Motoring: Auto Biography: The Lexus LS400 IN 0-60 seconds

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The Independent Culture
LAST year, sales of the big, plush Lexus LS400 rose by more than 60 per cent against the previous year, while almost everybody else on that ledge of the market clung on by the fingernails. The Lexus, in case you didn't know, is Toyota's Mercedes-Benz, though the company would go into meltdown at the suggestion it was copying its European rival. Moreover, you're hard put to find the name Toyota anywhere on its

voluptuous carcass. The Lexus LS400 currently sells for nearly pounds 43,000, which is no snip but still a five-figure sum cheaper than a

directly comparable Mercedes. Terrific build-quality, sepulchral silence, plenty of gizmos that you pay extra for on a Merc - these are the things that have quelled the old barfly chitchat that Japanese cars might go for ever but would never have class.

Mercedes, BMW and Jaguar have been seriously unnerved by the arrival of the Lexus. It isn't just that the Japanese have challenged the old aristocrats on the trappings of their status alone, they have undermined them on the subtle ingredients so hard to get right: the subjective impressions of lifetime reliability; the treacherously difficult blending of luxury ride and tight handling; even, dammit, the beginnings of a charisma all their own.

The interior of the big Lexus saloon may be a little bland, but with the exception of Jaguars and the six-figure grandees from Rolls-Royce, this is true of all its rivals. Japanese ideas about leather upholstery (a material they apparently dislike) never amount to much, so the furniture feels cheaper than the rest of the car. But it's superbly comfortable and supportive, and the absence of mechanical and road noise makes it as peaceful as any limousine in the business.

The car's strengths lie in the sweetness and effortlessness of its engine, the engineering of the gearbox and drive-train (the gadgets that get the power to the roadwheels), the precision of the bodybuilding and finish, and the buoyancy of its ride over bad surfaces. Above all, on this substantial car, power-assistance makes parking a breeze, but the solidity of the steering builds up at speed, until on motorways it feels as firm as a rock. As a measure of the engineering genius that went into the engine, Which Car? testers stood a 50p piece on its edge on top of the cam cover and revved the engine up to the limit without the coin so much as wobbling.

The Lexus LS400 isn't far off being a great car. Coming out of nowhere in this specialised field, Toyota has proved how big you can get by bothering.

GOING PLACES: Strong but silent under-bonnet punch - all- aluminium 32-valve V8 engine; 241 brake horsepower and 258ft lbs of torque at 4400 revs per minute; 0-60mph in 8.5 secs; 50- 70mph overtaking in approx 4.5 secs. Slightly tacky-looking gearshift, but super-smooth gearbox and drive-train.

STAYING ALIVE: Carved-from- granite construction feel, very accurate panelling, extensively crash-tested, anti-lock brakes, airbags standard. Handling excellent, particularly on fast twisters; some body-roll noticeable, but stability unaffected. Power steering firm at speed, easy to twirl while parking. Rear visibility not great due to fat rear pillars.

CREATURE COMFORTS: Driving position adjustment excellent, steering reach and rake both adjustable. Rear legroom average to good for the class, better than a Jag, tighter than the Mercedes S class. Boot capacity better than almost everyone, except Merc. Cabin finish is the car's weak spot, not much better than an up-

market mid-price car, but plenty of gizmos including cruise control and air-conditioning, easy-to-operate if unattractive switches.

BANGS PER BUCK: More for your thousands than from the rivals; what are options for the others are standard on the Lexus. Fuel economy not bad for the size either, almost 20mpg in town, approximately 30mpg at motorway speeds. Price: pounds 42,863.

STAR QUALITY: Eerie silence of operation and quite remarkable smoothness of ride, generally excellent handling, value for money.

TURKEY QUOTIENT: Bland inside and out, interior a let-down.

AND ON MY RIGHT: Jaguar 4.0 Sovereign ( pounds 41,400): more elegant, if not so deft on the road, but strong on character and atmosphere; Mercedes-Benz S420 ( pounds 54,950): very little to choose between them on refinement, more room, much better interior, fewer options; BMW 740i ( pounds 45,500): new V8 engines superb, more sports-saloon atmosphere than the others, unattractive body.

(Photograph omitted)