By Casey Williams
Since introducing the LS400 and ES250 at the Detroit and Los Angeles auto shows in 1989, Lexus has adhered to its famous tag line, “The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection.” That pursuit gave Mercedes and Cadillac a rude awakening, and it has led to an array of excellent products. It’s interesting to consider all Lexus has become.
Before Lexus, Toyota’s flagship was the Cressida sedan — a car that would be completely out-classed by today’s Camry. The idea that Toyota would rival the mighty Mercedes-Benz for prestige luxury seemed like a joke, but people didn’t laugh long: the $35,000 LS400 earned a reputation as one of the finest cars in the world with near-perfect durability – a Mercedes S-Class at half the price. The ES250 was a well-appointed mid-size competitor to the Cadillac Seville, Acura Legend, and Mercedes 190E. Lexus service was (and is) beyond compare, earning heaps of awards and schooling rivals.
By 1991, the smooth SC400 coupe arrived to accompany the new ES300’s suave aero skin. Both cars were visions of the future. Lexus tapped Italy’s Giugiaro studios in 1993 for the rear-drive GS300 sport sedan to rival the BMW 5-Series and Mercedes E-Class. Its iconic shape evolved through three generations to the current GS450h hybrid.
Most radical and market-changing were the 1998 RX300 and 1995 LX450. The RX300, based on Camry mechanicals, was the first luxury crossover. Media pundits couldn’t figure out what to call it. Was it a mini-van, SUV, station wagon, or what? “What” turned out to be a revolution that soon inspired the Volvo XC90, Cadillac SRX, Lincoln MKX, and Acura MDX. Based on the venerable Toyota Land Cruiser, the LX450 gave initial pause. Would it sell? It did, prompting the Cadillac Escalade, Lincoln Navigator, Mercedes GL, and Infiniti QX to covet its lunch and giving the Range Rover heck along the way.
Lexus really went for the jugular with the SC430 hardtop convertible. Styled like a Japanese highboy with a stellar Mark Levinson audio system, wood-paneled interior, and soft leather, the car was Neiman Marcus with open sky. Before the top was fully lowered, Lexus launched the hybrid RX400h, GS450h, and LS600h to showcase hybrid efficiency with full-on luxury. The Prius-sized HS250h hybrid heaped on even more technology, like lane departure warning and heads-up navigation. IS compact sedans and convertibles are giving it to BMW; F-models breathe considerable fire. Lexus’ next generation will be defined by the CT200h and LFA.
Due early next year, the CT200h takes Lexus luxury to a younger and more value-conscious audience, but spoils with hatchback utility, sporty exterior, luxurious interior, and an efficient 1.8-litre Atkinson cycle engine mated to Toyota’s hybrid system. Owners can select one of four drive modes from EV to Sport, Pre-Collision System, Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, and voice-recognition controls.
At the entirely opposite end of the Lexus continuum is the 2011 LFA. An over-achiever among over-achievers, the supercar thumps with a 560-HP 4.8-litre V-10, carbon fibre body and chassis, aluminum subframes, and robotic rear wing. It runs 0-60 mph in 3.8 seconds, on to a top speed of 202 mph. Its $375,000 base price makes it as dear as two Mercedes SLS Gullwings or three Corvette ZR-1s.
Because there was Lexus, Hyundai is taken quite seriously as it carves up a wide niche with the Genesis and upcoming Equus flagship sedans. No doubt, Hyundai studied Lexus well. Lexus forced the established marques to react, resulting in the excellent Cadillacs, Mercedes, Audis, Acuras, and Infinitis we love today. Here’s a toast to Lexus’ next 21: may it never stop pursuing perfection!