30 Years of Lexus: How the Luxury Brand Changed the World
Plus: We drive the most significant classic Lexus models.
It isn't always easy to recognize a watershed moment as it happens, but when the Automobile staff first drove the 1990 Lexus LS400, editor David E. Davis Jr. recognized the significance. "All you guys from Munich, Stuttgart, and Coventry, call your offices," he wrote in the January 1989 issue. "I'd say the fox is about to find his way into the henhouse."
Although its conservative styling and quiet demeanor led some to dismiss the LS400 as a glorified Toyota, it proved the Japanese understood what Americans wanted in a luxury car, perhaps even better than Detroit and Stuttgart did—and that they could execute it with the same pedantic attention to detail and quality for which they were known best.
"Audi may dismiss it as plastic," we wrote when we named the LS400 a 1990 All-Star. "Porsche may dismiss it as a pretender. Mercedes-Benz may dismiss it as plebeian. And they'd all better duck, because the LS400 is about to kick some serious tail in the luxury-car market. Nothing close to the Lexus flagship—in price, size, and class—will be unaffected by the new standards the LS400 has set. We all knew the Japanese were serious about their move upmarket into the big-money machines. But in all honesty, none of us expected such a stunning first-year effort from the masters of the econobox."
The LS400 was notable for its unpretentious approach. The styling was a bit derivative, but it was honest, a simple shape with no tacked-on adornment. Inside there wasn't a lick of chrome to be found, just plenty of leather and a bit of wood. Even the plastics didn't pretend to be anything but. Every switch, lever, and button felt weighty and solid, a level of quality that made Cadillac and Lincoln look like amateurs. And with a base price of $35,000—some $28,000 less than a Mercedes 420SEL—it was equally embarrassing to the Germans.
Even today, a drive in an original LS400 impresses, if not for its modern amenities then for its silence, smoothness, serenity, and solidity. Dynamically it's not quite up to modern standards; the brakes feel soft, the steering lacks feedback, and the engine takes its time to build up torque. But whereas today's luxury cars try to overwhelm you with amenities, the LS400 takes a simpler approach, welcoming you in and inviting you to get comfortable. Drive it for a mile, and you're ready to settle in for a cross-country cruise.
In 1991 Lexus followed up with the 1992 SC coupe, which stunned Americans with its styling. In that era, most rear-drive coupes were boxy, long-hood, short-deck affairs—think '89 Monte Carlo, or even '64 Mustang. But the SC's shape, all curves and no flat planes, was a novelty. The car was penned by Calty Design Research in California, and Lexus went so far as to design a bespoke hydraulic radiator fan drive to ensure the power package would fit beneath its desired hoodline. History has blunted the SC's impact; the rest of the industry went bonkers with the no-straight-lines approach, and it became a cliché of 1990s automotive styling. That the first-gen SC stayed in production for eight years with few changes didn't help much, either. At the time, though, no one had seen anything like it.
The SC made a strong counterpoint to those who thought the LS400's styling and dynamics were too bland, and it proved Lexus could be flexible. Although it shared its bones with the LS, alterations to the wheelbase, steering, suspension, and gearing gave it a distinctly sporty edge. Inside, it featured a wraparound cockpit and maple wood trim that curved into the door panels, a sharp contrast to the more sedate LS. The SC400 debuted with the LS400's V-8, and Lexus would follow with the SC300, featuring a 3.0-liter inline-six that would soon have a starring role in the '93 Toyota Supra, coupled with an available manual transmission.
We took a drive in a vintage SC400, and it's still a passable sporty coupe by today's standards—a bit bookish, perhaps, but with a distinct sharpness to its responses. Most important, it's a very different car to drive than the LS, a distinction that showed the world Lexus wasn't a one-note brand. It's not difficult to see why our 1992 staffers were so pleased with the SC400 we added to our Four Seasons fleet. After a year and 36,468 miles with the car, we wrote, "Toyota set out to make the perfect machine and, with the Lexus SC400, has come as close as anyone ever has. It is difficult not to turn a backflip for this car and the entire company that made it possible."
If the LS and SC put Lexus on the map, the 1993 GS300 showed the world where its sights were set. With the SC300's inline-six, rear-wheel drive, and a de-chromed exterior, the GS300 was a shot across the bow of BMW's 5 Series. This may have backfired on Lexus, because in the inevitable comparisons, the GS always came up short. In our first drive, we cited Lexus's goal to build "a Lexus with a BMW persona. It isn't quite, but we're not unhappy with what we found."
Our modern-day drive in a first-year GS brought the memories flooding back. The straight-six engine is a novelty today, but it lacks the snap of the LS's V-8, while the exterior styling doesn't have the SC's visual excitement. Lexus eventually added an optional V-8, all-wheel drive, and a performance-minded hybrid powertrain, all much-needed improvements, but the GS 300 was the first indication Lexus wasn't entirely infallible.
You can't talk about Lexus history without mentioning the 1999 RX300. At the time, the luxury SUV segment consisted of gussied-up trucks like the Infiniti QX4, a poshed-up Nissan Pathfinder (not to mention Lexus's own Land Cruiser-based LX450). Toyota's RAV4, our 1997 Automobile of the Year, had already introduced America to car-based SUVs—the term "crossover" was not yet in common use—and the RX 00 brought the same concept to the luxury field, in a more family-friendly size. (Mercedes was attempting the same thing with the ML320.)
Today we take it for granted that SUVs will drive like cars, but 20 years ago, it was a new concept. At the time, we were a bit confused by an SUV that couldn't go off-road, but we certainly appreciated the soft on-road ride. The RX300 flouted the advantages that came with its transversely mounted V-6, including a flat floor and minivan-style center console separate from the dashboard. This was exactly the vehicle that upscale suburban moms were looking for. A year before it went on sale, Lexus predicted the RX would be one of its best-selling models. It was, and it remains so to this day.
Driving the RX300 in 2019 is a very different experience than the other vintage Lexus models. Aside from the expansive view out back—we hadn't realized how small and pinched back windows have become—the RX felt perfectly ordinary. And that, we realized, is what makes it so amazing: What the RX300 pioneered 20 years ago has become today's normal.
Today, Lexus is a luxury brand working hard to stay ahead in a very competitive segment. Ironically, it might not have to work so hard to compete had it not raised the standards for the whole industry in the first place.