Serene machine

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Lexus is making strides in the luxury market. The question is, can the establishment hear the L5400 approaching?

It would hardly be fair to compare the latest Lexus LS400 with a caravan, despite its overall dimensions and mild slab-sidedness. However, for under £50,000 it is without question the closest thing to a living room on wheels that you can buy…

Like its parent company, Toyota, Lexus achieved new sales records in August. A total of 289 LS400s was sold in Britain. Unlike the car itself, it’s hardly what you would call big volume, though it is a respectable reflection on Lexus’s growing influence on the luxury sector: by way of comparison, BMW sold 683 7-Series models during the same period; Mercedes-Benz sold 534 examples of its S-class.

The new LS400 looks vaguely similar to the original, launched in 1990, though the edges have been rounded subtly and the rear end treatment now has a hint of Mercedes about it. All it really lacks is the visual dynamism of its most obvious Teutonic rivals. There is nothing outstanding about its form which jumps out, smacks you in the eye and stamps the Lexus motif on your brain.

The three-pointed star has been around a long time, as has a certain blue-and-white chequered circle. Image is something which has to be cultivated. Respect is something which has to be earned. Right now, Lexus is still in the formative stages of both development curves, so it has valid reason to be encouraged by sales progress.

When the Lexus marque was launched, the accent was on refinement. The LS400 makes no attempt to combine luxury with sport, in the way that BMW formerly managed so successfully with its 735i (and still does, to a lesser extent, with the 7400. It simply combines luxury with, well, more luxury. Its only concession to ‘sport’ is a ‘performance’ button by the side of the four-speed automatic transmission gate; this provides a mild accelerative gain if required.

The Lexus is so quiet at idle that you really do have to check the tachometer to verify that you have switched on. And it doesn’t get much noisier than that. Ferrari uses a quad-cam, 32-valve V8 to generate the ultimate aural experience in a car. The LS400 engine is of similar specification, but you could run it at full bore in a library and few would notice. As well as the incorporation of dieting materials, the pistons have been reshaped, and both piston ring tension and valve-spring load have been decreased as part of a programme of measures geared to reducing friction.

This emphasis on silence is not to say that the LS400 lacks performance. It just happens to be restful on the ears. The engine is a lightened, reworked version of the original V8, which now yields 260 bhp at 5400 rpm. That’s modestly potent by current standards, and the power is well harnessed by the electronically-governed transmission. Under full throttle, the rear wheels do little other than accelerate, even in the wet, and standing start acceleration is on a par with the BMW 740i.

Despite its extra equipment, Lexus has in fact made the LS400 fully 90 kg lighter than its progenitor by amassing small savings throughout the car. As a result, it is now lighter than either the 7401, the Mercedes-Benz 500S or even the aluminium-rich Audi A8.

Even so, it weighs in at a substantial 1680 kilos. Lexus claims 7.4s for the 0-60 mph dash, which is brisk, even if although it doesn’t feel it from behind the wheel.

Actually, nothing about the Lexus feels lightning fast, which is a tribute to its unnatural smoothness in all situations. Some might not enjoy being so far removed from the actual driving experience, and you can’t get much further away than not actually knowing whether or not your engine is switched on, but what type of customer is Lexus trying to reach? Not the sort who is going to care a jot about power to weight ratios and ultimate handling finesse on an everyday basis, that’s for certain.

Set it free on an autobahn, and the LS400 will glide along (at up to 156 mph). In urban traffic, it passes muster. It does not ‘shrink’ around you in the way that some cars can (or could, as the 735i springs to mind yet again), but it does not feel ungainly. On twisty B-roads it changes direction as lithely as one has has any right to expect, the body rolling to a lesser degree than you might anticipate, and it overtakes with consummate brio, aided by a healthy 269 lb ft of torque at a reasonable 4600 rpm.

The transmission, like the engine, performs with silken efficiency. Gearchanges are barely noticeable; even kickdown has the apparent punch of a sickly featherweight. At all times, the car’s speed remains a closely guarded secret, detectable only via the fluorescent white (cold cathode tube) dials of the instrument binnacle.

The cabin is extraordinarily well equipped, and features some nice detail touches. Many medium-sized saloons have had to compromise storage space to accommodate passenger airbags; the nearside of the Lexus features not only an airbag, but also houses a six-disc CD autochanger (which reaches seven speakers) and a generous glovebox.

Several herds of cattle have been sacrificed for the sake of internal ambience: leather covers just about everything apart from the switchgear… and the obligatory burr walnut. It is all very neat, tidy and user-friendly, though truth be told you could be in almost any large Japanese saloon. It is functional, but hardly distinctive. The standard equipment list is almost as weighty as a telephone directory: air conditioning, aforementioned CD, a twin centre console with drinks holder and prewired facility for a digital telephone, powered front seats, heated front and rear seats, electric sunroof and windows with one-touch facility, windscreen heater, electric mirrors, electrically-powered adjustable steering… The wheel even retracts automatically to improve egress, and it returns automatically to its previous setting upon your return to the car.

Effectively, therefore, there is no such thing as an options list.

In keeping with its cosseting nature, the Lexus rides impeccably on all road surfaces. Knocks from urban pot holes are heard, not felt.

The braking comes via a sizeable quartet of ventilated discs: it is a capable system, unaffected by fade or intrusion from the standard (naturally) ABS.

Verdict

It is difficult to criticise the LS400. Indeed, it would be churlish to do so. You can’t fault a manufacturer for producing something which is so utterly efficient.

About the only thing which is missing from the standard equipment list is a bit of charisma. Supreme efficiency is no substitute for character.

That said, the Lexus succeeds in its stated aims like few other cars. It takes so much effort out of driving that it’s a bit like having a chauffeur, but without the inconvenience of having to pay a salary.

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