Japanese car makers had spent the 1970s gaining market share primarily at the low-end of the U.S. market, unleashing an onslaught of high quality, well-priced, economy-oriented products—in contrast, their larger, more expensive products were relatively slow sellers. However, by the 1980s, the leading Japanese brands had more effectively set their sights upmarket, with an increasing array of attractive, luxurious and powerful offerings targeting affluent buyers. Brands like Buick, which had been immune to the first waves of the Japanese small car invasion, were suddenly in the crosshairs. In Consumer Guide Auto Test ’87, the editors evaluated key players in the growing crop of premium Japanese cars: the Acura Legend, Nissan Maxima and Toyota Cressida. How would these “upper-middle” interlopers be received by pragmatic testers in suburban Chicago?
It was a critical question, since the “upper-middle” segment (akin to “Near Luxury” today) was a sizable and profitable slice of the U.S. car market. The American brand that best embodied the segment was arguably Buick, which had for decades combined upmarket attributes and pricing with a premium, low-key image. For example, in the 1960s, the top-of-the-line Electra series was positioned as a well-balanced flagship and a nicely-equipped 1966 Electra 225 Custom 4-door Hardtop like the one pictured would have cost around $5,800 ($44,300 adjusted), which offered plenty of “quiet” prestige but effectively undercut the prices of cars like Lincoln and Cadillac that were positioned in the flashier “Luxury” category.
Importantly, Buicks were not always “old people’s” cars either. While today we think of typical Buick owners as being Ma and Pa Kettle out to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary at Denny’s (an image reinforced by Buick’s current advertising: “that can’t be a Buick, it is being driven by stylish younger people!”), during the brand’s heyday it was a “go to” choice for upwardly mobile professionals. Since Buicks weren’t cheap, the buyers were typically a bit older—with many falling right in the thirty-something to fifty-something sweet spot for affluent car buyers. A rich and large target, to say the least, and one that would grow significantly in the 1980s as Baby Boomers entered their prime earning and spending years.
The Japanese Big Three (Honda, Nissan and Toyota) were quite focused on the needs of the evolving American car market, as they well understood the profit potential of migrating into the upmarket territory where brands like Buick had historically reigned supreme. Unlike GM, which tried to graft fussy, formal interior and exterior styling cues from the 1970s onto smaller products in the 1980s, the Japanese discerned that tastes had changed and European brands like Audi were setting the style standards. The “International” look was “in” for the 1980s, with clean, purposeful lines and minimal ornamentation inside and out. Cleverly, the Japanese also recognized that Americans liked a little cushiness with their “International” style, so no need to mimic the austerity of the German interiors—rather the plan was to offer a fresh version of plush, American-style comfort.
Honda aggressively moved upmarket with the launch of the Acura division in the U.S. for 1986. While the smaller Integra went after younger buyers seeking a premium sporty small car, the flagship Legend was an expression of traditional Buick values updated for the 1980s: quiet, confident, luxurious and balanced—a bit like the “Tuned Car” that Buick was serving up in 1966….
The Legend offered more than advertising hyperbole. The testers at Consumer Guide awarded the new Legend “Best Buy” status in the Auto Test 1987 issue, along with an honest assessment of the car’s many strengths (and relatively few weaknesses).
Unfortunately for GM, Consumer Guide did not even view the Legend (or the Maxima or Cressida) as an alternative to any Buick—the competitive set listed was primarily imports along with certain Cadillac, Lincoln and Chrysler (FWD New Yorker!) models. For these shoppers, the Legend offered a smooth, refined 2.5 liter 24-valve OHC V6, nimble handling and a compliant ride. The interior was roomy, comfortable and featured excellent ergonomics, plus the car was assembled to Honda’s typically high standards. Granted, some felt the Legend looked anonymous and a bit like a jumbo Accord, but for buyers seeking “quiet” luxury at a premium but fair price ($21,173–$46,238 adjusted), the Legend was hard to beat. Buyers agreed, as Acura sold 54,713 Legends for 1987. Plus, in its first full year on the market, with 109,470 units sold, the Acura brand grabbed a 1.2% share of the total U.S. car market, a pretty impressive result for an upstart with only about 150 dealers in America at the time.
