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Champagne Taste, Beer Budget - Part One

We take a look at the high-flying Japanese and German saloons you can pick up for under AUD$20,000.

By Michael Knowling

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At a glance...

  • First of two part series
  • A look at high-end Japanese and German performance saloons
  • All cost less than 20 grand!
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With increasingly harsh penalties for speeding and hooning it’s inevitable that the mindset of the average car enthusiast is changing. Let’s face it, you’re gonna get ‘done’ for something in your turbocharged Datto 1600 - so why not switch to a car that has comfort, status and a good measure of performance?

A ‘VIP’ machine with sting.

In this two-part series we’ll take a look at the high-end saloons than you can buy for under 20 grand. Let’s start off with some big Japanese machines and a stunning German...

Lexus LS400

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In 1989, Toyota spearheaded its new Lexus range with the LS400 – a large, rear-wheel-drive V8 saloon to combat the best from Europe.

Under the bonnet, the LS400 employed a then all-new 1UZ-FE DOHC, 32 valve V8 generating 190kW at 5600 rpm and 360Nm at 4400 rpm. This all-alloy bent-eight gives supreme smoothness but - despite having 90 percent of peak torque from 2000 to 5600 rpm - it does lack the low-end punch of, say, a Holden 5.0. Its long-travel throttle probably has something to do with it.

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The Lexus is certainly a large car, but by today’s standards it’s not the ‘limousine’ that it was once regarded – a current series Commodore wagon is bigger in every dimension...

Weighing around 1700kg, the auto-only Lexus V8 can whisk from standstill to 100 km/h in under 9 seconds. The quarter mile is a mid 15 second exercise and top speed is near 250 km/h.

Inside, the Lexus is beautifully decked-out with digital climate control, all electrics, tilt-away steering column, leather/woodgrain trim, plush-pile carpet, driver’s airbag and a high quality radio/cassette/CD audio system. A sunroof and phone were offered as options.

Note that the LS400 was available as the Toyota Celsior in Japan. As far as we’re aware, the Toyota version typically comes with traction control and airbag suspension – oh, and a less desirable nameplate...

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The 4 door LS400 body is relatively bland but it has aged gracefully. The wheel arches are home to plain-looking 16 inch alloys – some 18s and wide tyres are perfect to add some attitude. Many examples also have a lower front lip while others seem to miss out.

The price of a LS400/Toyota Celsior varies hugely.

A locally-delivered LS400 with low kilometres and service history fetches up to about AUD$18,000. On the other hand, we’ve seen Japanese-spec Toyota Celsiors imported and offered for sale at just AUD$9000 (plus ADR-ing). Add a couple of grand for ADR related upgrades and associated fees and you should get one on the road for about AUD$12,000.

See The Lexus LS400 for more on the LS400.

Eunos 800 Miller-cycle

In 1994, Mazda kicked off its luxury car division - Eunos. The first vehicle released under the Eunos banner was the 800 Miller-cycle (aka 800M)...

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The 800M isn’t as brawny as some of the other cars listed here, but it gets the job done with some interesting technology. Instead of relying on brute V8 grunt, the 800M employs an engine of just 2.3 litres - but with the ingenious combination of Miller-cycle operation and a positive displacement twin-screw supercharger! With two small air-to-air intercoolers, this innovative engine produces a creditable 149kW and 282Nm. ‘Big cube’ driveability comes from having 275Nm of torque from 2000 to 5500 rpm.

With a standard auto transmission and drive channelled to the front wheels, the Miller-cycle Eunos 800 can accelerate to 100 km/h in around 9.0 seconds – no speed machine, but certainly not embarrassing. Unfortunately, the requirement for premium unleaded fuel partially offsets the financial savings that come from its small capacity engine.

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Contributing to the Eunos 800M’s 1550kg kerb weight is an electro-hydraulic four-wheel-steer system (as first appeared on the 1988 Mazda 626/MX6). At low speed, the system steers the front and rear wheels in opposite directions to enhance manoeuvrability. At high speed (above 47 km/h), the rear wheels are steered in the same direction as the fronts to enhance lane-change stability. Sixteen inch alloys and 215/55 tyres are installed.

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Inside the medium-to-large cabin you’ll find soft leather trim and a gentle, flowing dashboard. Climate control, electric seats, an electric sunroof, Bose CD sound system and dual front airbags are standard fruit.

