Curbside Classic: 1994 Lexus ES 300 – A Drinkable Prosecco Among Pricier Champagnes

(first posted 1/18/2017)     Lexus. An automotive brand that instantly conjures images of classical music, golf courses, and a tower of champagne coupes resting on its hood. Lexus. An automotive brand that instantly ignites heated debates over everything from its spindle grille to whether or not it’s even a “true” luxury brand. On the one hand you have proponents who rave about Lexus’ high-quality fit-and-finish, plethora of features, low cost of ownership, and the ever important premium dealership experience. Yet on the other hand, you have the opponents who write-off Lexus as little more as a fancy Toyota with little more than a premium price tag to vouch for its luxury ambitions.

Furthermore, Lexus itself struggles with an identity crisis, whether or not it actually likes to acknowledge it. With more driver-focused models such as the IS/GS/RC and its F Sport sub-brand, Lexus likes to think that it’s a true BMW/Mercedes/Audi/Cadillac competitor. Unfortunately, Lexus’s top sellers are its less sophisticated and front-wheel drive ES sedan and RX crossover, making it more of a Buick/Lincoln/Acura competitor, which is a level Lexus would like consumers to think it is above. It’s a dilemma that has plagued Lexus for most of its existence, and no model best represents the start of this dichotomy than the ES 300.

While the original ES 250 (above) was introduced as a somewhat halfhearted, stopgap companion to the LS 400, the second generation ES was a far more targeted effort at the entry-level luxury market. Reflective of the sole engine’s increase in displacement from 2.5 to 3.0 liters, the car was now called the ES 300, but engine size wasn’t all that increased. Riding on a 0.7-inch longer wheelbase, the car was nearly 5 inches longer and three inches wider, classifying it as a midsize sedan by EPA standards.

More notably, the second generation ES boasted far more seductive styling, which I’m willing to bet was largely responsible for the car’s 76.4% increase in sales for 1992 over 1991. Ditching the ES 250’s very mid-1980s-rooted sharp-edged, angular styling, the new ES 300 boasted a sleek, elegant silhouette with a far more athletic stance than before.

Still strictly a pillared hardtop design, the ES 300 featured an aerodynamic, wedge-shaped front fascia. A slim, body-colored grille was flanked by backswept twin-projector headlamps. A long, low-slung hood, slim A- and C-pillars, aggressive shoulders, and integrated rear spoiler gave the car the visual flair it needed to stand out just the right amount. The ES 300 was a design that was striking and sophisticated, yet at the same time delicate and understated enough to have mass appeal.

Inside, the ES 300 greeted occupants with a very understated and logically laid-out interior, that if anything, was a bit sleep-inducing, especially in the typical early-1990s Toyota beige-and-taupe combination. Design was simple and straightforward, a combination of contemporary Toyota and Lexus interior design elements, with flowing, organic shapes, soft-touch surfaces, and easily legible and operable controls.

The Lexus’ badge of luxury was marked by California burled walnut trimming the center console, though truthfully, there was little else about the ES 300’s interior that screamed luxury. The optional but commonly equipped leather trim package included stitched leather seating surfaces, center armrest, and steering wheel.

Unlike the larger LS 400 and other entry-level luxury sedans such as the Acura Vigor and Mercedes C-Class, door panels lacked stitched leather, wood trim, and chrome door handles, making for a less luxurious feel. In any event, standard features included digital automatic climate control, 6-way power front seats, power windows, and 8-speaker sound system.

Rightfully so, the ES 300 was a sportier, higher-end looking design than its Camry counterpart. Following common Japanese practice of offering traditional sedan and 4-door hardtop bodystyles sharing little to no sheetmetal, the ES 300 used the same hardtop body shell as the Japanese-spec Toyota Windom, though underneath the skin, the “wide-body” XV10 Camry sedan and Windom/ES 300 hardtops were virtually identical.

Riding on the same chassis, the ES 300 was powered by the same two 3.0L V6s over its run, the 185 horsepower/189 lb-ft torque 3ZE-FE from 1992-1993 and the slightly more robust 188 horsepower/203 lb-ft torque 3MZ-FE that replaced it for 1994-1996. The same 4-speed automatic and 5-speed manual transmissions were shared, though the manual was dropped in the ES after 1993, presumably due to low take rate.

(It appears this promotional photo was taken right about here, give or take a few blocks, on Commonwealth Avenue in my home city of Boston) 

Strictly appearance-wise, it’s honestly hard to believe that the ES 300 was the platform mate of the far more bulbous and less athletic looking XV10 Camry. Of course, being heavily related to the Camry was part of the ES’s appeal. Offering Camry quality, reliability, and user friendliness with more snob and sex appeal — it was the perfect formula for success.

And my oh my was the ES 300 a success. Over the course of this 1992-1996 generation, Lexus moved some 200,954 ES 300s out the doors of its imposing concrete-facaded dealers. During those years, approximately two out of every five Lexus’ sold was an ES 300, and in 1996 alone, over 50% of the Lexus’ sales came from the ES 300.

While the LS certainly put Lexus on the map, by the time this second generation ES rolled around, the LS’s novelty was beginning to wear off and sales were decreasing, aided by the fact that the car’s base price was steadily rising and newer competitors were being introduced. In light of this, the ES’s popularity was soaring and it was the ES 300 that kept the cash flowing in, opening up the wallets of many first-time Lexus owners and even first-time luxury car owners, in addition to returning customers.

You see, unlike so many other “entry-level” luxury cars, whose primary purpose is to lure buyers into the showroom by its low starting price, then hopefully up sell them to something larger and more expensive, the ES 300 had a powerful appeal for just what it was, and buyers were content. Despite it offering greater luxury and performance, few people took notice of the GS 300, as evidenced by its pitiful sales figures in comparison. For those seeking little more than leather seats and the Lexus badge, the ES was a far more affordable gateway.

In truth, the ES 300 was much like Prosecco. It’s mild, easy to handle, and perfectly competent if you want to feel a little fancy. It’s in a completely different league than Miller High Life, but it’s still not real Champagne, and can never quite be truly enjoyed to the same extent. Just like Prosecco is sweet and light, the ES is soft and thus easier to live with for many luxury car shoppers looking to save a few bucks. However, just as an $11 bottle of Ruffino Prosecco is no real substitute for Dom Perignon, or even Moët & Chandon Imperial brut, when it comes to a greater overall sense of solidity and that precise luxury car feel, the ES was then, and especially now (considering its platform dates back to 2000 and its V6 engine to 2004), no match for newer non-rebadged, tighter-handling rear-wheel drive competitors from makes such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Cadillac. Yet some Proseccos are better than others, and the 1992-1996 Lexus ES 300 was one of the better ones.

Photographed: Accord Pond, Norwell, MA – December 2016

Related Reading:

The Lexus ES: Lexus’ Greatest Hit or Greatest Regret?

1989 Lexus ES 250

1993 Lexus GS 300