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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
The Lexus ES: the Official Car of Real Estate Saleswomen and the Comfortably Pensioned.
And living proof that, away from the internet auto blogs, the usual American car buyer is not only disinterested in sports sedans, to a certain extent they’re repelled by them.
The Lexus has become the 21st century brougham. Fat, porky comfort; a reasonable amount of “look at me, I made it” status; and a luxury car that appeals to the lowest common denominator luxury car buyer. Now that Buick has gotten more interesting in its lineup, Lexus has become the 1990’s Buick.
They’ll make good money following that line – for about fifteen or twenty years. At which point, they’d better either start a crash program to develop cars that interest younger (say, 50’s) buyers – or start a line of Lexus hearses. So their clientele can take that last ride in the same brand that served them so well in life.
Just like Cadillac used to do.
Having said that, I’m still not sure where the IS fits in. And are IS sales in line with the other models?
The IS does just fine in the current lineup; last month’s sales figures give you a rough idea:
ES series: 6,523
IS series: 4,403
And just for some comparison, BMW sold 10,915 3 and 4 series cars in the same timeframe. It’s interesting to see how close the two lineups are in sales (a difference of only 11 cars!) and how the somewhat different approaches achieve similar results.
It’s all price and brand appeal. Have a look at German car prices compared to the Lexus models circa 1995. The Lexus was much cheaper.
Since then, exchange rates have hammered the Japanese, and the Germans have most definitely cheapened out their cars. The price gap is closed now.
As a younger person, I would have snapped up a BMW 3 series instead of an ES any day of the week. Now, as an older man, the ES seems mighty attractive when I am stuck in bumper to bumper traffic on a daily basis.
In part, because, 20 years ago, a BMW was a driver’s car and a Lexus was quiet pillowy luxury.
Today, a BMW is nothing more that “a Lexus mit handling”.
And I’m not so sure about the handling part, to put it mildly.
Ive always found ‘sport sedan’ to be an oxymoron. I mean, who is actually supposed to drive them? Someone with a well paying job that might require taking some other stuffed suits out to the occasional power lunch, and/or ferrying around kids, yet has some level of interest in cars. YET, cant afford to just keep a sedan around for the grunt work and a true sportscar in the garage for fun?
Sedan buyers generally WANT posh, floaty, and porky comfort. Performance enthusiasts generally want style and sex appeal to go with the speed and handling. So-called sports sedans definitely drive better than bread and butter or luxury oriented ones, but cant hope to compete with dedicated performance cars. To my eyes, tarting up a 4 door sedan reeks of a half hearted attempt to make the best of a bad situation.
Who drives a sports sedan? Me.
My garage usually consists of a couple (at least) of motorcycles, and a sports car or hot hatch (last two were a Porsche 924S and the current Solstice). So, my daily driver commuter car (usually a four door sedan, occasionally a two door), to keep me happy, has to have a feel to it that last least approximates the sports cars, or is at least half as interesting as the motorcycles. Otherwise, I’d rather walk the 20 miles to work.
Cars like a Panther, a Camry, a Corolla, etc. are the anti-cars to me. I’ll occasionally rent one for a long distance trip that’s virtually all interstate. Otherwise, I’d prefer to never come near one, and pretend that they don’t exist.
I drive a spots sedan and I would not drive anything else.I could not care less for styling and sex appeal. I want a sleeper that nobody notices so I can really enjoy driving it fast!
I see them as a very good compromise, rather than a “half hearted attempt”. Something that looks good inside and out, comfortably seats 4 or 5 and can haul all their luggage (or golf clubs), yet responds willingly on a twisty road and can deliver a lot of power when you need to, or want to. It doesn’t need to have razor-sharp handling and it doesn’t need to have neck-snapping acceleration, but I want it to be at least capable in both departments. Even for those of us who have multiple cars, the daily driver is where we spend a lot of time. Why not make it pleasant in every way possible?
I think Lexus got it right with first generation LS400 and the ES250. Unfortunately, every subsequent change in styling only made the car look uglier and uglier. And now look at it. I’d be embarrassed to be seen next to a Lexus. It’s the same thing with the Infiniti vehicle. The first generation Q45 was an awesome car. It just went downhill from there.
I’ve driven several Lexus vehicles over the years but never owned one. They always reminded me of smother and even softer versions of Cadillacs and senior Buicks of years gone by aimed at the gold with whitwall tire set.
The ES is and has always been very profitable for Lexus, largely due to the shared platform. The first one was overshadowed by the LS simply due to the value for money equation. Many estimate that Toyota lost money on the first generation LS,if you compare what you get for your money now vs then compared to the competition the spread has gotten a lot smaller, both as Lexus has made their pricing more realistic (higher) and the competition has made theirs lower (partly through cost cutting that affected their reputation (MB for example). Also, Lexus really pushed the LS at the beginning, the ES was merely along to fill out the showroom even though it likely made more money for Toyota. It’s certainly less egregious than what Nissan did with the Q45 and the M30.
The big factor is reliability or at least the perception thereof. I’m as big a fanboy of the Europeans as anyone, but willingly concede that a Lexus is likely to require less repairs or at least be perceived so. People happy with their Toyota and looking for a way to increase the luxury quotient had a risk free way of doing so with Lexus.
I also believe that sales and service has a lot to do with it as well. The environment wherein you buy and service an ES is significantly more pleasant than that of the Avalon. To some people this matters, others, not so much.
I realize the ES is very similar to the Camry, but on the surface, it is not and never has been and hardly true badge engineering. The average consumer would not think the Camry and the ES are the same in the way that GM used to practice this. To my mind, the Land Cruiser/LX line is MUCH more guilty of this.
I was more impressed with the first generation Infiniti Q45 and M30 than anything that came after that. In fact, I don’t know why they discontinued the M30 coupe. I don’t like the current generation Infiniti or Lexus.
What I was trying to get across (and failed) is that at least the two Lexuses looked somewhat related. The Q was very attractive with its organic forms inside and out, the M30 was very linear inside and out. Next to each other there was zero resemblance, the cars appeared to be of very different generations if not manufacturere. The J30, G20 and I30 that came later all were curvier and more fitting with the Q’s language. (And yes, I know the G20 is a Nissan Primera and the I30 is a Maxima.)
The reason they discontinued the M30 was that it was based on the F31 Nissan Leopard, which dated back to early 1986. The Leopard was a high-end personal luxury coupe like the Toyota Soarer, but the F31 generation was not nearly as successful. Nissan replaced it with the four-door JY32 Leopard J. Ferie, which was sold here as the Infiniti J30.
