From the October 2000 issue of Car and Driver.
Some automakers are forever describing their new but utterly ordinary cars as “revolutionary” or “world-class” or “setting a new standard.” Such hyperbole, regularly ginned up by shameless proles in the promotion department, have reduced these words of grand praise to hollow drivel. But once in a great while the hyperbole turns out to be true. Which seems to be the case, in many respects, with the new Lexus LS430.
Ten years ago, the first generation of this car, the LS400, permanently changed—dare we say revolutionized—the big-spender end of the market. Before Lexus came along, the Germans were riding a reputation of design and engineering infallibility stretching back to the ’60s, a myth they leveraged into a monopoly of the luxury-car trade. But as happens with monopolists, they became arrogant and complacent, raising prices to nose-bleed altitudes with impunity and getting by with incremental upgrades to their cars from year to year rather than keeping them up to date with timely redesigns. In effect, they were telling their customers, “Hey, if you’re going to quibble, go somewhere else.”
Then along came Lexus, and suddenly there was a someplace else. The Japanese company forced the German automakers, Mercedes-Benz in particular, into painful reforms that ended careers and buried long-held illusions of invincibility.
Lexus, being a unit of Toyota, the world’s third largest automaker, had the resources to take on the Germans and do it right. Although the design was clearly Mercedes-derivative, the flagship LS400 sedan really did raise luxury-car standards in engineering, quality, comfort, and quiet operation. Just as important, the new Lexus car had the audacity to undersell its German counterparts by thousands of dollars—the original LS400 was 20 grand less than the bottom-of-the-line Mercedes S-class of the day—a marketing ploy based on this novel premise: Even rich people like a good deal.
Lexus is sticking to the same script with the 2001-model LS430, which will start at about $55,000 and top out around $70,000, and a Lexus exec assured us it will not exceed that mark.
For all that long green, the LS430 buyer gets a luxury sedan that’s “90 percent all-new,” according to Lexus, with just a few minor components carrying over from the previous generation. At first glance, though, the newness isn’t all that apparent — this one looks a lot like the last one. Which is to say, the LS430’s styling is simple and unadorned but imposing and clearly identifiable. The car’s lines and proportions neither hide nor emphasize its size but combine to give it a gravitas appropriate for a car of its class. It may not make heads swivel, but it will draw appreciative nods.
But look past the styling, and the differences between this new car and last year’s LS400 become apparent. Although the LS430 is the same length (196.7 inches) as its predecessor, its wheelbase (115.2 inches) is three inches longer. Two inches of that materialize as additional rear-seat legroom, and the other inch makes space for a rearward shove of some underhood components to put their weight closer to the center of gravity. The longer wheelbase also offers some ride-quality advantages, but the object of the redesign, says Yasushi Tanaka, the engineer who headed up the LS430’s design team, was “to exceed the competition from Europe in terms of handling and stability.”
The car has the hardware to do the job. Displayed in cutaways at the press preview for the LS430, its major bits and pieces looked like landing-gear parts from an F-14 Tomcat. The front and rear suspensions are tidy, strong, and light, with hot-forged aluminum control arms and steering knuckles. The one-piece, two-piston brake calipers would be at home on a race car; the brake rotors are a foot across.
And the engine, an evolution of the existing V-8, humming along on its own display pedestal, showed off an abundance of finely machined valves, cams, and gears. The engine’s displacement is bumped to 4.3 liters, increasing torque by 20 pound-feet to 320. Horsepower remains at 290 (a Lexus exec winked and hinted that the 300-hp threshold was being saved for a future model-year update), but the power peak has been eased down the rpm scale—torque maxes out at 3400 rpm instead of 4000—to improve acceleration and midrange performance. Lexus says the 3950-pound car will quick-step to 60 in just 6.3 seconds—0.3 second quicker than Lexus claimed for last year’s model, which we clocked at 6.4 seconds to 60. After sprinting from a full stop into the three-digit range, we’re disinclined to dispute the claim. The five-speed automatic transmission is also updated from that of the previous model and is so smooth that shifting gears is more of an aural than a physical experience.
When asked what new features of his design were most significant, chief engineer Tanaka answered without hesitation, “Coefficient of drag and electronic technology.” The low Cd of 0.25 was eked out by intensive development of the underbody, and in max-luxo configuration, the LS430 uses 28 computers to monitor everything from the fly-by-wire throttle to the rain-sensing windshield wipers.
The low drag number also helps make this Lexus as silent as a medieval chapel, and the electronics permit such clever features as a parking-assist system, which uses ultrasonic proximity sensors to warn of impending bumper banging, and the “Dynamic Laser Cruise Control,” which automatically slows the LS430 if it gets too close to the car ahead.
These are just some of the LS430’s myriad standard or optional goodies. In addition to the usual luxury-car stuff, it comes with a water-repellent windshield, a power rear-window shade, and enough wood trim to build a canoe. Options include a navigation system, a killer sound system, and a voice-activated phone. And if these aren’t enough, there’s an Ultra Luxury option package that tosses in a variable air-suspension system, an adjustable rear seat, and enough bells and whistles to start a marching band. On a more substantive note, there’s a “Euro-tuned” sport-suspension package with stiffer springs and bushings and 17-inch alloy wheels with W-rated tires.
We drove each suspension version of the LS430—standard, sport, and luxury—on the highway and on the fast, 14-corner Road America race course in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Regardless of the type of suspension, the LS430 glides down the road seemingly a couple of inches off the pavement, as though ripples and cracks and expansion joints weren’t even there. At the limits, braking hard from 105 mph to set up for a 65-mph hard right, the car’s weight transfers smoothly forward without any lurching dive. It responds obediently to the merest hint of steering input and turns in smoothly and precisely. Exceed the limit, and it transitions progressively into oversteer that’s easily corrected with a slight lift off the throttle and a mere flick of the wheel.
To say that the LS430 can do it all is understatement; it seamlessly balances first-class cabin comfort and the latest in gee-whiz technology with effortless performance in a way that matches the best in an extraordinary class for thousands less. The formula still works.
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