Curbside Classics: 1986 & 1990 Toyota Cressida – The Ur-Lexus Or The Un-Lexus?

The fourth and final generation Toyota Cressida was by no means an exciting car. Clean and innocuous-looking, it could be confused with just about any late-1980s Japanese sedan. Yet underneath its rather generic sheetmetal lies some interesting stories.

Launched in late-1988 as a 1989 model, the fourth generation Toyota Cressida was still, as always, an Americanized version of the Japanese Corona Mark II. In nearly every way, it was graceful evolution of its third generation 1985-1988 predecessor — a somewhat groundbreaking vehicle that in many ways was the Ur-Lexus LS.

While the fourth generation continued this practice, it was the third generation Cressida that successfully set the stage for said LS 400 by taking Toyota’s flagship model further upmarket in luxury, technology, and refinement.

Exterior styling of the third generation was little-changed in shape or form from its predecessor, retaining the second generation’s crisp, razor-sharp sheetmetal and most external dimensions. There were, however, important aerodynamic refinements, such as composite headlamps and flush side glass, plus mechanical upgrades such as a four-wheel independent suspension and a larger and more power to its 2.8-liter inline-6 shared with the Celica Supra.

The interior design was still more techy than opulent, but featured better materials such as faux-stitched dash, more comfortable seats, and greater sound insulation.

Numerous comfort and convenience features were added as well, including a pod housing redundant radio controls for easier driver access, including an available CD player and adaptive suspension with driver-adjustable damper control for a sportier or more comfortable ride.

Styling of the fourth generation, now sedan-only, was smoother and more fluid, with rounded corners versus its angular predecessor, but hardly anything dramatic or even noteworthy to stand out in its class. Somewhat more exciting was the fact that the fourth generation Cressida shared an even more considerable amount of its mechanics with the Toyota Supra sports car.

On a grand scale, the fourth generation Cressida firmly stuck to the formula of the third, bringing fourth little improvements here and there, but ones requiring a close look to recognize. Best put in the words of MotorWeek’s John Davis, the Cressida’s styling was “dignified but unexciting”.

Considering the massive gamble Toyota was taking with Lexus, it logically made sense to take an overly cautious and evolutionary path with the Cressida, for both its own sake and that of Lexus. In the event buyers didn’t take to Lexus, the more conservative and less expensive Cressida would likely retain its moderate yet loyal customer base who were attracted to its predecessor. Simply put, Toyota was keeping the Cressida as their backup in the event that Lexus found a lukewarm reception like the competing Infiniti.

The big guns were naturally saved for the 1990 LS 400, but that didn’t mean that numerous welcomed improvements were made to the 1989 Cressida. Most prominent, was its all-new standard 7M-GE 24-valve DOHC 3.0-liter inline-6, the same as in the Toyota Supra, albeit slightly detuned making 190 horsepower and 185 lb-ft torque. Still, those figures were up rather impressively from the 156 horsepower and 165 lb-ft torque of its predecessor, resulting in zero-to-sixty times of nearly 2 seconds quicker.

Worth noting is that Toyota advertised the smoothness and lack of vibration from the Cressida’s inline-6, much in the way it famously advertised the smoothness from the LS 400’s V8. The Chicago Tribune’s 1989 review of the Cressida tested this to similarly positive results, albeit with coins instead a somewhat more elegant and impressive tower of champagne coupes.

Handling was also improved, by way of a new double-wishbone rear suspension borrowed from the Supra, resulting in significantly improved cornering, with less body-roll and tendency to fishtail versus its predecessor. The Cressida was still by no means a sports sedan, yet it better walked the fine line between American luxury sedan and European sports sedan in this latest iteration.

Inside, the previous Cressida’s angular, modular dash was replaced by a sweeping, cockpit-like arch that was very reminiscent of the Toyota Supra. Controls were placed higher for better reach and view, retaining its predecessor’s redundant stereo controls mounted to the right of the steering wheel, though gaining a rather unusual slide-out panel for the climate controls. Wood trim, however, was nowhere to be found, reserved for the upcoming LS 400 and its dramatically minimalist dash.

Seats were still cushy yet supportive in either leather or velour, though thankfully they lost their embarrassingly Brougham-esque button-tufted treatment. Despite an increase in wheelbase, the Cressida was still rather small and narrow as far as flagship sedans went, with the EPA still classifying it as a compact sedan based on its interior volume.

Despite the fourth generation Toyota Cressida’s many little improvements, most went unnoticed in the face of the all-new Lexus LS 400, a car which despite its similar “supersized” Cressida-inspired looks, was a far more advanced and world-class flagship, capable of competing with the benchmark Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

Although costing 50-percent more than the Cressida, the larger Lexus LS 400 looked and felt like a truly special and unique automobile. Combined with its separate Lexus badge and dealers, the LS 400 was more than just a luxury car, it was a luxury experience.

If one wanted the Lexus dealership experience and Lexus’ enhanced status over Toyota for a lesser price, there was the the ES 250. A virtual clone of the V20 Camry’s JDM Vista/Camry Prominent hardtop relative, the Lexus ES 250 was sized and priced nearly identically to the Cressida, offered similar levels of amenities, and looked an awful lot like it too. While the ES 250 was front-wheel drive and lacked the Cressida’s extra power, its interior was visually more opulent, with healthy doses of genuine walnut trim.

The final nail in the coffin was the XV10 Camry, which debuted for 1992. Despite more plebeian roots, the XV10 Camry boasted larger interior and exterior dimensions, far more contemporary styling, plus comparable levels of available six-cylinder power, convenience, and luxury options. Costing far less even when fully optioned, the XV10 Camry dissolved any true last value propositions for the Cressida.

The Cressida was never a runaway sales success, but sold in decent numbers through this generation’s first 1989 model year. With the introduction of the Lexus LS 400 and ES 250, however, sales and general awareness of the Cressida plummeted until Toyota pulled the plug in 1992. By this point, there was simply little need for a luxury Toyota-branded flagship in most markets the Cressida had been sold in. The rear-wheel drive Lexus GS 300 (Toyota Aristo in some markets) and more family-oriented Toyota Avalon filled any gaps left by the Cressida, and as a result, few remember it today.

Photos by Will Jackson

Related Reading:

1985 Toyota Cressida

1986 Toyota Cressida (COAL)

1989 Lexus ES 250

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