That’s a shame, for I found the F31 Leopard (Infiniti M30) more attractive than the J30.
I’m not impressed with today’s Cadillacs and Buicks being sold.
If what you liked from Cadillac and Buick were the 60’s style barges, then yes the current Cadillacs and Buicks are not like that. The ATS is not at all soft riding.
I’m not against Cadillacs and Buicks engineering and being sporty riding, I’m just not impressed with its looks. And Buick looks even worse.
Is there anything new that you actually like?
I’m afraid not. I’m rather old-school when it comes to cars. I prefer cars of the 50s through the early 70s.
When I was still in school I drove my Grandmother’s 1950 Buick. I don’t miss the 6 volt electrical system. I really don’t miss carburetors and automatic chokes either. In the 70’s I looked forward to getting electronic fuel injection, although with the microprocessor revolution, digital fuel injection took longer.
I will say that styling is not what it once was. The current big radiator grille is not always good.
It seems to me that the larger question is whether the ES is slowly killing the LS. The high end market is funny, and requires an aura of prestige if the car is going to be successful. It doesn’t matter how good the car is if the buyer’s friends and neighbors and clients look down their noses at it.
Has the ES eclipsed the LS as Lexus’ reason for being? There was a time when the LS cars were relatively common, but they are not anymore. Is that because the LS is not as appealing as it once was? Possibly, but I also suspect that the LS does not carry the snob-appeal that it once did, and precisely because everyone’s real estate agent and insurance man has an ES.
The prestige/volume issue is a balancing act that few have managed over the long term, from Packard right on up to Lexus today.
The LS is actually the second best selling prestige car in the US, after the S-class. I see them all the time in La Jolla. They’re basically the old money cars that Mercedes-Benz used to produce before Lexus turned them into a marketing company.
“It doesn’t matter how good the car is if the buyer’s friends and neighbors and clients look down their noses at it.”
That explains why the Mitsubishi Diamante was never a roaring success and why I’m keeping a very close eye on the Hyundai Equus and Genesis. If Hyundai can break through the badge snob/image appeal barrier, those two cars will be their own success stories.
A friend’s father just recently purchased a 2014 Equus, to replace his 2011 Equus. He absolutely loves them, and having seen it and sat in it, it’s a very impressive car. If they can get around the badge snobbery the thing is a real contender.
At least on the Equus, also, you can order it without any Hyundai badges–the car only has Equus scripts and logos. Kind of similar to what Olds did with the 1st generation Aurora. Clever way to get around those who love the car but are embarrassed by the “H” logo, though it’s become a lot more respectable in the past 5 years.
During the mid-90’s I had an ES300 and found it to be a very smooth quiet vehicle with enough oomph when needed. The engine was a 24 valve DOHC unit from memory with stylish covers. I thought the bread and butter 3 litre V6 Camry time equivalent was not a DOHC unit, but I may be wrong(??)
The Camry V-6 and the Lexus V-6 are the same, both have DOHC. When installed in a Lexus there is likely more sound deadening etc., which makes the driver perceive the engine as being smoother and quieter (than the same engine in a Camry). Toyota did have an SOCH V-6 but it was only used in trucks and SUV’s.
I think the confusion may come from the fact that there were two different V-6s used in the U.S. Camry and ES300. Initially, they used the 3SV-FE, which was essentially the previous 2.5-liter 2VZ-FE taken out to 3 liters. Later, they switched to the newer 1MZ-FE. The difference was not immediately obvious since the newer engine made all of 3 more horsepower in U.S. form.
By the way, sorry to hear about your great-aunt, but happy at your (eventual) impending fortune…
…unless she reads this first.
Haha, unfortunately I don’t have a wealthy great aunt. Although when I was younger, there was an elderly family friend who talked me ear off at a family party about her various non-life threatening health ailments. She has since passed on, but needless to say I was very grossed out.
Wow, I’m deeply impressed Brendan, you’ve taught me something new: I had no idea the Vista-based gen1 ES existed! We have Vistas of that shape here ex-Japan (although they’re of an age where most are gone now), but none of the Lexus-badged ones – I’m assuming it was NA-only?
The first ES we got was the stylish gen2. Of course its allure fell markedly when its donor, the identical Toyota Windom, started arriving here en masse a year or two later among our many shipments of used JDM imports. Ditto with gen3 and 4 – it made it doubly-difficult for Lexus to establish the ES’s upmarket credentials when the cut-price used car dealer next door has an older but identical Toyota Windom for a fraction the cost. The IS, GS and LS have all been similarly affected by the quantities of Toyota Altezza, Aristo and Celsior cheap imports around.
Anyway, the gen2 and 3 were nice-looking cars; the pile of blancmange gen4 sadly not.
This should if it loads show a NZ 1990 Camry which evolved into the ES 300 the early gen 2 Camry barely made it here good handling in mushy Camry terms this car actually had along with quiet ride comfort good performance, unfortunately this wasnt a Camry anybody else could even get it wasnt available JDM either.
I think the ES250 was not a Vista, but a Camry Prominent V-6 four-door hardtop.
Agreed from a body-trim perspective. There was a same-body Vista, but from memory (it’s been years since I last saw one here) the Vista was much lower-spec.
The Lexus ES is the Baby Boomer’s Deville. It’s what luxury buyers who inherently have no interest in cars purchase when they want a safe, socially accepted status symbol. And just as boomers delighted in scoffing at the Devilles and Town Cars the Greatest Generation continued to purchase well into their dotage, succeeding generations will surely feel the same about their parents’ choice in vehicles. Just how it goes
Which begs the question as to how long Lexus will continue to remain a status symbol? They deliver exemplary customer service, but none of the cars that compete directly with the German triumvirate (IS, GS, LS) sell in any meaningful numbers or command the transaction prices of the Germans. For example, the Lexus LS begins at 72k. The Mercedes S-Klasse, widely considered to be the pinnacle of the segment, begins at 95k. Surely this discrepancy is not because Toyota feels their luxury flagship should come with an automatic 25% discount. FWIW, the GS came very closed to being axed, and it’s not like the current, ‘more exciting’ GS is a dazzling success!
The ES and RX are essentially what pays the utility bills at electric dealerships, and as we all know these are gilded chariots based on lesser, mass produced Toyotas, and are perceived by many as such, and we all know how that model worked out long-term for Cadillac. The story of Lexus’ founding and rise to prominence makes for an interesting read. The question is, will we reading about Lexus’ untimely demise perhaps sooner than we think?
