Toyota puts continental flair in oh-what-a-feeling luxury sedan

If first impressions are misleading, that's not entirely unintentional. At first glance, the new LS 400 looks like the newest addition to the Mercedes-Benz family. Indeed, the new luxury sedan is designed with European luxury car buyers clearly in mind. But despite what one critic calls its ``Teutonic'' heritage, the LS 400 is the product of Toyota, the Japanese automaker.

More specifically, it's the first of two new cars that will be sold in the United States by Toyota's new Lexus dealer network. With products priced in the $20,000-to-$40,000 price range, Lexus will take Toyota - and the Japanese as a whole - into entirely new territory.

(Toyota isn't the first Japanese carmaker to make a move on the lucrative US luxury car market. Honda unveiled a second dealer network, the Acura division, nearly three years ago, and late next year Nissan will introduce its own luxury division, Infiniti.)

While the decision to enter the luxury market was ``a natural,'' says J.C. (Jim) Perkins, head of Toyota Motor Sales of America, the automaker created Lexus because ``we felt we could not market [luxury] products in a Toyota dealership without a high risk of people thinking it was just another Toyota and asking why they should spend $35,000 on it.''

The base model of the new franchise will be the $25,000, V-6-powered ES 250, a so-called ``executive sedan,'' based on the existing Camry but outfitted with leather seats and other luxury features.

But the division's flagship will be the LS 400, the first Toyota ever designed specifically for the US market. ``It was obvious you couldn't enter [the high end of] the US luxury market with a vehicle based on an existing platform,'' Mr. Perkins says.

Some observers had expected the LS 400 to resort to relatively radical styling to set it apart from the competition. But while it does boast the best aerodynamics of any production sedan in the world - a drag coefficient of 0.29 - Toyota officials didn't want to go too far afield from the styling and comfort cues traditionally associated with European luxury cars.

In particular, the influence of the larger Mercedes S-class sedans is obvious in the car's exterior styling, while the interior is reminiscent of the BMW line.

``They have tremendous respect from the affluent American people, especially the baby-boomers. So that was a key point for us to understand when we were designing our car,'' says Kunihiro Uchida, general manager of Toyota's design department, and the designer of the LS 400.

Like its European competitors, the LS 400 will be powered by a new, multi-valve V-8 capable of reaching 150 miles an hour. It will also feature a rich, well-appointed leather interior.

But the LS 400 will try to beat its competition with a heavy emphasis on high-tech. The driver will be able to shift the electronically controlled automatic transmission into either a performance or economy mode.

The LS 400 will be the first car in the US equipped with Traction Control. Similar in function to antiskid brakes, which the LS 400 also features, the device helps maintain stability and maximum traction during heavy acceleration or when driving on slick surfaces.

The optional cellular phone will be linked to the car stereo system for hands-free operation, and can be dialed by pressing a button on the steering wheel.

Perkins expects 25 percent of Lexus buyers to trade in their Japanese vehicles. The rest, he hopes, will trade in European or US luxury vehicles.

But Chris Cedergren, an auto analyst with J.D. Power & Associates, is skeptical: ``The Japanese are not going to get traditional European car buyers,'' he says. There is a unique ``European feel that is hard to describe and which no one has yet been able to duplicate,'' he adds.

To that end, Toyota designers and engineers spent three years tearing apart competitors' vehicles, trying to quantify everything from the texture of the leather and the feel of the switches used in European luxury cars. Mr. Uchida spent months talking to American luxury car buyers about what and why they buy.

The biggest draw of the LS 400, however, may be its price. Rising prices have cut sharply into European luxury car sales. At $35,000, the LS 400 will be priced well below many competitive vehicles, and that may be just the statistic that attracts many potential buyers.

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