For a company whose motto is the obviously difficult "relentless pursuit of perfection," Lexus' formula for success has been relatively simple: Just aim for the fences.
That's exactly what Toyota's then-new, upstart luxury division had done with the original LS 400 for the introduction of its brand back in 1989. Its spiffy flagship sedan was a smash hit the moment it reached market. Of course, some of that had to do with a bargain price — obviously subsidized by Toyota in an effort to launch the nameplate. But even a series of hefty price "readjustments" couldn't slow the runaway sales success of the first-generation LS 400, proving it a worthy competitor to the world's finest luxury models.
Blessed with a smooth, powerful V8 and superb build quality, the LS 400 quickly zoomed to the head of the luxury class, claiming a slew of customer satisfaction and vehicle dependability awards while building a loyal owner base. It was no wonder that, when it came time for a model revision in 1995, Lexus decided to not fix what wasn't broke. Instead, it targeted class-leading performance and quality in an evolutionary update more concerned with function than form. The end result was even more acclaim, and an ever-growing consensus that dollar-for-dollar, the Lexus LS sedan just might be the best-built mass-produced luxury car on the planet.
So when a third-generation makeover was slated for 2001, exactly how did Lexus plan on improving what some consider the benchmark sedan in the premium luxury segment? Simple: By going after even more —; more design edginess, more interior room, more comfort, more features, more performance, more safety and more technology. As that old disco-era song says, "More, more, more! How do you like it? How do you like it?"
Enter the 2001 Lexus LS 430. As you've probably guessed, its alphanumeric model designation changes from 400 to 430 because of a bump in displacement in its silky V8, up from 4.0 to 4.3 liters. The car that made a mockery of luxury sedans powered by six-cylinders - and even some feeble V8s —; now touts a new 290-horsepower engine, spinning out 320 foot-pounds of torque. Thanks to Variable Valve Timing with intelligence (VVT-i), the typical compromise between delivering low-end torque and high-revving horsepower is eliminated. By optimizing valve overlap throughout the engine's rpm range instead of just at one or two set speeds, the Lexus 4.3-liter feels more responsive than many overhead-cam V8s of larger displacement. And smooth? Oh, baby!
Bore and stroke were increased for additional torque, yet the new motor provides the same fuel economy as the smaller 4.0-liter. It is also lighter and emits fewer emissions, and can even maintain the power curve in a given driving situation, thanks to an electronic system called Intuitive Powertrain Control. Most important, the new LS 430 can sprint smartly from zero to 60 mph in a very sporting 6.3 seconds. And the sophisticated electronics in Lexus' seamless five-speed automatic transmission helps it respond to road grade and acceleration/deceleration activity, holding gears on inclines and automatically downshifting when the driver applies the brake. This, folks, is one slick powertrain.
Lest you think at first glance that the new LS 430 is a mere freshening, consider that while some of the structural parts, nuts and bolts were carried over from the previous-generation LS 400, more than 90 percent of this car is all-new. Overall length is the same, but the LS 430 is slightly taller and its wheelbase is 3 inches longer, making for a bigger cabin. And even though the rear overhang has been shortened, the trunk is actually 33 percent larger because the fuel tank has been moved to a location under the rear seats.
That means the Lexus gains some competitive advantages over the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, with more interior space, front head- and legroom and trunk volume than the bigger Benz. What's more, a Mercedes S430 may have the same-size engine, but the Lexus can boast having 15 more horsepower and 25 more foot-pounds of torque, while charging zero to 60 mph more than a half-second faster than its German counterpart.
For good measure, Lexus wanted to further distance itself from the pack with even more precise fit-and-finish. So designers used a new supercomputer to digitize the entire body surface of the LS 430. They were then able to reduce the unit of measurement for body panels to 1/1000th of a millimeter - or 10 times more precise than the 1/100th of a millimeter standard that was used to build the award-winning current model.
While they were at it, engineers further reduced wind noise and body NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) by testing the new car in the same wind tunnel used by Japan Railway for their bullet trains. Airflow around bumpers, fenders and mirrors was fine-tuned. Gains were made from the tiniest of things, such as adjusting the angle of the front grille bars, and adding small spoilers on suspension components beneath the body's sealed floorpan. The result is a 0.25 Cd for the air-suspension-equipped model (0.26 with the standard suspension) —; or the lowest coefficient of drag of any standard passenger car, matched only by the wind-cheating shape of the fuel-stingy Honda Insight hybrid.
We'll admit the more muscular, chiseled exterior design is indeed fresher-looking, but there's no mistaking the LS 430 for anything but the Euro-clone interpretation of a Mercedes S-Class that it has always been. And now for 2001, the Lexus will actually try to offer the same kind of driving feel as the top European sedans.