Judging from Lexus’ declining sales and aging customer base, it would not surprise me if Lexus might follow Cadillac and Lincoln down the road to irrelevancy sooner than we think. History has an uncanny knack of repeating itself.
Lexus sales aren’t as dramatically low, or declining, as people make it seem. Year to date sales thru May of this year is BMW at 127,181. Mercedes Benz is second at 125,118, and then Lexus with 115,151.
With the demise of Maybach, Mercedes is moving the S-class up as more of a Roller class, although I think it is probably going to be near Rolls class.
Seeing the interior of the current S-Klasse makes me think MB’s moving it up towards Grosser 600 territory. I wouldn’t be surprised now that Maybach’s a (bad) memory.
The ES was never aimed at the sports sedan market and I don’t think Toyota ever pretended that it was like Cadillac thought that the Cimarron was somehow a sports sedan. The early LS was sold very cheaply, perhaps below cost.
I briefly sold Lexus cars in 2006.
Among the sales staff, they were called The Best Buicks Ever Built. We also joked that the company’s slogan should be “Built By Robots, For Robots.”
Most of our customers fell into two categories – late-middle aged women coming for the RX lease deal, and retired cash buyers of the ES. The owner, if he had his druthers, wouldn’t have even stocked the other models. We had an LX that might as well would have been bolted to the showroom floor.
Lexus is in such a tough spot as a brand. I remember when the brand launched, there was so much positive buzz, led by the LS, that their credentials were firmly established and the exemplary service experience was just icing on the cake. The Gen1 ES was a throw-away, but the Gen2 ES was quite nice. My wife and I crossed shopped it, along with the Vigor (yes, actually), the MB C Class and the 3 Series. We bought the Bimmer, but thought that the ES was nicely done. I remember at the time that they sold a lot to relatively young, upscale consumers, and it was considered a very credible luxury car. Fast forward to today, and those early adopters seemed to have aged along with the cars, getting older and softer and more comfortable. These buyers are in love with the service experience, the brand choice is safe and non-controversial, the cars are “nice.” It is Buick in the 1960s and 1970s (except for the dealer service part–I’d imagine that Buick dealers were just as bad as every other brands’ back then). Profitable, fat, happy and … slowly dying. Everyone I know today who has a Lexus is either 1) 60+ or 2) affluent but not at all into cars and therefore simply seeking a fancy appliance. Zero aspiration but plenty of business. Toyota needs a new world class flagship brand (even though I know they would never do it) to shock the establishment all over again and attract a new premium buyers into the fold. Offer stylish, smart RWD/AWD cars at that numerically outperform the European brands and undercut them in price (sound familiar?). Then they could let Lexus stay as a 21st Century Buick (the real Buick’s image still being sadly ruined beyond repair everywhere except China and the Midwest U.S. heartland), selling in good volume (lots of people like good vanilla) and making gobs of money in the process. Then keep Toyotas simpler (The Avalon really should be a Lexus, it fits that brief better). Classic “good, better, best” line-up. Maybe Alfred Sloan’s vision isn’t so out-of-date after all?
Actually the Avalon just like the Maxima should no longer exist as their spots were taken by Lexus and Infiniti. Those folks looking into getting a higher priced Toyota are looking at Lexus. There is no need for a flagship Toyota when Toyota has a whole division devoted to flagship cars.
” It’s not the testosterone-driven, ego-boosting machine that Generation Y, and even Generation X aspire to.”
And it was never intended to. You see, Generation X and Y ain’t got the coin to buy “ego-boosting machines.” Sure, they all lust after them but they drive used cars. Besides, the ES was never designed for the testosterone-driven, Generation Y, and even Generation X aspire to.
Now, this is my favourite…….
“So why does Lexus keep the ES around? The only reason is because of its high sales.”
Well, it’s a eureka moment! Toyota keeps the ES around because of high sales! Whoda thunk it? A car company keeps selling a car because it makes a lot of money for them! How could they be so stupid?
The average age of a new car buyer in the USA is now 57, since this is the group that has the money to buy them and guess what? They aren’t interested in an FRS. For kids who want one, it’s there, but the real volume-and profit-in the car business is the plain stuff so decried here.
Solid points, but I think you’re missing the point of this article, which is that Benz and BMW seem to derive many of their sales from younger buyers and often higher sticker prices. While Lexus was doing well with cars like the original LS (which managed to do well until quite recently), the SC (for a few brief years), the 97 GS (again briefly), the brand it defined by its Camry-based lower-end cars and older buyers. That, as anyone can tell you, is not a great place for them to be.
Agreed, Perry. But it’s mostly about fashion and style. BMW for example has done a stunning job marketing its products to younger professionals. Lexus is made by a Japanese company and its design very much reflects Japanese tastes and values.
That said, no car company would kiss off a high-profit division that is selling in excess of 120,000 cars a year. Nor should ANY car maker cater to what gearheads rant about on the Internet. Acura made that huge mistake with the TL. My experiences is gearheads talk about Coronets with a 426 Hemi under the hood, but at the same time drive a Corolla.
I am of the demographic that started buying new cars in the 1980s (as are you). At that time, Japanese and European cars were both cool and fashionable. Each was its own kind of cool, but the cars of both regions were highly desired by young buyers. Fast forward to today – European cars have retained that cool aura, while Japanese cars have become the appliances that Mom and Dad have driven most of the lives of today’s young buyers. Toyota/Lexus will have this headwind to fight if it expects to bring younger buyers into the showrooms.
I remember the Japanese cars of the 80s. I was too young at the time to drive, but I remember how cool they were compared to today. My favourites were the Toyota Celica Supra Mk I and II, the Datsun 280ZX. My dad had a 1978 Toyota pickup truck that we used until he passed away a few years ago. 🙂
I think it might have more to do with what its parent companies are able to invest in terms of product development and what they are able to bring to the table. The Japanese manufacturers have been in a bad position, in terms of bringing high-end product to the market, for a long time. And if anything, Lexus was never meant to cater to the domestic market. I just think they don’t have enough money to invest in prestige cars and, given their position, can’t command the sort of insane premiums BMW can. If they were ever in a position to make that transition, the window of opportunity closed with the turn of the decade.
Oddly enough, Nissan, whose mainstream products are decidedly average, managed to do a very good job with the Infiniti G35/G37, until it became a victim of its demographic. Right now, they’re trying to change that with the Q50 (and–gag–steerbywire) and I think it’ll fail them, since it’s just a more boring version of the same thing.
