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At 20, still obeying the 'Lexus Covenant'

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  September 1, 2009 10:12 PM

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The Lexus LS400, shown here in 1994, changed little in its first seven years.

Few auto analysts and industry insiders would have predicted the success that Toyota's Lexus brand has achieved. Twenty years ago, the idea of a Japanese premium brand that would aim squarely at the established high-end players — namely, Mercedes — only in the North American market was sort of amusing. Introduced in 1989 as 1990 models, the original LS 400 was an S-Class copycat, the ES 250 a pricier clone of the Camry. That LS, like many Lexus models until the brand was formally established in Japan four years ago, was a rebadged home-market Toyota. But to us, it was brand new, and shocking that it could offer so much luxury for just $35,000, nearly $20,000 less than a base Mercedes 350SE. Lexus sold 16,000 LS and ES sedans from 81 dealerships that year.

Today's LS 460 and ES 350 are still the respective S-Class chaser and gussied-up Camry the cars were 20 years ago. But both of these cars have stolen hundreds of thousands of sales away from Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Jaguar, Cadillac, and Lincoln dealers in far less time. The secret, in addition to an obsession with quality, reliability, and undercutting competitors by thousands of dollars at a time? It's the "Lexus Covenant," a motivational poem straight from the company's general manager Mark Templin.

"Lexus will do it right from the start. Lexus will have the finest dealer network in the industry. Lexus will treat each customer as we would a guest in our home. If you think you can't, you won't... If you think you can, you will. We can, We Will."

They did. Now there's 227 dealerships peddling everything from M3-fighting sedans to hybrid crossovers (Lexus kicked off the luxury crossover segment with its best-selling RX in 1999). The phrase "Lexus-quiet," the industry superlative bestowed on cars with superb road isolation, literally wiped out Cadillac's "standard of the world" title. Nissan launched its Infiniti brand two months after Lexus, and while Acura had been around since 1986, it hadn't set its competitive sights so high.

Hyundai, which rose from trash to economy car fame by studying Lexus, is now trying to compete with them with its Genesis sedan, and soon, the ultra-lux Equus. Even though Hyundai famously killed a $10 billion proposal to create its own "Lexus" nameplate, the company is achieving high rankings in quality surveys by following much of the "Covenant." Even Buick is jet-set on fighting the ES 350 with its 2010 LaCrosse, and may actually have a good chance.

Despite its common, ultra-conservative designs (modern exceptions being the IS-F and SC 430), languid driving dynamics, and tendency to rebadge less expensive Toyotas (the LX Land Cruiser and ES Camry, among others), Lexus, while afraid to take risks, has stuck to what works. Everyone else in the industry, at some point or another, has wanted to work like that, too.

Out of the whole lineup, I'd take only the 416 horsepower IS-F, a fully decked out LS or perhaps the new 2010 IS C. The rest of the lineup, while very competent, is far too boring. A greater emphasis on leading the luxury segment through bold design and performance will see Lexus really jump.

That will mean occasionally dealing with critics hell-bent on strapping a company's chief designer to a 10,000 gallon tanker and throwing him or her off a bridge while engulfed in flames. Chris Bangle, former design chief at BMW, knows that all too well. But he also knows what it's like to influence other automakers — and catch them unaware with standouts like the X6 and upcoming 550i GT.

The LF-A supercar, which promises to run against the best from Mercedes AMG, Aston Martin, and Ferrari, is likely to push Lexus in this direction. It can't come fast enough.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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16 comments so far...
  1. I read once that the Lexus LS(first generation) model was the most reliable car made having minimal problems over the course of 15-18 years. This was during a search of reliable 10-yr old car models of which I was looking to purchase.

    I'm not sure if it continues to hold the title today or if the Toyota Avalon(of which I think the two models are related) holds the same great reliability records.

    I would be extremely curious if someone knows or could direct me to a site with this information.

    Posted by Andy September 2, 09 10:58 AM
  1. Love our '01 LS430 (purchased used, former lease car at 2 yrs old.) Great service from the Danvers dealer. It is quiet, comfortable, powerful and gets great gas mileage (no clunker this! combined is 19 mpg but we typically get in the low 20's mpg). Although the rear of the car is starting to look dated the grill on this is still the sexiest part of the car. Love to have a 460!

    Posted by BoomersRock September 2, 09 11:43 AM
  1. I remember destroying the LS with Blanka and Ken/Ryu in Street Fighter II waaaaay back in the day

    Posted by Pluto Nash September 2, 09 11:45 AM
  1. I have an IS300 2002. Best car ever. Just hit 70K miles and only had to do the brakes so far.

    Posted by Joe September 2, 09 01:23 PM
  1. Just inherited a '92 LS400 from a brother who inherited it from our dad. About to roll up 260,000 miles

    The driver's seat is worn out and the driver's side window doesn't work. Some trim pieces have come unglued, but otherwise in good shape. It's certainly comfortable and competent enough, but not exactly _fun_ to drive.

