Cursed Curbsides: The Lexus ES – Lexus’ Greatest Hit Or Greatest Regret?

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Lexus hit a home run with the 1989 LS 400. Garnering considerable praise from journalists and consumers alike, Toyota’s newest division swiftly established itself as a true player in the luxury field. With the right blend of comfort and performance, tasteful styling, and impeccable build quality, Toyota carefully crafted an aura of prestige with the LS, and therefore the Lexus brand.

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The original LS was an aspirational car. Much like the vehicles of more established luxury marques, it was a worthy status symbol, signifying success, wealth, and sophisticated taste. The LS 400 turned many heads, and opened more fat wallets than typical for a car in its class. But Toyota knew better than to let Lexus stand alone as a single, expensive flagship sedan. Late into the development of Lexus, it was decided than an entry-level model (ultimately christened as the ES 250) would join the LS 400.

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Rather than take a sporty approach, and build a true rear-wheel drive competitor to the BMW 3-Series and Mercedes-Benz 190E sedans, Lexus took a much softer and safer route, basing their entry-level ES, or “Executive Sedan,” on the very un-sporty front-wheel drive Toyota Camry. To be exact, the ES 250 was a rebadged Toyota Vista hardtop, an essentially identical car to the Camry, sold as an upscale model in Japan.

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The end result was an upscale, well-equipped car with anonymous looks, and absolutely no sporting pretensions. Regardless of its “Lexus ES” name, underneath (and very much on the surface) it was a Camry. Buyers weren’t fooled by this half-hearted attempt at a luxury sedan, and first-year sales were less than half that of the LS, which retailed for twice as much.

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Now to be fair, Lexus was just starting out, and by no means were they alone in rebadging a mainstream model to boost their lineup. But as the case in 99.9% of occurrences, a badge-engineered luxury car can only last so long before its cost-saving benefits turn against it. Lexus should have taken the failure of the first generation ES as a wake up call. Why couldn’t Lexus have just replicated the LS’s successful formula of well-rounded qualities in a smaller package?

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Even keeping the ES front-wheel drive, Lexus still could have made it a more driver-focused vehicle. While front-wheel drive is condemned by many purists, with a properly-tuned chassis, it can yield a fun-to-drive car with superb handling (just look at Audi). Additionally, at the time, the idea of a front-wheel drive, luxury-performance car was much more accepted than it is now. Many of the ES’s front-wheel drive competitors, cars like the Acura TL (née Vigor), Infiniti I30, Mazda Millenia, and Volvo 850, all offered noticeably better driving dynamics and performance as opposed to just “luxury.”

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While Lexus took a mostly skin-deep approach when it came to updates for the second generation ES in 1992, at least they put some serious effort into the new ES300′s stunning skin. Sleek, seductive sheet metal was enough to significantly propel sales (becoming Lexus’ best-selling sedan) and critical praise from automotive journalists. Yet underneath its new skin, the ES was still very much a Toyota Camry, with the powertrain and driving dynamics to match its tame underpinnings. Although a 5-speed manual was briefly offered to lure enthusiasts, those looking for performance were best to keep looking.

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Despite being at the extreme soft end of the spectrum, the ES was still a decent car in its own right, and a competitive entry among its rivals. With a top-notch interior and attractive design, the ES almost made up for its lack of performance with its style and craftsmanship. Another redesign came in 1997, modernizing the ES’s looks a little, while keeping the sleek appearance of its predecessor.

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It wasn’t until 2002 that things really took a turn for the worse. With the addition of the rear-wheel drive IS, inserted below the ES in Lexus’ lineup, the Camry-based sedan was no longer needed to serve as an unrealistic competitor to the benchmark BMW 3-Series. As a result, the ES plumped up quite a bit, growing larger, softer, and decidedly geriatric in nature. Gone were its sporty looks, and in its place bulbous sheet metal and enormous cat-eye headlights. The ES was now an official luxury boat.

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Subsequent redesigns in 2007 and 2013 have made the ES even more dull and generic. Most of the aforementioned front-wheel drive cars that the ES once seriously competed with have all been replaced or redesigned with much more performance-oriented rear- and/or all-wheel drive models. Yet the ES has stuck to the same basic formula for a quarter-century, while losing the sense of style that once made it such an attractive option.

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The ES, as a comfortable luxury car, is an average one. But that’s all it is, a comfortable, luxurious, and incredibly boring car. It’s not the testosterone-driven, ego-boosting machine that Generation Y, and even Generation X aspire to. The ES is like a luxury condo in a Boca Raton retirement community (where you will find plenty of beige and pearl white ESs). It’s a nice place to go visit with your parents or grandparents. But after a few days, the agony of boredom sets in, and you’re ready to get the hell out of there. That’s the same feeling the ES conjures.

