With 2019 marking Lexus’s 30th anniversary, the brand is reflecting on their past, espousing their excitement about the present, and previewing their future. To celebrate, they invited a group of writers and editors to Costa Rica to drive their latest and a selection of important heritage vehicles. Costa Rica might not be the first place that comes to mind when thinking of Lexus though the relatively small sovereign state (just 19,714 square miles) is a surprisingly perfect fit to play host to their milestone celebration.
Costa Rica is a country that benefits from a wonderful duality: it’s relaxing and serene, while also offering a robust assortment of adventures. Whether quietly recharging on the beach or zip-lining through the jungle, there’s not just one Costa Rica. And, as we found, there isn’t just one Lexus either.
When Lexus began production of the LS400 in 1989 the idea that a Japanese automaker could launch a luxury brand that could compete with the established players in the market was unthinkable. Japanese vehicles were popular because they were efficient, reliable and affordable, but true luxury wasn’t part of the picture. Lexus changed that with the LS400, a full-size luxury sedan that’s still impressive by today’s standards. In Costa Rica, we get behind the wheel of an original 1990 model that has 189,000 miles on it, yet feels solid on the winding countryside roads.
A screen is noticeably absent from the dash as those didn’t begin to appear for a little over a decade and the seats only offer a few traditional adjustments instead of the 22 options found in the current LS500, but the packaging of the first LS remains top notch. What tempted buyers away from the likes of Mercedes-Benz then remains apparent now, the LS400 is incredibly quiet, wafts pleasantly over road imperfections with ease and the 250-hp V8 pulls strong. Our particular LS400 certainly doesn’t drive like a car of its age.
The same can be said of the 1996 SC400, which remains the powerful luxury sports coupe it was in its heyday; walking around the car, it’s easy to see why the design was considered so influential at the time. The handling capabilities of the SC400 are among the best of the era, thanks to the aluminum block V8 engine being mounted behind the front axle and a rear-wheel drive layout. The design of the SC400 holds up and there are a number of exterior elements that can be found in subsequent generations of Lexus vehicles. Independent high- and low-beam light housings and the lines that come down from the hood and then hook outward to accent them should be familiar to anyone who has spent time staring longingly at the gorgeous LC500 that went on sale in 2017.
The LC is very much the spiritual successor to the first-generation of the SC and does a terrific job of honoring everything that the original Lexus coupe stood for. Our seat time in the contemporary car is limited to a brief drive in the multistage hybrid model, but it doesn’t take long to be impressed by the comfort and capability of the carmaker’s flagship coupe. Between the efficiency and the noise, it would seem there is nothing that’s been sacrificed with the use of an Atkinson cycle V6 and two electric motors, which doesn’t come as a surprise given that Lexus was the first luxury brand to bring a hybrid model to market.
The model that has the distinction of being the first luxury hybrid vehicle was (appropriately) a crossover: the 2005 RX400h. Lexus was one of the first luxury automakers to correctly guess that not all customers in the luxury market wanted a brutish body-on-frame luxury SUV, introducing the RX300 to the US market in 1998. A success from the start, the model sold some 42,000 units in that first year and it remains the best selling luxury SUV in the country, while accounting for 29% of Lexus sales globally in 2018.
Additionally, the RX Hybrid has been the brand’s best-selling vehicle that doesn’t rely solely on an internal-combustion engine for power. Driving both the 2003 RX300 and 2005 RX400h in Costa Rica, it’s easy to understand why they were so popular when they were new and continue to be sought after on the pre-owned market. Both offer a smooth ride, a seating position that delivers a great view of the road through an expansive windshield and an interior that seemingly houses all the essentials you need, while foregoing what you don’t. Modern vehicles may have a lot more stuff inside, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re better.
The RX400h is a particularly good example of a vehicle that was the benchmark when it was new and remains competitive with any contemporary hybrid crossover, including the Lexus 2020 RX450h. Apart from the obvious technological innovations that are ubiquitous in today’s vehicle interiors and the offering of a third row in the extended wheelbase RX model, not a whole lot separates the original RX hybrid from the current model. Obviously the design has changed dramatically, but underneath the sharply raked exterior of the 2020 RX lies the same basic formula that worked so well for the original. That formula consists of a smooth car-like ride and superb handling for a vehicle with a useable extra amount of ground clearance compared to a sedan. The mitigation of body-roll in a vehicle the size of the RX450h will never cease to amaze and we imagine that back in 2005 the same could be said of the RX400h.
Even with the early success of the RX, Lexus knew that not all customers wanted to leave the traditional sedan behind for a crossover, so a hybrid variant was added to the GS line-up in 2006. The GS450h was the first luxury car to offer a hybrid powertrain option and is an absolute rocket. Lexus has always marketed the GS as an outright performance sedan and it takes all but a few minutes in the 2007 GS450h on some fresh Costa Rican asphalt to see why. Few sedans of its era could match the straight line speed of the GS hybrid due to the immediate low-end power provided by the electric motors.
The lighter GS460, with its naturally aspirated V8, can’t keep up with the hybrid off the line, though it ultimately outruns it thanks to a higher top-speed. The GS450h also performs at a high on twisty roads as well, thanks to the first-of-its-kind Active Power Stabilizer Suspension System. Electronically altering stabilizer stiffness to suit road conditions and driving inputs within 20 milliseconds of receiving information, APSSS helped the GS set a benchmark for performance sedan handling and, given our driving impressions, it remains the best-handling hybrid sedan available, regardless of whether the competition is pre-owned or new. With these two hybrid models in mind, it makes sense that Lexus currently offers seven hybrid models in their line-up.
The big takeaway from this retrospective event is that Lexus is well-positioned to be more competitive in the luxury marketplace than ever. In terms of focus, it’s nearly an even split between the first 15 years of the brand and the 15 that they’re closing out. The first half was geared toward building a customer base with the absolute best service and products that were derived from competitors but improved upon. The second half has been more about innovating and refining core elements of the brand along with the product. At a time when a number of automakers (particularly those in the luxury space) are desperately trying to position themselves uniquely, Lexus knows exactly where they’ve been and where they’re going.
Hero image by Andrew Maness