When Toyota first entered the high-end American luxury market with the Legendary Lexus LS400 and ES250 in 1989, it wasn’t a forgone conclusion that it would succeed. Automotive buff books of the era wrote articles questioning whether or not the yuppies would be willing to trade in their BMWs and Mercedes for a Japanese luxury car. Some even questioned whether the Japanese could be trusted to build a V8 at all, such was the xenophobic belief that a V8 luxury sedan was inherently a Teutonic thing.
A few decades on, it’s obvious that Lexus could compete successfully against BMW and Mercedes – but Toyota approached the market cautiously with its first cars, nibbling away at the S class and, later, the 190E and 3 series markets. What if it hadn’t? What if, instead of going down, Lexus had had the stones to go up? In today’s episode, our Automotive Sam Beckett travels back in time to convince Toyota that the V12 powered Century would make the perfect flagship for Lexus, and bring a vulnerable Mercedes-Benz to its knees.
MERCEDES WAS VULNERABLE
Before Mercedes-Benz decided that it had to have a vehicle occupying every conceivable automotive niche – including the high-riding, slant-back niche created, then abandoned, by the Pontiac Aztek (as shown above). It had a relatively small menu of offerings in the US in 1989, and the line-up that the first Lexuses (Lexii?) were put up against consisted of “just” the 190E, the mid-size E-Class, the S-Class, and the SL convertible. And, despite sitting at or near the top of every ‘80’s yuppie’s automotive wish list, Toyota figured out that MB’s US dealers were treating their customers – well, if not like outright garbage, let’s go with, “worse than they would today”.
That was especially true if you were in a Mercedes store buying a “baby” Benz, and only slightly less true if you were buying an SL (source: My stepdad, who still bitches about the shitty customer service he got from the local MB dealer after 20 years of buying Lexii exclusively).
Toyota rolled out the red carpet for Lexus customers, offering comfortable waiting areas, low-pressure salespeople, and free car washes that, in the context of the late 1980s and early 90s, made every Lexus buyer feel like a superstar. Sales followed, and Lexus expanded its offerings to include the ES300, SC300 and 430, and (eventually) the smash hit RX and other SUVs.
Instead of going after the smaller fish, Lexus could have – and should have! – gone after the grossest of grosser Benzes. The W140 S600.
WHY IT WOULD HAVE WORKED
Produced from MY 1992-1999, the W140 Mercedes-Benz is, to my eyes, one of the best-looking cars ever built – but, sadly, is also one of the most trouble-prone cars ever to wear the three-pointed star. It was plagued with electrical gremlins due in part to the fact that it had motors for just about everything (including adjusting the rear-view mirror), and also due to the fact that its wiring harness used a soy-based insulation material that would, when warm, summon rodents from far and wide to snack on it like those old Tom & Jerry cartoons where the smell of cheese would physically lift Jerry and carry him aloft from 20 feet across the room.
It was the 3.2-liter inline-six and 4.2-liter V8 powered versions of the S-Class that suffered most from the Lexus LS400’s success. But it seemed weird that Lexus never really went after the V12 cars, especially when they had the 1997 Toyota Century already in the pipeline.
For those of you not in the know, the Toyota Century is a big, heavy, ultra-luxury pseudo limo Toyota builds for politicians and corporate bigwigs in Japan. Think of that big Cadillac that POTUS rides around in, and you get the idea.
This is not a car for the poors, in other words. At 207” long, it’s about an inch longer than the long-wheelbase V12 W140. Its 5-liter, 60-degree 1GZ-FE V12 engine was good for a good deal more than the claimed 276 horsepower (the highest number then claimed by any Japanese manufacturer, by virtue of a bizarre “gentlemen’s agreement” they all had at the time to not get into a horsepower war), and was, by all accounts, smooth as silk.
It also sounds like a million bucks.
In contrast, the Mercedes M120 V12 of that era delivered a claimed 402 hp that, from personal experience, almost never dyno’ed above 300 at the wheels. With all the additional mass of the Benz (approx. 4,900 lbs. to the Century’s 4,500), the two would have been neck-and-neck, performance-wise, and the Toyota had the virtue of, you know, not summoning rats and chipmunks from all corners of the globe to come feast upon its electricals.
THE AFTERMATH OF THE MERCEDES W140
The largely negative customer experience provided by MB dealers of the era combined with the troublesome W140 to create a wide-open door for competitors like Lexus, Infiniti, and Audi to start eating Mercedes’ lunch, but they also created an opening for companies like Bentley that had, for decades, barely clung to life as an engine and wheel upgrade for Rolls-Royce. And it could be argued that the brand only thrives today because Lexus didn’t go after that ultra-high-end V12 niche on its own when it had the chance in 1997.
Had they done so, it’s hard to imagine BMW and Volkswagen spending billions to acquire Rolls-Royce and Bentley specifically to compete in this arena just two years later. Heck, it’s hard to imagine Maybach making much of a comeback, either – and I, for one, would have loved to see Toyota respond to the bi-turbo W2220 Mercedes M275 V12s with its own “double Supra” engined Century.
That’s my take, anyway – what do you guys think? Would the Best and Brightest have been swayed by the big sedan from the East, or was the V12 market in the late 90s just too much for Toyota to realistically take on? Head on down to the comments and let us know.
[Images: Photoshop created by the author using Toyota/Lexus media photos, Mercedes-Benz USA]
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