400s sold in the U.S. to address minor defects, including cruise control failures and third brake lamp assemblies that would melt in extreme sunlight. Despite that hiccup, the LS400 was good enough to earn a place on our annual list of Automobile All-Stars. “The LS400 is the shining example we have been waiting for,” wrote Jean Jennings, “a luxury car that will pamper its passengers when they are stuck in traffic, play limo for a night at the opera, do a cross-country drive to distant relatives for Christmas, and yet be five-star entertainment when the roads become challenging. It is simply one of the finest iterations of a luxury sedan for sale. Right out of the box.”
1991: After being named an All-Star for the second year in a row, the LS400 is included on an Automobile cross-country road trip to New Orleans after USA Today readers named it a dream car. Those present on the trip deemed the LS400 “a long-distance driver’s dream.”
1993: Lexus performs a few small amendments three years into the LS’ lifespan. Lower body cladding is now painted to match the body color, while new 16-inch wheels boast a lower profile tire. Interior revisions are mostly in order to appease the Feds, who require the LS gain a passenger-side air bag.
1995: According to Lexus, only 10 percent of the 1995 LS400’s parts are shared with the preceding model, but you’d never know it by looking at it. As we put it, “if you can spot the difference between the original and the all-new LS400 model at a glance, Bob Dole is a liberal.” A 1.4-inch stretch in wheelbase increases rear legroom without increasing overall length, and the new car is remarkably 208 pounds lighter than the outgoing LS.
1996: We return our Four Seasons LS400 after spending a year with it, racking up over 37,000 miles in the process. “Most of us have finally gotten past criticizing the LS400 for its perfection and its lack of character-giving quirkiness,” we wrote. “Instead, we concentrated on what a marvelous and luxurious mode of transportation the Lexus truly is.
1997: Lexus partners with handbag icon Coach to create a limited-edition LS 400 model, which boasts Coach-sourced leather applied to the seating surfaces, center console lid, shifter, and steering wheel.
1998: Three years after Lexus facelifted and updated the LS, it repeats the process for the 1998 model year. A rounded nose, complete with curvier headlamps, help tie it to the rest of the Lexus lineup. The 4.0-liter V-8’s output was bumped to 290 hp, and paired with a new five-speed automatic transmission. Spend an extra $2250 on top of the $52,900 base price, and you gained a new satellite navigation system.
2000: An all-new LS – the 2001 LS430 – debuts in January at the 2000 Detroit auto show boasting an all-new (if not conservative) exterior. A new Sport package firms the ride quality and irons out some body roll, while an Ultra Luxury package coddles passengers with rear seats that are heated, cooled, and complete with massaging functions. “The LS still lacks the vivid personalities of the big Mercedes and BMWs,” we opine, “but history – and JD Power – now tells us that the people who buy the LS430 won’t mind one bit. Neither do we, as we name it an All-Star the next two years.
2004: The LS gains some tech updates — including Bluetooth phone pairing, a pre-collision system, a six-speed automatic transmission – along with a new suspension with stiffer dampers. Though it handles well, we find the LS “is still far from an ideal driver’s car; it’s meant for American-style short hops, where quietness and isolation are more important than down-the-road command.”
2005: Change in the House of Lexus is nigh, as evidenced by the LF-Sh concept shown at the Tokyo Motor Show. Sure enough, the production-ready 2006 LS debuted months later, looking much like the preceding “concept” car. Two models – the LS460 and LS460 L — were available upon new LS’ market launch, both sharing a new 380-hp, 4.6-liter DOHC V-8 and an eight-speed automatic. As its suffix suggests, the LS 460L is an elongated variant with a wheelbase nearly six inches longer than the standard LS460.
2007: Rumors of a hybrid LS first popped up in 2004, but such a vehicle – the LS600h L – didn’t debut until the non-hybrid LS models were on the market. The LS600h’s all-wheel-drive hybrid driveline pairs a 5.0-liter V-8 with a pair of electric motors. Though the car can be briefly driven on electricity alone, both power sources provide a net output of 438 hp. With a price tag around $113,000, the LS600h L is the first regular production Lexus model to wade into six-figure price territory.
2009: A mild facelift amends both front- and rear fascias ever so slightly. All-wheel-drive becomes an option on the non-hybrid LS460 and LS460 L models. A special-edition Pebble Beach limited-edition model also made its debut at its namesake Concours d’Elegance.
2011: The LS becomes the chariot of royalty when Monaco’s Prince Albert II uses a bespoke LS600h L laundaulet as his wedding chariot
2012: Lexus unveils the new 2013 LS — though more of a mild update, it brings wild new sheetmetal and a new F Sport model with some performance upgrades. For more information on the new 2013 LS, click here for our First Look overview.