So, is it a Jag or is it a Merc? Well, it's a Toyota

Lexus, the Japanese car-maker's luxury marque, is back with a thoughtful update to an impressive debut. John Simister reports ROAD TEST
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In 1990, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and BMW had, between them, more or less sewn up the luxury car market. There had been strange rumblings from the United States about how the Japanese had broken into that country's luxury car market with surprising success and had caught these established European makes off guard, but that could never happen here. Could it?

One of those Japanese invaders was the Lexus LS400, a car designed and built with fanatical precision by the new luxury car division of Toyota. And 1990 was the year the Lexus came to Britain.

Slightly unexpectedly, it proved to be rather good. Although not visually arresting (the prominent grille hinted at a history of which the Lexus had none, while the rest of the styling was a mishmash of Mercedes, BMW and play-it-safe conservatism), the interior was superb: Japanese in its detailing, but solidly and beautifully done. And most important, the Lexus moved with speed, serenity and near-soundlessness.

The car's intended clientele quickly grew to a significant size, which was worrying for the European brands, especially as the creators of the LS400 described it as their "practice car". Just wait until you see the next one, was the implication.

Well, it's 1995 and the next one has arrived. You might have seen one and not realised. If Toyota had worried that the practice Lexus would wilt under the weight of its rivals' heritage or status, then the company cannot have worried long, for the new Lexus LS400 looks remarkably like the old one.

Toyota did consider more radical designs, but they never went beyond sketches. Management and customers demanded more of the same, updated. And that is exactly what they have. Each body panel is new; the crease has gone from the upper flanks; the bonnet has a more prominent prow; the lights are tidier and the rear window is more sloping. A longer wheelbase gives more rear legroom, and despite the buff front the new shape is more aerodynamic.

As with the exterior, practically everything in the cabin is redesigned - slightly. The front seats have a new suspension system, said to resist side forces while soaking up vertical movements, just as the "main" suspension does at the car's wheels. All seats are heated. The dashboard is a slightly different shape, with detail changes such as a CD autochanger in the glovebox, independent heater temperature controls (good), and no storage slot in the centre console (bad). The automatic transmission's selector lever now moves in a Mercedes-like wiggly gate, the better to appeal to European tastes.

You still get wood and leather trim, electric seat adjustment, air conditioning and sunroof, and the seven-speaker stereo still sounds superb. The steering wheel still lowers itself into position when you insert the ignition key, too, and rises automatically out of the way when you remove it. And the instruments still have those hollow cathode-ray needles apparently suspended in black space. In terms of toys, all the Lexus lacks is a computer.

So where else have the billions of development yen been spent? The honing of construction techniques, including the use of high-strength steels and fewer larger panels, has saved weight to the extent that the new Lexus weighs less than Audi's all-aluminium A8. True, the Lexus lacks the Audi's four-wheel drive, but this weight-paring is still an achievement. Other improvements are in the suspension, claimed to smother road noise better while promising more precise control, and in the 4.0 litre, all-aluminium 32-valve V8 engine, which is not only more powerful (260bhp, up from 241) but also less thirsty.

So the new car gets along with real gusto, that silky engine allowing itself just a hint of a V8 cackle when exercised hard, but otherwise divorcing itself from your senses in a way that the previous incarnation could not achieve. But the old car's serene suppleness, the sort of ride quality beloved of Americans, is compromised in favour of a more European feel. The new car is better for most of our roads, but not necessarily for the motorway-city-motorway use that could well be a Lexus's lot.

In some countries you can buy a new LS400 with air suspension in place of the usual coil springs, which gives a softer, squashier ride. It would not be my choice, which is just as well because Toyota's British arm makes a point of offering no options at all on the LS400. The car is so well equipped, goes the reasoning, that there is no need. Probe further, and you discover that Toyota GB wants to keep the price down to £44,475 (which undercuts most rivals, all of them once you give them equipment parity). Ordering cars from Japan is easier, too, when the only variable is the paint colour.

This Lexus is a fine car, if not quite the standard-setter that its predecessor was five years ago. It is roomier than a Jaguar, more comfortable than an Audi A8, better value than a Mercedes-Benz S-class or a BMW 7- series. The trouble is that these majestic Europeans give a journey a sense of occasion the Lexus still cannot muster. But it's close, so close.

SPECIFICATIONS

Lexus LS400, £44,475 Engine: 3969cc, V8, 260bhp at 5300rpm. Four- speed automatic gearbox, rear-wheel drive. Top speed 156mph, 0-60 in 7.4 seconds. Fuel consumption, 20-26mpg.

COMPARISONS

Audi A8 4.2 Quattro, £46,699 Body and underframe are made entirely of aluminium which saves weight, and therefore fuel, while allowing the V8 engine to deliver Lexus-matching pace. Four-wheel drive makes for secure cornering, but the ride is not especially serene. A technically intriguing car, beautiful in both looks and quality of manufacture.

BMW 740i, £46,700 BMW's new-look 7-series has a wonderfully supple ride but somewhat squashy handling, which is not what you expect from the ultimate driving machine. High on comforts but low on visual assertiveness, the V8-powered 740 seems to have strayed from the usual BMW brief.

Jaguar Sovereign 4.2, £42,950 Softer "retrolutionary" styling and a host of detail improvements make today's Jaguar the car it always should have been. The ride comfort remains remarkable but the handling is now more precise, while the six-cylinder engine is both quieter and more muscular. The main problem is that the homely, welcoming cabin is tight on rear passenger space.

Mercedes-Benz S420, £56,100 If you want your S-class with an engine to match the size and power of the Lexus's, this is what you have to spend. But you get a car with a greater air of permanence than nearly anything else you can buy. Despite its bulk, which the slab-sided styling hardly hides, the monstrous and spacious Mercedes is nimble and fun to drive.

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