Incorrect, Perry. The LS 400 existed in Japan as the Soarer for quite a few years before it was exported here. It has always done well there.
Canuck, I believe you are mistaken. The Soarer is a coupe, and there was a Soarer version of the SC300 and SC400, but the LS400 was a new design developed for and sold first in the US. Eventually (almost a year later) it was introduced as a Toyota Celsior in Japan.
Incorrect, Perry. The LS 400 existed in Japan as the Soarer for quite a few years before it was exported here. It has always done well there.
Incorrect Len. The LS 400 was specifically conceived for export markets primarily, and almost all of the first few years of production were exported. Its international debut was at the 1989 Detroit Auto Show. Toyota did badge it as the Excelsior for domestic consumption, but the Excelsior did not exist prior to the LS400.
The Soarer is something totally different; a sporty coupe whose 3rd generation also became the Lexus SC Coupe.
Come on Len, your game has been slipping the past few days, and I keep having to correct you. The summer sun got you dazzled? 🙂
The JDM version of the first LS400 was called Celsior, not Excelsior (a natural confusion, since Toyota freely admitted that was the etymology of the name).
I sit corrected, I was only going by what my Japanese friends had told me.
I am either off my game or getting a life.
Totally agree that internet gearhead rants are unfounded, but the point made in the article is right on the money, IMO. Specifically this part:
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 [every] 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.
I was trying to say the same thing in one of the Volvo Week articles, but couldn’t put it so eloquently. When virtually all cars started becoming reasonably safe, comfortable and sturdy around the turn of the millennium, the luxury makes had to engage their buyers in some way beyond those traditional attributes. BMW was a natural to become hugely successful since they’d already been building sporty cars for most of their existence, and Mercedes-Benz has really invested heavily in going down that path. Personally, I think the results are great and the sales figures seem to indicate that it was a wise move.
Regardless of what people claim, most of them actually do want something flashier… and if you’re not giving up any comfort to get there, most would rather have something that offers a solid driving experience, too. This is not at all like saying “Audi is stupid! Why can’t we get the V12 TDI manual transmission version here?!” Selling to old people is fine, but selling only to old people is a disaster waiting to happen.
Where I’d disagree is that I don’t think Lexus is actually in as much trouble as the article makes it seem. Buick and Oldsmobile did manage to destroy themselves selling a similar type of car, but they were also really bad cars for a lot of those years. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any Lexus available today nor has there ever been. They aren’t doing a great job of appealing to younger buyers, but I think they’re still in a position to easily change that. The IS and GS are fairly legit sport sedans that have an image problem, at worst. The LS is very long in the tooth and a new one is due next year. And if Lexus isn’t exactly convincing in the realm of sportiness, they are very convincingly hi-tech and green.
Considering all of that, I don’t see the ES as a poisonous model at all (in fact, I think the current one is the best ever), but I do agree that Lexus would do well to make their brand less synonymous with it.
Oldsmobile was selling hundreds of thousands of Cutlass Supreme Broughams in the mid-1980s and look where that got them. It’s only so long before people stop buying ES’s and then where will Lexus be. A car company can’t rest it laurels all on one car’s sales success.
I think Oldsmobile’s primary problem is that they were directed to make European style sedans on what was a FWD American style platform, which simply did not work. Cadillac was trying much the same thing with the FWD STS.
My parents had a ’97 ES300 and then traded that for an ’09 ES350. Don’t blame the ES series. Yes, my parents are in the older demographic, but the ES offers a nice package of size, quiet and refinement for the price. It drives reasonably well. It comes with Lexus reliability and service. It’s a very nice vehicle overall. I wouldn’t buy it, but I wouldn’t talk anyone out of it.
The real question is why the IS doesn’t bring enough younger buyers in. Or, to a bigger issue, we all know that Toyota, with its resources and history, is perfectly capable of building vehicles that appeal to younger buyers, and they just aren’t doing it. Witness Scion.
I agree. I’m not impressed with today’s Toyotas, not even the Scion. I’ve never cared for the Kia Soul. Have you seen the ads on tv with the hamsters driving it? I wasn’t impressed when it first premiered, and I’m not amused today.
First problem: Millenials don’t have the money for new cars.
Second problem: Toyota and Lexus, as brands, both have reputations as conservative, non-drivers, non-exciting cars. The only exception to this is the Prius line, and it’s got its own reputation . . . . . equally non-exciting. Desirable to a certain sociological group.
Third problem: Scion has done a wonderful job of starting out with some terrific cars, then updating them into something much less desirable (xB anyone? xA replaced by xD?). Their current line isn’t all that great, and definitely not up to the original hype.
I love that Lexus still maintains a focus on comfort and isolation… they seem to be the last luxury car company addressing that market at the entry level. Say what you will about the exterior design, but I still find the inside of the ES300 to be much more pleasant than a comparable BMW or Audi… both in comfort and quality of materials. From my experience in the gen 2-4, More comfortable ride too. Canucknucklehead makes a great point- these are very good cars for people who sit in traffic. As for the ES/RX just being a nicer Camry- when you sit in the two cars, they feel very different. This became more apparent with each subsequent generation; while the Gen 2 was pretty similar to it’s Camry equivalent (maybe the best Camry ever), the Gen 3 became quite different, and the latest ES doesn’t feel like the new Camry (and is in fact finally built on a different chassis). People have complained about this for a while but its less true now then ever (maybe a result of cheapening out Toyotas but that’s a discussion for another day).
It’s a valid point that their customer base is aging. However, this hasn’t gone completely unaddressed. The IS and F-Lines are both steps in the right direction, plus they have that new crossover coming out. If I recall correctly, the new GS was pretty well received too. Toyota isn’t stupid. If Buick can do it, they certainly can.
FWIW, I’m 31 and would much rather have a Lexus ES as a daily driver than a base 3-series or C class (assuming I had a second car for fun). I don’t see any sort of negative brand perception of Lexus from my peers… maybe just the ES/RX among enthusiasts, but for most a car is just an appliance. Also, I don’t think people care as much about brand perception as some internet web pages seem to believe… most people buy the car that fits their needs, not the one that impresses their neighbors. For most people, that’s one that is reliable, comfortable, will have good resale, and isn’t obscenely expensive to purchase or operate. A Camry fits that bill- if you can afford it, why not step up to an ES?
I’ll disagree a bit on your last point: Brand perception and status are the whole reason all those non-driving types are leasing BMWs, and why BMW is bit-by-bit dumbing down their formerly hard-edged driver’s cars to appeal to the maximum amount of customers possible.