Lexus brass admitted that the big knock on the LS 400 has been its perceived lack of driving character. It has sometimes been described as sedate, even boring. In fact, some reviewers have likened driving the LS 400 to being in an isolation chamber —; certainly not the kind of exhilarating behind-the-wheel experience that upmarket enthusiast owners are looking for. So for the first time Lexus will offer a sporty, European-tuned suspension as a no-charge option when you pop for the upgrade to 17-inch wheels and W-rated tires.
As it is, the standard LS 430 suspension is tuned for firmer, more responsive handling, and if you happen to like the ultra-smooth Lexus ride, you'll be pleased to know that a computer-controlled adaptive air suspension system can be ordered to electronically modulate the ride to maximize smoothness. But that's just the tip of the tech iceberg.
A variety of new luxury and convenience features are available on the LS 430, such as dynamic laser cruise control (the first-ever use of distance-measuring laser sensors to slow down or speed up the car based on the movement of traffic ahead) and Intuitive Parking Assist or IPA (which uses ultrasonic sensors to detect tough-to-spot obstacles). There's a DVD-based navigation system with integrated phone and voice-command recognition, amazing climate-controlled seats with integral heating and cooling, as well as power heated rear seats with memory and massage. You also get a year's worth of Lexus Link, a communications service run by specially trained folks at GM's OnStar. If high-end sound is your thing, you can get a 240-watt Mark Levinson audio system.
On the safety side you'll find even more tech acronyms: four-channel antilock brakes (ABS) with Brake Assist (BA) and Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), Traction Control (called TRAC), and Vehicle Skid Control (VSC). In addition to driver and multi-stage front-passenger airbags, the LS 430 employs front seat-mounted side airbags as well as side curtain airbags that run the length of the cabin to protect outboard occupants.
Luxury Lexus touches, like a wood-and-leather steering wheel with audio controls, or dual-zone climate controls with swing-air registers, or even a standard six-disc, single-feed, in-dash CD changer, are nearly "must-have" items these days. Want even more? Well, the LS 430 also includes a 14-way power driver's seat (10-way power for the passenger) with memory, heated auto-dimming exterior mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, an immobilizer anti-theft system and even a power trunk closer. But hey, isn't offering a water-repellent windshield and front door glass (laminated side glass is available), headlight washers, power rear sunshade and even a rear air-purifier, a bit over the top?
Of course, the value of all this stuff rests on how well it works in the real world. While we were only able to spend a couple of hours with the new LS 430 during its press preview, we can tell you that we didn't need to go fumbling through the owner's manual to figure out how to operate some of the new features. The fact that many of the LS 430's controls are intuitive says a lot about the beauty of simplicity in such a complex piece of machinery. But we must admit that we were much more interested in the dynamics of the new big Lexus —; especially to see if its "vanilla" label could finally be lifted.
In that regard, we found a distinct difference in handling and steering from LS 400s we've driven —; even on the LS 430 we sampled that was not equipped with the Euro-Tuned Sport Suspension. More road feel has been dialed into the steering, and a firmer ride with less body lean is easily evident. That said, we'd still opt for the sportier suspension, as we felt it applied power more directly to the pavement, allowing us to better explore the engine's athletic ability with no appreciable loss of ride comfort.
Lexus says the newfound handling ability of the LS should draw a buyer slightly younger than the current car's median age of 58. The typical LS 430 owner is expected to be a highly educated professional, married male with a median age of 47-55, pulling down an income in the $200,000 per year range. While the company figures that about 55 percent of LS 430 sales will be to current Lexus owners, the rest should come from folks shopping Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, Infiniti, BMW and other luxury brands.
About 8,000 units are scheduled to be produced before the end of 2000 (some 5000 orders are already on the books), with the first of the 2001 models reaching Lexus' 187 North American showrooms in mid-October. Lexus announced the starting MSRP (Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price) at $54,005 —; or the exact same price as the current-generation LS 400. But don't let that fool you. The top-of-the-line, fully loaded Ultra Luxury Selection LS 430 with all the new bells and whistles will set you back a cool $68,500. Annual production is estimated to reach 25,000 beginning next year —; or about 11,000 more than the current model. Beyond the United States, the LS 430 will also be marketed and sold in Europe and the Middle East.
Overall, we've always felt the flagship Lexus was a near-perfect car with only one major drawback —; its driving dynamics were so comfortable that they were almost uninviting, lulling the driver into near-boredom. Oh, sure, we realize that the quiet ride, myriad of features and excellent build quality is what draws buyers to Lexus in the first place. And having more, more, more of that stuff is obviously how they like it. But the fact that there's also more power, more handling and more road feel added into this luxury equation makes us more inclined to like it better ourselves.
At first glance, the new LS 430 is a fine successor to an already stellar sedan. For our money, adding a bit of driving spice only increases its appeal. You won't confuse it with a dedicated European sport sedan, mind you, but at least the German competition has Lexus finally leaning toward more sporting pretensions. Now, if we could only get them to give the LS 430 a teeny bit of an exhaust note...