Stylistically, the Eunos 800M is a fairly blunt instrument. The front and rear styling is very rounded and the overall proportions are graceful – there’s nothing hard-edged about it.

The cheapest high-kilometre 800M we’ve seen was sticker’d at just AUD$10,000 but, realistically, you’ll pay around 15 grand for a good one. Note that the 800 Miller-cycle continued in Australia until 2002 so late-model examples are worth considerably more.

See Miller-Cycle Bargain for more.

Infiniti Q45

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Another Japanese VIP car that’s often overlooked is the Nissan-based Infiniti Q45.

Released in Australia in 1993 (about 3 years after its debut in Japan and America) the Infiniti Q45 looks like it should be a bigger and better version of the Lexus LS400. But it never quite managed to achieve that success...

Peep under the bonnet and you’ll see a tremendous example of Nissan engineering – the big VH45DE V8. Displacing 4.5 litres and breathing through DOHC, 4 valve heads, the Infiniti Q45 is officially listed at 198kW at 5600 rpm and 395Nm at 4000 rpm. With monster cylinder ports and a huge throttle body, it’s an engine that aftermarket tuners crave to get their hands on.

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Driving through a heavy-duty auto trans and R200 series viscous LSD, the Infiniti is slightly quicker than the Lexus – its 0 – 100 km/h acceleration is around 8 seconds. But the Infiniti wasn’t let down by its engine...

Unfortunately, designers went for a softer-is-better approach for the suspension. "Wallowy" and "imprecise" are two common words applied to the big Nissan. The HICAS rear-wheeel-steer is also said to give a nervous feel when driving at the limit.

Inside, the trim is finished in leather and walnut and is very well equipped – similar to the Lexus. The Infiniti’s exterior styling was improved in the second generation that was delivered to Australia but, still, it looks very dated and emotionless.

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Introduced to the Australian market at more than AUD$130,000, the big Nissan was an unequivocal sales flop. Today, you can pick one up from about AUD$16,000... The last of ‘em (through until 1997) fetch closer to 30 grand.

BMW 750iL

Once the most celebrated luxury saloon in the world, the BMW 750iL can now be snapped up for well under AUD$20,000.

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The 750iL (the ‘L’ identifying its long wheelbase) was released way back in 1988 – but it was so far ahead of its time, many car manufacturers are still catching up...

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One of the most alluring aspects of the 750iL is its engine – 5.0 litres of smooth V12 muscle. Interestingly, the BMW V12 is essentially a pair of 325i engines joined together at 60 degrees. With an ultra conservative 8.8:1 compression ratio, this beautiful engine cranks out 220kW at 5200 rpm and 450Nm at 4100 rpm. Note the use of twin airflow meters and twin electronic-controlled throttles – impressive for 1988!

With a heavy-duty auto transmission and tall-ratio LSD rear, the 750iL can accelerate to 100 km/h in under 8 seconds. Top speed is electronically governed at 250 km/h; the car’s open-road performance is simply awesome.

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Tipping the scales at a substantial 1920kg, the 750iL rides on electronic-controlled dampers and a fully independent suspension - ride quality is, as you’d expect, excellent. Handling is also quite sporting for this category of vehicle but the recirculating ball steering suffers from imprecision around centre – especially when the associated bushes are worn. ABS brakes come standard.

The 750iL remains an eye-catching machine almost two decades after its debut. It’s distinguished over other 7 series models by its wider grille and flatter bonnet, dual square exhaust tips and badges. Its relatively modest 15 inch alloy wheels are a give-away to its age – but, even so, this is a timelessly elegant vehicle.

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Inside, you’ll find everything that could be thrown into a car in 1988 – including a CD payer. There’s stitched leather trim, polished woodgrain, a metal tilt-and-slide sunroof, electric seats and mirrors (with memory settings), 10 speaker sound system and a full-function LED readout on the dash. Even the back seat is electrically reclining and the rear headrests automatically deploy when the back seatbelt is fastened...

This is a car that you’ll never get tired of!

Depending on kilometres and condition, you can pick up a piece of BMW magnificence from just AUD$12,000. An early ‘90s version with fewer kilometres comes close to our 20 grand barrier.

See Pre-Owned Performance - BMW 750iL for more.

Stick around for Part Two (the final). We’ll check out some more Euros and locally-grown performance saloons...

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