While Honda moved upmarket with a new division in the mid-1980s, Nissan had been selling larger-sized, upscale Datsun/Nissan products in the U.S. since the arrival of the 810 series in 1977. The Maxima name took over for 1982, while the car itself was redesigned and switched to front-wheel-drive for 1985. The square-edged European-style look was given a slight facelift for 1987. Nissan positioned the Maxima as both a “luxury” model (GXE)…
… and a “sporty” model (SE). Both were powered by the same 3.0 Liter OHC V6 found on the 300ZX sportscar—a point Nissan was proud to highlight in an attempt to lure upscale customers with performance aspirations. In keeping with that desired target, Consumer Guide reviewed an SE model with a 5-speed manual.
CG loved the performance of the potent V6, and praised the Maxima’s responsiveness and sporty handling. Compliments were also given to the Maxima’s attractive interior, though roominess was seen as bit tight. CG was skeptical of many of the electronic gizmos that Nissan offered on its flagship sedan, but they undoubtedly provided owners with bragging rights on having the “latest and greatest” technology. Build quality was generally found to be very good (though the test car had a number of rattles) and the pricing was aggressive: $16,499 ($36,031 adjusted) brought home a manual-shift Maxima SE. This was good value for a loaded sporty sedan, and that market was “hot” in 1987.
Even Buick tried—and failed—to attract these buyers with performance aspirations using T-Types and Touring Packages. But of course, these sorts of cars weren’t central to Buick’s image. Cars like the flagship Park Avenue sedan still were.
Upright and conservative, the Park Avenue boasted plenty of chrome, opera lights, “loose pillow”-look seats and gobs of fake wood trim. Close your eyes and imagine it’s 1977…. Buick did at least nod toward more modern attributes, touting benefits like electronic sensors and optional Anti-lock Brakes. But the biggest emphasis was on quality—in Buick’s case, they claimed that while “reliability starts at the factory,” it “continues at the dealer,” and then boasted that the buyer got the be the “final inspector” (nothing better than finding flaws on your new car). Hardly reassuring…
In contrast, Toyota had built its American reputation on delivering high quality products, and they chose to let the customers, not the advertising copywriters, sing the brand’s praises. Hence, Toyota used JD Power survey data to demonstrate that the Cressida was “the most trouble free luxury car you can own.” Who would buyers believe: the maker of the disgraced X-Cars and the dastardly Diesel V8, or the actual owners of some of the best-built, most trouble-free cars in the world?
Consumer Guide had high praise for the Cressida, with kudos for the smooth and potent 2.8 Liter DOHC Inline-6 (from the Supra) and the comfortable, well-controlled ride. Inside, testers appreciated the easy-to-use controls and good driving position, though they found fault with interior width, noting that the Cressida really wasn’t wide enough for three people in the back seat. The harshest criticism was leveled at the motorized shoulder belts, an inferior solution to passive restraint requirements. With Toyota being Toyota, workmanship was exemplary. The test car with optional leather stickered for $20,200 ($44,113 adjusted) and was seen as offering good value compared to European luxury cars (though not the Nissan Maxima).
The Japanese, however, were just warming up. For the 1990 model year, Toyota’s luxury Lexus division and Nissan’s luxury/sport Infiniti division were introduced in the U.S. market, sending shockwaves through the industry and significantly impacting both European and American makers. One of the brands that was hardest hit by the upscale Japanese onslaught was Buick, which had formerly been known for providing exactly the sort of quietly competent, modern, well-priced, upscale cars for affluent buyers that the Japanese were now conquering.
Within five years of the brand’s launch, Lexus was enjoying strong sales and a great reputation. Even the entry-level ES300 was a star: with a starting price of $30,600 ($50,827 adjusted) it was the most popular and affordable Lexus for 1994. Just as Buick had done years before, Lexus marketed its brand as smart luxury car choice for buyers who spent their money wisely on top products.
As for Buick itself in 1994? If you wanted 4-door that was comparably-sized to the Lexus ES300, well, hmmm, there was the Century sedan, entering its 14th year of production. Hey, it was only priced at $16,695 ($27,730 adjusted). Talk about value! No wonder Ma and Pa Kettle came running! Or for around the same price as the Lexus ES300, you could have gotten Buick’s flagship sedan—the Park Avenue Ultra—for $31,699 ($52,652 adjusted), a thirsty, super-sized, supercharged pushrod V6 front-wheel-drive cruiser with pillow-tufted seats and lots of fake wood trim. Not exactly the image statement desired by most upwardly mobile professionals in the 1990s…
Needless to say, evident by 1987 and confirmed by 1994, that “When better automobiles are built, Japanese brands (not Buick) will build them.”