(first posted 5/25/2015) Toyota’s luxury brand Lexus made a huge splash when it arrived in North America just in time for the nineties. The LS luxury sedan was such a compelling product, with superb refinement, a silky V8 engine, and excellent build quality. Very quickly, the LS400 gave the German and American luxury brands notice: there was a new Sheriff in town. Lurking in the Sheriff’s long shadow, though, was a quiet and unassuming deputy who quickly proved he was out of his depth in the wild world of luxury law enforcement.
That incompetent deputy was the ES250. Sure, the concept of the ES250 was sound: offer a cheaper means of entry to the Lexus experience, and maintain the new Lexus ethos of high quality and refinement. To call the ES250 “incompetent” perhaps sells the car short: it wasn’t a bad car. However, up against both the LS400 and the Toyota Camry, the ES250 didn’t measure up.
We know that the entry-level Lexus story has a happy ending, of course. The 1992 ES300, known as the Toyota Windom in Japan, offered mini-LS styling and looked utterly different to the Camry it maintained a kinship with. The ES series and later the related RX crossover have sustained Lexus in North America even after the Germans and Americans fired back at the cocky upstart brand. The ES’ success has perhaps become a crutch that Lexus has leaned too heavily on, its conservative styling and FWD layout seeming at odds with the wild styling and RWD dynamics of its IS and GS siblings. But the ES300 was a crucial part of Lexus’ ascendance to the luxury car sales podium.
The Lexus brand’s arrival came at a fortuitous time. Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs were aspirational luxury cars, but their high prices and running costs made some consumers balk. Cadillac was concluding a decade of decline, marked by disasters like the Cimarron and the V8-6-4 and HT-4100 engines. It and Lincoln were struggling to connect with more youthful buyers. Audi had become the victim of a lengthy unintended acceleration scandal right as it was gaining traction in the market and bit player Alfa Romeo was on its way out of the North American market. Volvo and Saab were performing acceptably, but there was still room for another luxury brand. There were consumers jaded by German parts and maintenance costs and by American reliability and/or style, and for whom an Acura Legend just wasn’t fancy enough.
But those middle-class Acura buyers were also a segment Toyota wanted to go after with its new brand. Like rival Japanese brand Infiniti, they had poured much of their development funds into a flagship luxury sedan. But what good is a flagship if there are no smaller ships in the fleet? Infiniti had assembled a rag-tag team of cars, including their European mid-size offering and an aging Japanese-market coupe, to mixed success. Lexus’ “smaller ship” would echo Infiniti’s execution and success.
The Cadillac Cimarron had been a rebadged Chevrolet Cavalier. The Lexus ES250 was a rebadged Toyota Camry Prominent/Vista. A better base, yes, but it was still a conservative, mid-size sedan from a mainstream marque with a luxury marque’s badge on it. The ES250 screamed stopgap, despite Lexus using the JDM hardtop bodystyle to differentiate it from its Camry relative. Although this was not the last time a formerly overseas-only product would be rebadged for domestic consumption – see the Cadillac Catera – the Camry Prominent, despite its frameless windows and different sheetmetal, looked very much like the regular Camry. French Vanilla Bean ice-cream instead of store-brand Vanilla, you could say.
Soarer (top), Corona EXiV (bottom)
Like Infiniti’s smaller ships, Lexus had plucked a JDM model to use rather than develop an all-new offering in conjunction with the LS. Although the Japanese market has always been a smorgasbord of unique offerings, at the time Toyota didn’t have much else they could use. The RWD Soarer coupe would make the trip with the new generation-model in 1991, and although it bore some superficial resemblance to the LS in its hindquarters, it was as aged as the Camry Prominent/Vista. The Mark II, Chaser and Cresta were scarcely differentiated from their Cressida sibling, and were simply variants of that car tweaked for sale in Toyota’s different dealership networks. The only other possibility was the Carina ED/Corona EXiV, a front-wheel-drive (AWD optional) hardtop sedan. But its generic nineties styling didn’t look prestigious enough to sell alongside the LS.
The Lexus treatment for the Camry Prominent consisted of little, really. It was available only with the uplevel Camry’s 2.5 V6, with 156hp and 160 ft-lbs. The V6 was smooth, but 0-60 was around the 10 second mark so it was no sprinter and it was slower than a Legend. The ES250 undercut the larger Legend’s MSRP by around $3k, but the base ES250 came with a standard 5-speed manual – an odd choice for a thoroughly unsporting sedan – and a buyer had to pay extra for niceties like leather trim, a power driver’s seat or a CD player. The base ES250 did have the gamut of power accessories, as well a standard driver’s side airbag and six-speaker stereo. Of course, with a base price of $21k, the ES250 was priced around $5k higher than a Camry V6.
Even after adding those features, and despite the use of real bird’s eye maple trim, the ES250 cabin resembled the cheaper Camry’s interior a little too closely. The transmission shifter and instrument binnacle, for example, were unchanged. The ES250 did add a lot of sound deadening material, but the added weight of this and the other features further blunted the car’s performance.
Amusingly, Lexus billed the ES250 as the “luxury sedan of sport sedans”. But it used the same suspension as the Camry, and the front suspension set-up was actually softened for a plusher ride. Handling didn’t suffer greatly, and the basic Camry platform was competent enough, but this was no sport sedan.
The considerably more expensive (by about $12k) LS400 outsold the ES250 by more than 2-1, and overall sales of the lesser Lexus were grim: around 19k units in 1990, 17k in 1991. Its much more unique ES300 successor would go on to sell more than twice as many units in its debut year.
Clearly, consumers desired a well-equipped, refined, smartly-styled mid-size sedan with a luxury nameplate. But the ES250 wasn’t it. Instead, the ES250 was a car that looked like a Camry, drove like a Camry, but sold for several thousand more. The Camry was a solid car, but the ES250 just wasn’t differentiated enough. There’s a reason the ES250 is almost completely forgotten today: it was eminently forgettable as a luxury sedan.