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Toyota's 1UZ-FE V8 Once Humbled BMW, Mercedes, and Cadillac, They Could Do It Again

The Toyota 1UZ-FE is an engine that needs no introduction. And while we've already gone in depth about the history of this landmark engine for both Toyota and Lexus. We'd like to take the last day of V8 Month here at autoevolution to tell the story of another less celebrated aspect of the LS400 saga, apart from its legendary reliability. It's the way the global luxury auto industry from Munich to Detroit collectively stood back in awe at Toyota's accomplishment. At that moment, Lexus ensured it was in America to stay. 
Lexus LS 400Lexus LS 400Lexus LS 400Toyota CelsiorLexus LS 400Lexus SC 400Lexus GS 400The 1UZ-FE in a Lexus SC 400Toyota 1UZ-FEToyota 1UZ-FEToyota 1UZ-FEToyota 1UZ-FE
In a market where a car's V8 engine could serve as its own marketing campaign, any self-respecting luxury car company of the late 80s and early 90s needed an engine to match to compete. For a Japanese manufacturer, that's not always easy. For example, Toyota's prime competitor, Honda, has designed a passenger car V8 engine exactly zero times in their history. That is unless it was a Land Rover underneath.

In an island country where sometimes there isn't even enough room to ride a bicycle properly, V8s were simply too big and too wasteful. But that didn't stop Toyota's chairman Toyota chairman Eiji Toyoda lusting after a share of America's ultra lucrative luxury sedan market. Lucky for him, American V8s in the 80s were at their lowest point, arguably in the history of the American car biz. Nearly two decades of emissions and fuel economy restrictions after the 1973 OPEC fuel crisis not only killed off entire families of American V8s from Buick, Pontiac, and Oldsmobile but rendered what remained gutless and pig-like compared to anything from Germany or Japan. Couple this with the profound failure of early Cadillac Northstar V8s, and Toyoda knew the time was right to strike.

Work began on what would become the Lexus LS400 in 1985, with its umbrella F1 project, with F standing for a Flagship, in this case, beginning two years earlier in 1983. The production variant was ready for its grand reveal at the 1989 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. At the show, the one thing that was praised as much about the LS400 as its brutish good looks and the plush interior was the inclusion of a V8. Helping it greatly to feel more American.

250 horsepower to play with at launch wasn't bad either. It surely beat the snot out of any domestic American luxury V8 of the day. If not in raw horsepower, then especially in reliability, but likely both. At 3,968 cc (4-liters, 242.1-cubic inches) of displacement and a bore/stroke of 87.5 mm × 82.5 mm, this all-alloy engine from the engine block to the heads used quad belt-driven camshafts provided the smoothness and rapid throttle response Mercedes and BMW drivers absolutely demanded, and Cadillac/Lincoln owners sure appreciated when trading in their American luxury barges for the Lexus. 

As it happens, the equivalent BMW 7-series and W126 Mercedes S-Class both proved to be noisier in the cabin than what Lexus managed on their first time out, even with a thumping great V8. Marketed as the Toyota Celsior outside of the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the UK, the 1990 LS 400 could sprint from zero to 160 kph (100 mph) in 7.7 seconds. No big deal in 2022, but impressive for the late 80s and early 90s. All while delivering combined fuel of 18 miles per gallon. Matching that of a 1990 Cadillac Brougham, just beating a 1990 Jaguar XJ sedan's 17 mpg , and comfortably more than a 1990 Mercedes-Benz 420SEL's 14 mpg combined.

Most great engines endure a grueling testing period before it goes into production. Unless it was an Oldsmobile diesel engine, of course. In any case, the 1UZ-FE's testing phase was even more brutal than even the established industry standard. Millions of kilometers were spent driving across harsh conditions in the winters of Scandinavia and the punishing dry heat of the Saudi Arabian desert. Where lesser manufacturers would have accepted the bare minimum, most acceptable engine design and called it a day, Toyota refined every minute detail of the 1UZ-FE V8 to the degree that'd make a Formula One engineer blush.

As the 90s rolled on, power was incrementally increased from the base 250 horsepower to 261 with lighter connecting rods and increased compression in 1995. Two years later, Toyota's magnificent answer to Honda's V-tec variable valve timing, the VVT-i system, was integrated into the 1UZ-FE. From there, power jumped up to a (probably underrated) figure of 290 horsepower.

Stories across the internet tell tales of an engine that accepts performance upgrades with all the delight of a Chevy LS. All while keeping on ticking for 30 years and hundreds of thousands of miles since brand new. Perhaps the most famous is the one owned by automotive journalism personality Matt Farah, who managed to take his 1996 LS400 past the million miles (1.6 million km) barrier back in 2015 to the delight of his viewing faithful.

From then on, people uploading reviews of similar LS400s would have to disclose the LS400 in their video was NOT Matt Farah's LS400. An even smaller group asks themselves the same question every time they see an old LS 400 in a parking lot somewhere to this day. Whatever the case, the mere existence of the LS400 likely still keeps German, American, and even rival Japanese luxury automakers awake at night. It's the founding reason why Lexus became the unkillable final boss of mainstream USDM luxury vehicles.

Thanks for tuning in for what's been one awesome V8 Month here on autoevolution.


 
 
 
 
 

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