Conventional wisdom dictates that if something is newer, it is most likely better, and the older something is, especially when it comes to something as finicky and prone to depreciation and failure as an aging luxury car, the crazier you have to be to consider it a viable option. I was never one for convention, anyway.
Full disclosure: I drove Matt Farah’s Million Mile Lexus, on my own dime, from New Jersey to Los Angeles, California - at which point I was met with a Lexus GS350 F-Sport Crafted Line, courtesy of Lexus. I posted snippets of the whole trip on Twitter, with #millionmilelexus.
How does one compare two cars that have little more than a badge in common, and almost two decades’ worth of technology between them? Well, let’s break it down to the bare components of each car and judge them on their various and varied merits.
Although a bit of an unfair comparison, the 1996 Lexus LS400 and the 2015 GS350 F-Sport were a used Ford Focus’ private party value away from each other when new if we strictly compare the two numbers.
The LS400 commanded a premium of nearly $53,000 when it was new, and the GS350, as tested, was $57,260. I say it’s unfair, because inflation is undoubtedly a thing, and when adjusted, the LS400 cost just shy of $80,000 in today’s money.
Also, the Lexus GS is in the middle of the range for the Japanese luxury manufacturer, but in 1996, the LS was the head at the top of the Lexus totem pole, so while the comparisons aren’t 1 to 1, let’s call it a close enough, keep calm, and carry on.
The Lexus GS350 F-Sport is a car for the person where details make or break the experience. It’s for the parent that looks at their child’s A-minus grade and immediately ponders the length and severity of the inevitable grounding sentence. It’s a pedantic and almost obsessive attention to detail that is prominently displayed all over the car, starting with the uniquely styled exterior:
The model isn’t brand new as it’s had a year to mature in the marketplace, but the sharp angular lines and wide-mouth front grille denote a certain fresh artistic flair that other cars may certainly try and emulate but never patent, as the look is an iconic and contemporary Toyota design, as seen in every concept car from the iM to the yellow monstrosity known as the LF-C2.
I think it’s one of the most striking cars made today. The only thing that doesn’t work, in my jaded view, is the quite large wheel gap. It’s better suited to a light crossover than a taught, sporty sedan.
The interior is no different, in that it’s made to an exacting standard for the person that wants, like, really, really nice things. Everything is easily visible, and although button placement for some of the climate control functions and radio controls border on completely ridiculous, it’s an extremely pleasant place to be.
When nestled in the car’s firm bucket seat, you get a feeling like you’re a sitting in an MC Escher painting, where things may not make sense at first glance, but you know every single component was put there deliberately, with the design painstakingly determined through sleepless nights, well in advance of the final product’s unveiling.
The styling of the much older Lexus LS400, however, is elegant and subdued to a fault. It certainly qualifies as a car, as it has four wheels, a steering wheel, and it’s put together with bolts, screws, and probably some weird Japanese glue that isn’t child-safe. But if you asked someone, at gunpoint, to describe the details of the Lexus LS400, they’d reply with a tearful “I don’t know”, which is obviously the wrong answer. Hostages, amirite?
The aesthetics of the car, crafted in the mid-to-late 1980s, remained largely unchanged save for minor facelifts for nearly the entirety of the next decade, which is either a sign of a truly timeless look, or a completely checked-out design team.
I can’t say that a special place in my heart is locked off for this nearly 20-year old luxobarge, but it certainly gets the job done. It resembles a ‘90s German luxury car, which was its main competition at the time, so it makes sense that it would be a S-Class doppelganger, if only you squinted your eyes and backed up 50 feet. It’s not iconic, but has a understated (borderline bland) stately presence, which is Lexus’ bread and unsalted butter.
The completely apologetic design follows inside of the car, making sure that not one curve, texture, or surface could be the slightest bit off-putting to a potential customer. There were no quirky proprietary armrests made with the ergonomics of Hobbits in mind, this was a car for John Q. Public Offering. So much so, that with its initial depreciation hit and its current value in the market (read: low), the car is a much better used car than it ever was new. While the styling did its utmost not to offend anyone, it was quite comfortable.
Over the more than 4,000 miles I logged in the driver’s seat of the car, never once did I suffer from back pain or have an acute case of I-can’t-feel-my-ass syndrome.
The GS350 F-Sport is loaded to the point where it yearns to be future-proof, but misses the mark ever so slightly. Not a bad thing, but dealing with the electronics in the car can and will lead you to believe that the demographic for these cars must have been computer science majors that live and breathe code, menus, and subroutines. Here are the things I like about the infotainment and amenities experience: the sound system is quite crisp and the heated and ventilated seats are superb. Now that that’s out of the way, here are a few things that get a check-minus from yours truly.
The way of navigating menus is damn near impossible. There’s a small 1.5-inch joystick to the right of you, and that controls everything and has the latency and pinpoint accuracy of a Punkin’ Chunkin’ misfire. As an added bonus, every time you reach a menu that has clickable boxes, the joystick creates resistance for you, that feels kinda-sorta like you’re scrolling through a tangible menu, but since the relative positioning of the resistance changes constantly, there’s no way you’d ever be able to build any sort of realistic muscle memory. Every time with this stupid system is the first, which takes away from the presentation of the whole package, if I’m brutally honest. I’m a twenty-something automotive journalist that at least has a cursory understanding of how cars work, quirks included, and I had real trouble getting to where I needed to be, menu-wise.
Now if you consider that the average of a Lexus buyer is 61, it would be physically impossible for any of the patrons of the car brand to be able to navigate these labyrinth-style menus, especially while on the move. It’s not just a bad design, when put into context, it’s a very plausible deathtrap.
