Is it cheating to include this car in Toyota week? After all, the Toyota Lexcen was built in the same Elizabeth, South Australia factory as the Holden Commodore on which it was based. The only differences were cosmetic, although the Lexcen kept things simple: there were no manual transmissions, V8 engines or sporty trim levels. Why on earth did this bizarre rebadging experiment exist, and why was it sold for 9 long years?
The answer to the second question is one that remains elusive. Despite being almost identical to a car that was regularly Australia’s best seller and despite being sold by a brand that became #1 in Australia many years ago, the Lexcen sold poorly. And yet, Toyota kept it around.
1988-91 VN Commodore
The Lexcen was a product of the United Australian Automobile Industries joint venture between Toyota and General Motors-Holden. This joint venture also produced Holden-badged Toyota products, the Corolla-based Nova and Camry-based Apollo. Despite Holden’s extensive dealership network, the Camry and Corolla outsold the badge engineered Holdens by around 4-to-1.
This badge engineering wasn’t exclusive to the UAAI cars, as other local manufacturers like Ford and Nissan got involved too. They had been motivated by the “Button car plan”, an Australian federal initiative to consolidate locally-manufactured cars under fewer platforms, reduce tariffs on imported cars, and generally encourage competition and help improve Australian-built vehicles.
With its so-so build quality and pushrod Buick 3.8 V6, the 1988 VN Commodore was markedly different from any Toyota. The closest thing Toyota had was the rear-wheel-drive Cressida, but it featured a smoother 3.0 double overhead cam V6 and was priced much higher. Certainly, the “big Aussie six” was a popular format and the Commodore and Ford Falcon were consistently Australia’s best-selling cars. Perhaps Toyota wanted to get a piece of the pie considering its Camry was rather diminutive in size next to the Commodore and Falcon.
Named after the designer of the Australia II yacht that won the America’s Cup, Ben Lexcen, the Toyota Lexcen was priced almost identically to the Commodore. The name was a confusing and misguided choice considering Toyota was launching its Lexus division around the same time. The Lexcen sedan and wagon came in base, GL and GLX trim; these designations would later make way for CSi, VXi and flagship Newport sedan trims.
Toyota’s advertising proclaimed the Lexcen was for a different kind of family, despite the fact that the only real differences from the Commodore were the grille and headlights.
T2 Lexcen (above), VP Commodore (below)
The “wide-body” Camry that arrived in 1992 pit the Camry much more closely against the also new and larger Mitsubishi Magna (Diamante) and the Commodore and Falcon. With a bigger and more powerful 3.0 V6 available, sold as the Vienta to create psychological distance from the four-cylinder only Camry, the Lexcen was more redundant than ever. Despite this, Toyota persisted and even afforded the T2 series some further cosmetic differences from the VP Commodore on which it was based.
The T3 and T4 series Lexcens (VR and VS Commodore-based, respectively) were also visually differentiated with unique front fasciae. Despite this, the cosmetic differentiation was barely noticeable at a glance.
By the time of the T3/T4 Lexcen, the cheapest V6 Vienta was priced a cool $3k above the rebadged Holden.
The Falcon and Commodore had been duking it out during the 1990s for the top sales spot, but the questionable styling of the 1998 AU Falcon and the all-round competence and attractiveness of the 1997 VT Commodore tipped the scales very much in Holden’s favor once again. One wonders if Toyota was ever in line to get a Lexcen version of the hot-selling VT. Instead, with the UAAI experiment over, Toyota developed its own “big Aussie six” for 2000: a rehashed ’94 Avalon that flopped badly.
It was plain as day, even to non-enthusiasts, that the Lexcen was a rebadged Commodore. Were buyers loyal to their Toyota dealerships but needed something that towed more than a Camry? Were there better deals to be had on the slow-selling model? Former or current Lexcen owners, are you out there? Inquiring minds want to know why you didn’t just buy your car at a Holden dealership.