There’s a lot of other cars out there that are more comfortable, in general, than the current line of BMW (Lexus and Volvo immediately come to mind), but neither of them have the trendy, hip, current, “look at me, I made it” vibe that the Bimmers have had.
Hell, most BMW owners don’t even realize that the company races, or ever has raced.
BMW uniquely lives or dies on the luxury lease. Lincoln and Cadillac not so much since anyone who wants to own for the same downstroke, monthly and duration can be steered to a Ford or Chevy; Lexus and Audi less so since they’re not as much in the same dealerships as Toyota and VW but can still be carried along at the corporate level. Daimler-Benz is huge in commercial vehicles.
But BMW missed their shot at building up a volume-market brand. Twice. With Glas in the ’60s and Rover in the ’90s. With only the cheaper-but-still-premium and even more niche MINI to back them up, if people decide they’d rather buy a Focus-class car than lease a 3-series, BMW may have no other option but to push down into the Focus class.
In the US Mercedes does the same thing. Along with BMW and to an extent Audi they primarily lease the cars when new, then offer them as CPO for sale after 2-3 years when the lease is up. Two customers, two sales for the dealer, one car, both people get a decent warranty, both have a monthly payment they are presumably happy with. After the CPO warranty expires it’s a crapshoot what happens (both to the car as well as that second buyer. If the car ended up not needing a ton of repairs, probably hang onto it, f it was a total dog, then try someone else or trade in for another CPO car.from the same manufacturer.
BMW already has a focus-class car, the FWD 2 series Active Tourer:
…and the 1-series, this is the 5 door hatchback.
Ah the Lexus Cimarron – The mcmansion of automobiles.
“The mcmansion of automobiles.”
Enough said. Incredibly well put.
See also: “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.”
Cracking up at this, having passed through the gates of Boca West last December in the back of a late model ES 350 thinking, “this is so ridiculously Boca. And ridiculously boring”
Lexus’ (and Infiniti/Acura) biggest problem is outside of the US. It’s not working as a global brand, especially in high growth markets like China. Global branding is becoming ever-more important, and the Japanese high-end brands are not cutting it, falling ever further behind the Germans.
In the US, Lexus is still a viable player, but its demographics are going to be a major drag on the brand longer term.
Lexus knows this reality, and Akio Toyoda has made Lexus a personal priority. But there’s a lot of lost ground already, and it’s highly questionable if they can ever catch up to the Germans.
Lexus is probably a non starter in China- there is still a lot of growth in that luxury car market overall, but with ongoing tensions between China and Japan it would be a brave Japanese company that expected decent sales there…and a brave buyer that went for a Japanese luxury car.
Plus, by the time such issues are solved the Chinese will probably have there own viable luxury cars.
I honestly don’t think that Lexus or Infiniti has any chance of unseating the German premium brands in the next two decades unless the Germans self-destruct in some particularly spectacular way. The Germans have become so aggressive and are so determined to own every conceivable niche that there really isn’t any obvious opening.
My mother’s cousin always owned 2nd from top of the Mercedes Benz range but in the early 1990s he said MB cars were no longer built with the quality exhibited previously so he purchased a Lexus LS400 and praised the Lexus cars.At the same time as the Lexus purchase he bought a new Ferrari Testarossa.The Ferrari cost him in Australian dollars $495,000,cars are much more expensive in Australia.The first LS400 copied the style of an earlier MB S class and I always thought that that Lexus was a dull looking machine.My brother holidayed in the USA in the late 1990s and said it is hard to tell the difference between American cars and Japanese cars,styling wise.There are few American cars today which inspire me the way a Citroen C6,Alfa Romeos,Maseratis,Peugeots,Fiats,etc can.So I ask where are any USA designs today that are as striking as Rivieras,Continentals,Imperials etc,were in their days? I do not like the designs of any of the current Lexus cars,where is the late Pinin Farina and his successors when you need them?
Here’s a good article at the Economist about the serious challenges the Japanese premium brands face: http://www.economist.com/news/business/21603434-japans-premium-motor-brands-are-still-far-behind-their-german-rivals-giant-carmakers
Wow, I had no idea Jaguar-Land Rover was so successful in China, but it makes sense.
A lot of people have forgotten the first gen ES250 even existed. Not many were sold, and they were so indistinguishable from the Camry that most people at the time assumed they were looking at exactly that.
Brendan, wasn’t second gen ES250 the same body as the Camry from A-pillar to C-pillar (and perhaps more)? I always thought so, but maybe I was fooled.
There was only one ES250. It was based on a Camry but had no duplicate body parts.
I misspoke. Or miswrote. I meant ES300, not ES250. I always thought it was the same car from A to C. I can see the differences now, but they eluded me at the time.
The ES250 was based on the JDM Vista/Camry four-door ‘hardtop’ body style. (It wasn’t actually a pillarless hardtop, but in the late ’80s the Japanese market got very keen on hardtop styling and a lot of model lines offered one. Some of them were actually pillarless — the Toyota Carina ED, for instance — but more often they had concealed B-pillars and a slightly different roof shape for a sleeker profile than the four-door sedans offered concurrently.)
I don’t think the original ES250 necessarily made a good Lexus, but I thought they were pretty cool. So Japanese. Can’t say the same about most of the later ones, especially the 2002-2006 model, which was easily the least appealing car Lexus ever sold and the worst at masking its Camry roots.
I like the current generation better than all of them. Being Avalon-based is a better move, although I also can’t deny that the Avalon being such a good car itself makes the ES’ existence a little confusing. Even the prices appear to be the same. That said, there are differences – as well as enough people who want this car in Toyota or Lexus flavor, for the time being anyway.
Not since the Model T has a company had such an effect on the automobile industry. Toyota/Lexus introduced dependability and customer service at a time when the US car buyer had no idea what the words meant. Their competition improved automobiles offered by all companies but a lesson learned better by some than others. Looking back all the daily drivers I have owned before seem like Stanley Steamers.