While the LS400 can hardly keep up technology-wise, one thing I can deduce from the relatively spartan amenities is that Lexus wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel with any of its technological achievements in the LS. It simply did things better than any other car on the market at the time. That’s why things make sense in the button layout.
The radio and climate controls are exactly within arm’s reach, there’s a big gear shift in the middle, and a huge, well-lit readout illuminating your face at night so you can tell the officer that “Yes, as a matter of fact I do know how fast I’m going.”
The most advanced features the car came with were a dash-mounted CD changer, and an option for a car phone that probably returned more carcinogens than actual phone calls. Everything else, both high and low-tech, was within your grasp, and it made for a great driving experience.
I’d place the LS400 over the GS350 in this respect, if only for the fact that they didn’t follow their “simple makes good” approach that galvanized the ‘90s cars in the annals of automotive culture forever.
The Driving Experience
The GS350 F-Sport is without a doubt one of the more responsive and lively cars I’ve ever driven, and I recommend anyone to drop what they’re doing right this second and go take a test drive at their local Lexus dealer.
That’s what I would be writing if the car didn’t have such an inexcusable and fatal flaw - the anemic engine. The 3.5 liter engine just isn’t urgent, at all. Despite being rated at a power figure north of 300 horsepower, it feels like every single horse in the proverbial stable was lethargic and depressed because it possessed the knowledge that it would ceremoniously be converted to glue come this time next week. The engine just doesn’t try very hard to get you moving, even at a full-bore standing start.
It aches to rev, and sounds like its valves are ready to let go at any point north of 5500 rpm, which is a shame, since Toyota made high-revving dynamos like the Lexus LFA and masterpieces such as the MKIV Supra. Had the engine been given a bit more power under the curve, or benefited from the addition of a turbocharger at the cost of displacement, it would’ve made the car much more potent at any RPM. In my opinion, it’s the one thing that really lets the car down. Lexus, what happened?
On the other hand, the car’s Sport and Sport+ modes are superb, with no “but” at the end of this sentence. The 8-speed transmission rev-matches and shifts with enough ferocity and speed via the steering-wheel-mounted paddles that the car does shrink around you, even in slow-moving traffic. Highway speeds can be an utter blast, with the driver generally herp-a-derping around and performing double and triple downshifts without breaking the speed limit. It doesn’t make you feel like a race car driver, but it does make you feel like you’re in something much more expensive, which is a welcome addition to a mass-market mid-range luxury sedan.
The adjustable ride quality was done particularly well, with the more sporty settings providing firmness without the spine-shattering harshness that you’d find in lesser-developed adaptive systems. Although I only logged a few hundred miles on this car, and many of those sitting in LA bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 405, it’s a car I wouldn’t hesitate to drive across the country. If it had some go-fast goodies for the engine to make it breathe a little better, it would be the perfect cruiser.
What about the LS400’s ride quality? Yes, it had some of that. I’m not sure what else I can say, other than it rode like a Mercury Grand Marquis with 60,000 miles, or an S-Class with 120,000 miles. Sharp turns were met with vague floatiness, but a degree or two less than you’d expect. There were a few rattles, but no cause for major concern unless flames or sparks were present, and thankfully, that never happened.
With such an astronomical figure on the odometer, the car felt spectacularly well balanced, even if the engine’s original 250 horsepower figure had some of the more vibrant ponies escape and replaced with somewhat lethargic goats. It wasn’t a fast car by any means and the 4-speed automatic transmission had a few issues, mainly that it didn’t downshift when the accelerator was floored (manual intervention was necessary), but it never coughed, sputtered, or overheated.
It otherwise drove with the poise and purpose of a brand new car off the lot, not getting the memo from the universe that everything does in fact have an expiration date. Having driven the car across the country, the LS400 allowed me to focus on the drive and not the faults of the car.
My companion on this impromptu journey was my wife, who spend the long trek pointing out birds, farm houses, and interesting tidbits of the countryside. That wouldn’t have been possible if I’d have had to worry about the radiator exploding or a violent shudder at speed. The frankly insane mileage was but a number to the car, and in turn, to me.
I’m a proponent of buying used more often than not, and here’s why: when older cars have quirks, they’re full of character. When newer cars have quirks, they have design flaws. New cars simply can’t afford to get anything wrong, because the first buyer has the most financial risk in the life of the car.
Used cars, however, can get away with nearly anything because they’ve depreciated to the point where things like clunky interfaces and underpowered engines can be easily forgiven, modified, or simply dismissed by people that wouldn’t have bought the car new in any case.
I’m not sure who’d be cross-shopping both cars, but in the off-chance that one would consider a new luxury car as well as a classic and if both cars are taken as a straight value proposition, the LS400 that I drove was 1/30th the price of the GS350 F-Sport, and although it definitely aged quite a bit, it was every bit as dependable and comfortable as the brand new car. The older car was the lesser of the two in terms of overall experience, but not by a wide margin. When taken into a financial context, the LS400 is the clear winner, with way more value per dollar than anything Lexus has to offer now, and that goes for most new luxury cars today.
Choosing between these two frankly stellar cars with a generation separating them ultimately comes down to whether one values the driving experience over bang for the buck, and vice versa. While I’m firmly on the side of bang for the buck, driving something new with an almost overwhelming amount of sophistication was a breath of fresh air that may just change the mind of this frugal and opinionated curmudgeon in the future.
Tavarish is the founder of APiDA Online and writes about buying and selling cool cars on the internet. He owns the world’s cheapest Mercedes S-Class, a graffiti-bombed Lexus, and he’s the only Jalopnik author that has never driven a Miata. He also has a real name that he didn’t feel was journalist-y enough so he used a pen name and this was the best he could do.