    Posted by O September 2, 09 02:46 PM
  1. An ES 300/350 is not a straight rebage of a Camry. There are hundreds of detail differences, from the grade of sheetmetal used to the tolerances in the brake rotors. One way to think of if is if you like the Camry very much and wanted a custom version, with everything upgraded in some way, greater QC, more ride isolation and all the optional features standard. Toyota makes much more per unit on a Lexus (same is true for all luxury brands) but attempting to upgrade a Camry after it's assembled to equal the Lexus cousin would cost far more.

    There's not much reason to cross-shop the two: if you want transportation and some luxury per dollar, the Camry class vehicles offer that. If you're a perfectionist and a few thousand doesn't mean much to you, then most of the uplevel brands offer hidden extras compared to the value lines. They're not all equal of course... look for the car that's weighted toward what concerns you, e.g a small BMW has great steering, a Lexus has a smoother ride and better reliability.

    Posted by Car Tinkerer September 2, 09 03:16 PM
  1. I have a 1997 ES 300 and I just got to 172k with original trans. and engine. Its still quiet inside and out.

    Posted by BF September 2, 09 04:31 PM
  1. The IS300 really is the best car ever. Our family has had a mercedes and a jaguar and I've ridden in many BMWs before and the IS300 is still the most amazing car ever.

    Posted by thegreatsock September 2, 09 09:29 PM
  1. Bought an 01' ES 300 last year w/only 37k miles, by far the best car I've ever owned. V-6 is so smooth w/plenty of power, very quiet, drives great. This car replaced an Acura CL which was nothing but problems. Only had to do the breaks. Hofefully my next Lexus is the GS 430

    Posted by ralph69 September 3, 09 07:48 AM
  1. What is a Mercedes 350 SE? They never made that model in 1984! They had a 380 SE/SEL and in 1986 came the 300/ 420/ 560 SEL series.

    Lexus is fine but keep in mind they are no longer the cheap alternative to luxury they once were. Service costs can be exorbitant if you let the "stealership" take advantage of you.

    Posted by Doin Research September 3, 09 08:34 AM
  1. @Car Tinkerer: That's the case NOW. But from its introduction up until the most recent ES redesign (circa 2006), the ES was basically a modified (mainly in the suspension) Toyota Avalon, which was itself a stretched 80s-era Camry body.

    The current generation ES was a significant body redesign that abandoned the old Avalon base for completely new sheetmetal based around the "L-finesse" styling. It's totally distinct from the Camry and the Avalon.

    Posted by DaveR September 3, 09 02:09 PM
  1. Sorry.....give me either a W126 coupe (500/560 SEC) or sedan or the later W140 (S 420/500/600) any day over a Lexus.

    The original is still the best......

    Posted by YEEHAH September 3, 09 04:10 PM
  1. There is a missing sense of direction I feel in Lexus still that Europeans do a better job of capturing. That direction is compromising driving dynamics for luxury in some cases. Lexus makes exceptions. For example BMW has a philosopy that Front Wheel Drive vehicles go against their philsopy of a sports sedan. They don't offer a single one and stick to it. Speaking of sticking to it, Infiniti/BMW believe that even luxury cars deserve the choice of transmissions for drivers that want involvement. Try to find a single Lexus product with a manual transmission in New England. Except for the carppy IS250 offered only in Europe and close to CA states, they don't exist. There is no Lexus product I desire. And while they do a good job of capturing the interest of the baby boomers, many of their vehicles don't even get considered for major auto comparisons from magz like Car and Driver.

    Posted by xman September 3, 09 08:03 PM
  1. My 1997 ES300 has 125 k miles and drives like the first day I bought it. I looks almost brand new, also.

    It will be celebrating its Bar Mitzvah in 2 months.

    Posted by LexusFan September 4, 09 02:30 PM
  1. believe it or not, Lexus cars are actually more expensive to maintain than a BMW or Mercedes. I've owned both and found the aftermarket for parts to be not as deep as that for German cars, but even dealer-priced parts for a Benz or BMW are consistently less than that of similar parts that go on a Lexus. And I'm comparing an E-class and an ES300, where the Lexus isn't even in the same class or size!

    I love Lexus, don't get me wrong; they make great cars - but boring is the right term by this author. I'd much rather have the very occasional gremlin (my Mercedes 3.2Liter V6 engine was a work of art and was always super-reliable) that still allows you to drive the car but may require a little more pampering, and is made for the authobahn. Laugh if you want about that, but drive both consistently for years - I even liked my Passat wagon 4motion better than any Lexus I've driven simply because of its handling, road feel, and low end torque.

    We have an embarrassment of riches from which to choose as consumers of vehicles; this is just another great one.

    Posted by FJ September 14, 09 07:37 AM
  1. xman, Benz also doesn't offer much in the way of manual transmissions in the states, but for different reasons - their transmissions are excellent and they have had a longstanding philosophy of driver convenience...for a long time they've had computer adaptable transmissions that detect your driving style and adapt to it in terms of shifts...found my Benz tranny to be smooth as silk despite the fact I could only shift upward or downward using the touch-shift method.

    Posted by FJ September 14, 09 07:44 AM

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
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AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
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Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
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