A truly lifeless and dull car, for sure. BUT perfectly matched to its demographic. As was said before, these are pretty much Buick, all over again. The thing is, making reliable, non sporting, safe, boring appliances is exactly what Japanese car companies are actually good at! I say, if it makes you money then go for it. I see barely a mention of the SC, LF-A, or the upcoming RC though, and those are the only Lexuses (Lexii?) that are really worth talking about. The SC remains popular among enthusiasts, the LF-A was an effective if uber expensive supercar. The RC seems to have all the bones to be a truly great car. However, Toyota has its head up its ass here. The RC very well SHOULD be the Supra. Just as the FR-S SHOULD have been the Celica. Toyota has 2 heritage nameplates that resonate with enthusiasts and theyre left to tarnish. Scion had potential, but the initial spark seems to have fizzled since the whole (young persons’ car) thing was mostly hype, as opposed to having any actual substance. Granted those cars were very customizeable but I knew they were out of touch when Toyota’s idea of cars for GenX and Gen Y were all low performance and all 4 doors…at least until the tC. Well that one has looks but no balls.
As to Lexus, outside of the RC, theyre headed right for Mercury/Oldsmobile territory.
The thing I find ironic about the “automakers shouldn’t cater to car enthusiast” types who are so vocal around here is that an automaker like Toyota, who has dumbed and numbed the Toyota brand into the utter blandness we see today, goes so out of their way to keep enthusiast cars in the smaller and distant Scion or Lexus umbrellas. As if the non-car enthusiast customers would actually be offended and leave the dealership if they saw a Celica or Supra in the showroom nearby their dream refrigerator white Camry or Prius. It’s one thing to not cater cars to the car enthusiast fringe, but is it really healthy to cater exclusively to the anti-car enthusiast fringe instead?
See, Toyota used to offer a whole range of enthusiast-oriented models, including both a veritable army of specialty cars and performance versions of nearly every other model the company had. (In Japan, there were even turbocharged Tercels and sporty Camry GTs.) The problem was that by the ’90s, almost none of them were selling. Most all of Toyota’s ’90s sporty cars were near-total flops in the U.S. market, to the point that by the end of their lives here some of those models were selling a few hundred a year and were no longer worth the cost of exporting. I don’t know if all those models lost money, but given the sales figures, I can’t see how they could have not. Toyota kept trying — they tried to turn the MR2 into a cheaper Miata-fighter and brought out the more compact seventh-generation Celica — but very little of it worked at all.
At the same time, Americans were snapping up the bigger, plusher Camry and stuff like the RX300 and Highlander. Those cars were vastly more popular (by several orders of magnitude in some cases) and were actually making money. And the Prius went from being a technical oddball to the bestselling car in Japan — entirely apart from its U.S. sales, it accounts for a rather eye-opening share of the entire Japanese market. The answer from any kind of rational business standpoint was pretty obvious.
Admittedly, one of the dilemmas now is that in the U.S., Toyota has tried to divert some of its funkier and/or sportier models to Scion, including the 86 (Scion FR-S), which is precisely the sort of hardcore, no-nonsense sporty car everyone has been whining for years that Toyota doesn’t build. Toyota might have been better off keeping that one under its own name in the States (it’s a Toyota everywhere else), if only as a counterpoint to the Corolla, Camry, and Prius.
Toyota phased out all sporty models here in the past years. The MR2, the Celica and the T-Sport editions of the Yaris, Corolla and Celica. They went “green” all the way, with the Prius as their hallmark. The consequence was that Toyota now has a dull and “elderly” image.
This was fun, about 10 years ago. A Toyota Corolla T-Sport Compressor, 225 hp from their 1.8 VVT-i engine plus a supercharger.
I think there was a time where you could buy the supercharger from TRD and have it installed at the dealership, with a warranty and everything, in the U.S., but they never came like that from the factory. And that was only on the sedans of that generation – last Corolla hatch we got was over 20 years ago!
The T-Sport Compressor was in the Toyota showrooms for a brief period. The engine was engineered by TTE from Cologne, Germany.
(Toyota’s official high-performance division in Europe, also renowned for their rally cars.)
The standard T-Sport had 192 hp, it had the 1.8 VVTL-i engine. (not VVT-i as I mentioned, that one was in the lesser gods)
I don’t think if’s a fringe. A lot of millenials, especially in more urban areas, are actively rejecting car culture and everything associated with it. So for them, Toyota is often seen as the best of a bad choice among that population, with their green credentials stemming mostly from the Prius but perhaps also from rejecting performance.
Lexus PR made a lot of hay about LS vs. Mercedes comparison. But if you look a the *pricing*, they were aiming directly for the heart of the domestic luxury market.
The LS was a better Town Car. The SC a better Eldorado. The mission of the ES was to take out the high-end Oldsmobuicks. A mission it performed admirably.
This model was the RX of its day. The people who drove them were easy on the accelerator and hard on the brakes. No one that bought this car was a driver. It was a total brougham. They just wanted to float over the road. It was an appliance with leather seats and a chic logo.
hey ..it was a good business cruiser in it’s day …for hard driving you could have any car you wanted for the purpose such as the stick XR8 of the time.. some petrolheads have bunches of cars for different occasions and uses …lol
A clarification: As best I can determine, the ES250 was based not on the Vista, but on the JDM Camry Prominent V-6 four-door hardtop. (Since the ES had a unique grille, it’s also possible that the Lexus was a mix-and-match of Camry and Vista pieces, much as the U.S.-market Cressida was a hybrid of Mark II and Cresta — I’m not positive about that.) Both the Camry and Vista offered the four-door hardtop body style during this generation, but in Japan, only the Camry Prominent had a V-6. Because of Japanese tax rules, JDM cars had a 1,992cc 1VZ-FE, which was similar to the 2VZ-FE in U.S. cars, but with a smaller bore and shorter stroke.
The Vista was not so much an upscale version of the Camry as a near-twin sold through a different dealer network: Camrys are sold through the Corolla network while Vistas were sold through the Vista channel. It was a common Toyota strategy to maximize retail exposure; they did it with more of their cars than I can count. The Vista and Camry looked slightly different and their model offerings didn’t always quite match up (the Camry offered 4WD versions and the V-6), but comparing equivalent models, the prices were largely identical.
What I suspect Brendan may be thinking of is not the Vista, but the Toyota Windom, which was the JDM version of the ES300. With the third-generation Camry, Toyota split off the Camry line into U.S. and non-U.S. versions, the U.S. car being somewhat larger than the one for Japan and other markets. However, Toyota opted to offer the bigger U.S. body in Japan: The Camry was sold as the Scepter and later the Camry Gracia while the ES300 (which in Japanese terms was a four-door hardtop) was sold as the Windom. (Surprisingly, both were sold in Corolla stores alongside the JDM Camry line.)
