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Lexus: Luxury alternative from Japan

The current RX 450h shows that Lexus continues to uphold its core principles.

The origin: Lexus LS400 (1989).

Right from the start, Toyota had great ambitions with the luxurious subsidiary brand Lexus. The brand came out of nowhere and immediately stirred up the luxury segment.

Founded in 1989, the first LS400 model came to Europe and Switzerland in 1990. The goal was to bring an automobile onto the market that was “better than the best in the world,” as Toyota President Eiji Toyodam put it at the time. What was meant were the German top dogs of the time, the BMW 7 Series and Mercedes S-Class. Not an easy task, and the goals were correspondingly ambitious: The sedan was to reach a top speed of 250 km/h, consume an average of 10.5 l/100 km at the most, have a maximum air resistance of 0.29 cW and in the interior too be particularly quiet – 58 decibels at 100 km/h was the specification here.

A completely new engine had to be designed for this, which entailed high development costs. Almost 1000 test vehicles were built before a final version was decided on: a V8 with a displacement of four liters and 241 hp. A further 450 prototypes covered a total of 4.4 million test kilometers before the LS400 made its debut at the 1989 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The origin: Lexus LS400 (1989).

The effort paid off

The high development effort paid off: 42,000 vehicles were sold in the first year. The comparatively low price of 38,000 US dollars was also decisive for this success: A BMW 7 Series cost at least 55,000 dollars at the time, a Mercedes-Benz S-Class was 63,000 dollars. Shocked by the sudden competition, Mercedes felt compelled to make short-term improvements to the new S-Class, which was presented in 1991. This led to massive cost overruns – and ultimately cost the then chief developer his job.

Lexus had proved that they also knew how to build luxury sedans in Japan and made their position as a serious competitor clear right from the start. It didn’t bother that the design of the first LS400 was strongly reminiscent of the German models.

Over time, Lexus has firmly established itself on the streets, especially in the USA, but also in Switzerland: Over the last three years, an average of almost 800 new Lexus cars have been registered in this country every year, and the trend is rising. In addition to the luxury aspect, the brand is now also responsible for a wide range of models with hybrid drives, which benefit from the expertise of the parent company Toyota.

A good example of what the brand stands for today is the RX450h.

Another interesting alternative?

The full hybrid SUV has been around since 2009, the fourth generation since 2015. It received its most recent facelift this year. As 30 years ago, the main focus is on luxury. The driving experience can be described as relaxed gliding: The adaptive chassis irons out all bumps reliably, the combination of V6 naturally aspirated engine and two electric motors on the front and rear axle accelerates the 2-tonne ship gently but vigorously thanks to the 313 hp system output. Consumption remains pleasingly low at 5.9l/100km in the WLTP cycle; in everyday testing it was usually around 7 l/100 km of petrol. As a driver, you hardly notice whether the Lexus is driving purely electrically or in hybrid mode – the technology works imperceptibly in the background. The Lexus does not have to hide from the competition in the interior either: Fine materials also meet excellent workmanship, from which many other “premium manufacturers” could learn a lesson.

The Mark Levinson sound system sounds first class and the SUV is lavishly equipped with today’s usual assistance systems. The only downer is the sluggish, stepless E-CVT transmission, which keeps the engine at a constant high speed during stronger acceleration. With a relaxed driving style, however, this is hardly noticeable.

At 69,200 francs, the base price is still competitive: a BMW X5 costs almost 15,000 francs more, as a plug-in hybrid even almost 30,000 francs more. Thus, Lexus remains true to its principles even after 30 years – and represents a real alternative to the established “premium manufacturers” where you hardly have to make compromises despite the lower price.

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