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And that is the problem with the Lexus ES. It’s boring, lifeless, and uninspiring. It has nothing notable to offer, it’s not a standout in any area, and it brings nothing new to the table. It lacks the driving dynamics, character, and style that prevent it from even being described as well-rounded. Then there’s the Avalon question.

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Succeeding the Camry as the ES’s donor car, the current Toyota Avalon boasts similar levels of luxury and refinement, standard leather as opposed to the ES’s leatherette, the same powertrain, and most of the same features for a smaller price tag. In your humble author’s opinion, the Avalon is also a far better looking car both inside and out.

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But the luxury car world is all about image. That’s why people will pay thousands more for the Lexus version of a Toyota. And despite the everyday origins of cars like the ES, in the eyes of most consumers, Lexus does have the requisite snob appeal. But to be a true player in this league, a luxury brand must also have sex appeal – something Lexus is not only lacking, but is moving even further from with subsequent redesign of the ES.

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Let me get one thing straight though. There is nothing necessarily wrong with a luxury car that tends to be on the softer side. Not even luxury sedan needs to handle like a BMW. The thing is, that in recent years, the words “sports sedan” and “luxury car” have almost been intertwined with one another. It’s expected that a car from a luxury brand will offer superior performance and driving dynamics over lower-priced cars from mainstream brands.

Although I’m not a fan, the new trend of subcompact entry-level luxury cars (i.e. A3, 2-Series, CLA) isn’t the blasphemy that so many make it out to be. These cars are really just filling the gaps left by cars like the A4, 3-Series, and C-Class, which have become larger and more expensive.

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Unlike cars like the A3, 2-Series, and CLA, the ES isn’t even Lexus’ entry-level car. It hasn’t been for fifteen years. And when it comes to a large front-wheel drive luxury sedan, devoid of any personality, with lifeless handling and unimpressive powertrain, sold by a brand with as much ambition and pretentiousness as Lexus, there is an issue. The problem is, that Lexus claims to be a direct competitor to Audi, BMW, and most of all, Mercedes-Benz. If that is so, then the ES deserves no place in Lexus’ lineup.

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So why does Lexus keep the ES around? The only reason is because of its high sales. Without the ES, Lexus has a strong sedan lineup of the IS, GS, and LS – all of which are highly competitive in their respective segments with their German rivals. But all three of these models consistently post sales numbers that are only a fraction of both the ES’s and similar vehicles in their classes.

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Because of this, one has to wonder what most consumers see Lexus as. Do they see it as a maker of dynamic luxury cars on par with the German brands? They obviously aren’t buying Lexus as an alternative to the likes of the A4, 5-Series, and S-Class. This is especially true of the current GS, which is the same size of the ES, and shares similar styling.

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Even saying that Cadillac is Lexus’ most direct competitor is a bit of a stretch these days. Once associated with the softest luxury barges, recent years have seen Cadillac largely ditch this image with their driver’s-oriented rear-wheel drive CTS and ATS models (which both happen to outsell Caddy’s softer XTS). Even the large front-wheel drive XTS can be equipped with a 410 horsepower twin turbo V6 and torque-vectoring all-wheel drive.

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Lexus customers keep going for the soft, sedate, and sexually unappealing ES, whose closest competitors are the Buick Lacrosse, Lincoln MKZ, and even cars like the Hyundai Azera, Kia Cadenza, and of course, the Toyota Avalon. So if Lexus isn’t the Japanese Mercedes, and more of the Japanese Buick, is Lexus really the prestigious, pretentious, and aspirational brand that it’s made out to be?

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Once the best-selling luxury brand in the U.S., Lexus has since been dethroned by BMW and Mercedes. From its 2007 high of 320,000 cars sold in the U.S., Lexus sales have since shrunk to anywhere from 2/3 to 3/4 that number. And as sales of Lexus’ other sedans are declining, ES sales are rising close to pre-recession levels. Adding insult to injury, Lexus’ customer base is aging. As of 2013, the average Lexus buyer was 61 years old. Is this yet another sign of how consumers view Lexus?

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The bottom line is that the ES is a bad car for Lexus’ image. It’s like if your depressing great aunt, who is slightly bigoted and tends to share a little to much info about her health problems, were to show up to a cocktail party with your friends and co-workers. Not only is she a huge buzz kill, but she embarrasses you, and negatively affects peoples’ perception of you. But great aunty is also a wealthy heiress, and you are the sole beneficiary in her will. You can’t just simply tell aunty to take a hike.

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The ES is like that great aunt. It’s a bad car for Lexus’ image, but they can’t merely give it the ax. Sad as it is, the ES is the backbone of Lexus’ sedan lineup. It is also a huge reason why Lexus retains such high owner loyalty. They really have themselves backed into a corner. Until Lexus is ready to fully commit to the big leagues, I think we’ll be seeing a lot more ESs around.