Toyota was upfront about the Windom’s relationship to the Lexus, a point that is mentioned fairly prominently in the Japanese brochure. I assume the reason for that was that Japanese buyers saw the car’s U.S. origins as exotic. (I understand that for a while in early ’90s, it was fashionable for high rollers to import a LHD LS400 rather than buy a Celsior, demand for which had been higher than Toyota expected in the home market.) The Windom was sold with pretty much the same equipment as the ES300 and was a rather pricey car.
The first generation ES was based on the Vista/Camry Prominent, which as you said were really the same car with minor trim differences sold through different dealer networks.
The second through fourth generations were identical to the Toyota Windom, an all-new model released at the same time as the second generation. The 1992 ES300 and Windom were loosely based on the newer Camry Prominent.
I probably should have clarified this a bit more, but I didn’t want to divert from the main focus too much.
The ES300/Windom were related to the bigger U.S.-market Camry (sold in Japan as the Scepter in that generation), not really to the JDM Camry. Although the JDM version was available in V-6 form, the Japanese Camry was significantly smaller than the U.S. car — 4 inches shorter, about 3 inches narrower — to stay in the cheaper tax bracket. They’re similar from an engineering standpoint, but I don’t think they share the same body shell and they have different chassis codes. (Shared-platform Toyotas usually share the same chassis codes; FWD Celicas, Coronas, and Carinas, for instance, all have T codes.) Also, the 1992–1996 ES300 was designed by Calty specifically as a Lexus (presumably around the same time as the Z30 Lexus SC/Soarer) and I think offering it in Japan was to some extent an afterthought prompted by Japanese buyers’ surprising interest in the Lexus brand.
All this is tangential to your point, but I think it’s significant because Americans have a lot of misconceptions about Lexus and Toyota in this regard. Because Toyota sold a lot of Lexus models as Toyotas in the Japanese market (in the absence of a domestic Lexus channel, which they didn’t add until 2005), there’s this assumption that Lexus models were just existing Toyota cars and trucks with Lexus badges, which was true in some cases (ES250, the Giguiaro-styled GS300, the LX450), but not in others (the first LS400 being the prime example).
I think the judgment of the ES, particularly the early cars, is unnecessarily harsh.
The ES250’s main problem was that, like the Infiniti M30, it was clearly not a fresh design, particularly compared to the LS400. The V20 Camry/Vista platform dated back to 1986 and was approaching the end of its life. It probably didn’t help that it debuted around the same time as the CB Accord, which made the existing Camry look rather old. As I recall, Toyota was offering some fairly attractive incentives on Camrys to avoid losing too much sales ground to Honda, which increased the otherwise not unreasonable price gap between the ES250 and a loaded Camry V-6.
That said, the ES250 was actually a pretty decent car. It was obviously not a 3-Series, but it had a firmer suspension than a Camry V-6 and was more composed than its reputation might suggest. The main shortcoming, as with the Camry, was that the 2.5-liter engine didn’t have a lot of torque down low and the automatic took the mickey out of it. (Someone who worked for me for a while had an ES250 with the five-speed — very rare — which was a lot more sprightly.)
The subsequent Camry, it should be said, was an impressive car. Even the American buff books were very fond of it and it was a frequent winner of comparison tests even in four-cylinder form. (Car and Driver, for one, preferred it to the contemporary Accord, particularly the automatic). The 1992–1996 Camry is not what I would call pretty, but it was certainly not soggy, its level of mechanical refinement was very high, and its materials and overall quality were excellent. The V-6 models were also surprisingly quick, particularly with manual transmission.
As for the first ES300, it had the same virtues as the Camry with a slightly plusher ride, still better interior materials, somewhat classier four-door hardtop styling (I still wouldn’t call it handsome, but it’s well-detailed enough to not provoke the same heavy sighs as the contemporary Camry’s exterior design), a better warranty and customer service, and a more brag-worthy name for a not-too-extravagant price premium. The latter is a crucial point; I think the ES makes a much stronger case for itself when it’s close enough in price to the top-spec Camry V-6 to feel like you’re still getting reasonable value rather than simply paying extra for the badge.
The Lexus brand was not about sportiness, which may have been part of the reason the SC never did as well as Toyota had hoped. The Lexus pitch was comfort, quality, and VIP treatment. If they had only offered cars like the ES, I might feel more harshly about it (that’s the trap I think Honda has fallen into in this class), but obviously that’s not the case. The ES is not really my kind of car, but for what Lexus set out to be, I think it was an entirely reasonable entry-level car.
I have various criticisms about what Toyota has done or not done with Lexus over the years, but most of them are aimed higher up the ladder: the fact that Lexus didn’t manage to really effectively follow up the original LS, for instance, or the fact that the GS has always seemed more like a me-too effort than a serious 5-Series/E-Class alternative. But all that is another matter.
Also, whatever my personal tastes, I am resistant to the the idea that the sole criterion for cars — particularly luxury cars — should be whether they drive like a 3-Series. I recognize that some of you are of the firm belief (as were many of the buff books for many, many years) that anything that doesn’t ride and handle like an E30 M3 is garbage, but I don’t think there’s anything dishonorable about a comfort-oriented luxury car, particularly one that doesn’t end up wallowing like an old-school land yacht in the process (which the ES does not).
If nothing else, from a marketing standpoint, there’s something self-limiting about constantly chasing the 3-Series. While you might edge out BMW on price (not difficult these days) or even in certain dynamic areas, you’re constantly framing the question for buyers as, “Why shouldn’t I just buy a 3-Series?” If you can find a viable niche for yourself without doing that, why not? Particularly if, as Lexus does, you also have another model — the IS — that IS aimed at the 3-Series? (We could talk about how the Altezza/IS has never really managed to establish itself as a strong 3-Series rival, but that again is another matter.)
that is well said
The ES was never aimed at the sports sedan market. I think that Toyota intended the ES to be a nice low end Lexus that would sell well enough to keep the salespeople income going between LS sales.
The car magazine editors do admit that they really like sports car first, and so anything else does not get their interest. This was not always the case, as in the late 60’s the Eldorado and Lincoln Mark xxx was one of the big comparison tests. Now sports sedans get their interest, which is probably not a good thing.
Cadillac, with the sigma platform (CTS, STS & SRX), jumped into the sports sedan market and did get some recognition. The new ATS and CTS on a new platform are now perhaps at the top of the handling in this category. Ride is firm with the Cadillac ATS. The ATS is nothing like my old Skyhawk though in terms of quality. I am not quite sure where Cadillac is going with their line of cars.
From my point of view, the ES is an expensive version of the Camry and I don’t think it is worth it. The LS is the real Lexus, which Toyota spent 6 years developing at probably great expense.
I want to point out here that the ATS is not selling all that well. It accounted for around 20 percent of Cadillac’s volume last year, but the BMW 3-Series outsold the ATS in North America by more than 3 to 1. (And of course the 3-Series is a strong seller in Europe, which the ATS is not going to be.)
The ES didn’t match the 3-Series either, but outsold the ATS by about 80 percent in North America and actually was very close to the combined sales of the ATS and CTS.
But most ats buyers were not Cadillac owners. For people looking at sports sedans, the BMW is probably the car to buy. For me the nearest import luxury dealer is a few hundred miles away, so it makes no sense to me to buy a Lexus or other import lux model. But the Chevy/Caddy dealer is nearby.
Well said/written/typed, Ate Man!
BMW 3 series drivers have all-too-often denigrated into pretentious posers who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
I don’t think there are too many people here saying that Lexus is a bust because the ES isn’t an M3. But I do think Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz are much more convincing as luxury makes than Lexus, and what is it that sets them apart? Most people buying any type of car like this have no interest in auto racing or performance cars, but isn’t there something of a trickle-down effect at work? I’m 31 and can’t even afford any of these cars, but the wealthier people I know wouldn’t be caught dead in a Lexus, despite not having any interest in racing or performance. I don’t think it can be explained as just a preference for European goods vs. Japanese, because Infinitis have been very hot amongst the young Wall Street set since the G35 debuted.
Who remembers on The Wire when Snoop bought that nail gun and told Chris Partlow “the man said this the Cadillac of nailin’ up boards, he meant to say Lexus tho”? My, how things have changed in 10 years. I see Lexus as being fine for now, however. They’ve got fiercely loyal older buyers who grew up on the similar-in-purpose American land yachts and aren’t old enough to be going anywhere quite yet. They’ve also got the luxury hybrid market almost entirely to themselves at the moment, and I see the IS and GS as very competent cars that just don’t have the right image, for whatever reason. With the LS at the top, that seems like a very viable lineup and the ES fits into it just fine. Plenty of time to adapt to the changing trends, but I do think the point Brendan’s making is a valid one.
I do like how the general consensus says: “A Lexus is nothing more than a glorified Toyota”…….and the problem with this is!?!?!
I also find it amusing when people say “We are witnessing the demise of Lexus as we know it” …. Yeah, I don’t think that they are going to go away simply because the Jeremy Clarkson crowd chooses not to like them.
I have known dozens of kids in their late 20s who go out of their way to buy themselves an Audi, BMW or Mercedes because general opinion is that is what makes you cool, only to get burned by them once the usual mechanical problems pop up and start to choke you out.
No matter how much better one cars image is, it isn’t going to do you much good if it is sitting around awaiting multiple paycheck repairs while you drive around in moms Honda accord.
In my experience, people who prognosticate such things, do not actually have the money to buy said car. For this reason, Toyota chooses not to pay any attention to such people. Want sports cars? Then go out and buy them! Same goes for manual transmissions.
the lexus es 350 rivals the cadillac cts 2.0 turbo lincoln mkz 2.0 buick lacrosse acura tl bmw 528i etc
the gs 350 is a completely different animal, rivals cadillac cts 3.6 lincoln mkz 3.7 bmw 535i acura rlx and mb e350
Wow, a lot of people critical of the ES. I just bought a 1998 ES300. Why? because I am VERY practical and I put THOUGHT into my decisions. I am 43 and I could car LESS about buying a sports car. Grow up guys! The ES300 is KNOWN to be able to go over 300,000 easily with regular maintenance. That’s why I bought it. They are reliable, comfortable cars that get a bad wrap. Lexus must be doing something right because they sell a lot of them. Audi = known to have LOTS of reliability issues. Mercedes – quality has taken a nose dive with the current C series generation.
Grow up? One size does not fit all. For some of us, making the absolute most rational and practical decision is not always the right decision. Listening to one’s emotions when making a purchase is not necessarily being juvenille or irresponsible.
Not knocking your choice, just sayin’.
I’ve never owned a Lexus but I have driven a few models from the 2002 to 2007 model years. They are nice cars and have a great reputation for reliability. The Toyota Camry and Toyota Avalon are also very nice automobiles with a great reputation for reliability. The Lexus ES was a little quiter, a little smoother, and maybe a touch more powerful. Overall, there wasn’t enough difference between them to choose an ES over a high trim Camry or Avalon. My dad’s BMW 528 touring really brought something unique to the table that drew him to it. There aren’t really that many great handling and smooth driving station wagons out there. It was eminently practical and fun to drive, and that made it special. It also helped that it was a slow seller and the dealer was very accomodating.
I like the ES. There I said it. I guess my reasons for feeling the way I do kind of start in childhood. My parents were primarily Cadillac people, but did at one time take chances on other models such as Mercury Grand Marquis. I came to appreciate the virtues of luxury interiors and the look of those models. Plush seating and nice upholstery textures, attractive color combinations and a lot of technology made Cadillacs and other luxury cruisers of the time stand out for me. Unfortunately I remember a lot of bad mechanical failures and trips to the local mechanic just as well. I remember my parents, as just one example, having a terrible time with a 1981 Seville, and never really getting it straightened out in the two years they had it.
A car like the ES, to me, always was symbolic of what I think most people wanted from their luxury cars of yesteryear. Cars like those Sevilles and Rivieras and Toronados that had issues that never seemed to get worked out. Towncars that nickle-and-dimed you to death. New Yorkers and Fifth Avenues that seemed to fall apart upon departure from the assembly plant. And if any of them were a first year model, the odds of longevity were slim. I think people wanted a reliable experience mechanically and as a result were able to revel more in the luxury and technology of their cars. Having a car constantly in for repairs seems to diminish the luxury experience, not enhance it. A lot of the older people who buy these cars do so because of past experiences like what my parents had with their Caddy’s. People want to just go about their lives in functional style with minimal headache and the ES does that job well.
Everyone has their tastes of course….but for me, the Camry/Avalon/ES lineup has served me well for many years now. Currently I am driving a top end Avalon. The differences between this one and the ES are minimal, and it does provide reliable, stylish comfort. I have driven a friend and a relative’s ES’s in the past and I did enjoy the balance of quiet power and plush comfort. Most of the people who buy these seek exactly that with a touch of prestige.
The ES fulfills the role that many luxury buyers intended for their own use and integration of the product into their daily life. To provide use and luxury when needed and with proper maintenance, provide a reasonable guarantee of reliable and attractive service for many years to come.