By on June 4, 2010

As a nameplate, Lexus is now old enough to consume alcohol in all fifty states. Make no mistake, though: the brand Lexus has become is not the brand it was perhaps originally intended to be. Toyota and Nissan each launched with a (mostly) clean-sheet big V8 sedan and a warmed-over home-market showroom filler. For Nissan, the lineup was a short-wheelbase version of the all-new “President”, badged Q45, and a long-in-the-tooth Leopard coupe, yclept M30. Toyota introduced its “F1” global flagship as the Lexus LS400. To keep the new LS from being lonely in the showrooms, a quick nose job was done on a JDM faux-hardtop midsizer, and the ES250 was born.

Perhaps the Japanese thought they could win the “D-class” battle against BMW and Mercedes-Benz as easily as they’d destroyed the British motorcycle industry or humiliated the American attempts to build subcompact cars. It didn’t quite work out that way. The Q45 badge moved to the rather dismal Nissan Cima before completely fading away. The M30 was a sales catastrophe, to put it mildly. While the current LS460 does about the same annual volume in the United States as the Mercedes-Benz S550, it does so with a base price that is almost $23,000 below that of the Benz.

It was the humblest of the original four offerings from Lexus and Infiniti that would go on to conquer, if not the world, then at least the continent of North America. Today, Lexus is one of the top-volume luxury brands in the market. Its killer Camry-derived duo of ES 350 and RX350 perennially occupy the top of their segments’ sales charts, generating over 100,000 sales per year. Lexus is one of the most famous success stories in the industry, but it began with a straight badge-engineering job of a nearly obsolete car.

For many years, Japanese home-market buyers equated “the hardtop look” with prestige and luxury. As a result, nearly every major Japanese sedan sold in the Eighties and Nineties was either a frameless-window car (as was the case with the first-generation Infiniti M45, sold in Japan as the Nissan Cedric) or was available in a more expensive, frameless-window variant (as with the Honda Accord Inspire and Toyota Corona EXIV). In Toyota’s case, the Camry was “upgraded” to become the Toyota Vista, as seen above. The advantages of using the Vista as the second Lexus were obvious. It could easily be made to comply with US regulations and it would be immediately familiar to Toyota owners looking to trade up.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but my family has some history with Lexus ownership in general and ES250 ownership in particular. In the winter of 1989 my father had his Jaguar XJ6 towed out of his garage stall to the dealership for the fourth time in about as many months. I advised that he try a Lexus as a temporary change in pace. I meant that he should buy an LS400, but upon his trip to the dealer he decided that

a) both of the Lexus vehicles were ugly pieces of crap;

b) in which case, the cheaper one would suffice.

And thus the old man acquired a two-tone-blue ES250. He’d never even so much as sat in a Camry, but I had, and I was shocked to see the lack of differentiation between the two. The steering wheel was different, the radio stack was different, and there were better seats in the car. That was it. Other than that, we were looking at a $23,500 variant of a $17,000 Camry V6.

The motor was surprisingly reluctant to rev, given that it was a 2.5L V6. It was also gutless at all revs; I got the somewhat mistaken impression that it was about as quick as my 302-powered Mercury Marquis coupe. On the freeway, it had less mechanical noise than a Camry but a fair bit more wind noise. The steering was loaded with syrup and the brake pedal sank halfway to the floor before providing any effective retardation. On the positive side, the stereo was very good and the interior was clearly screwed together with fastidious attention.

After a few years, the ES became Dad’s “Florida car”. The leather seats cracked, the dash faded to a whiter shade of blue, and the electronics started to quit. In 1994, with 122,000 mostly freeway miles on the odometer, the block cracked and Dad effectively gave the car away. I used to joke that he’d managed to transfer the reliability of his Jags and Bimmers to a Toyota.

The LS400 outsold the ES250 by quite a bit in the two years they were sold together. Toyota got the hint; the Vista became the vastly improved Windom and placing an “L” badge on said Windom yielded the ES300. Customers loved the result and the ES was placed on the road to complete domination. Over the next three generations, the ES/Windom continued to distance itself from the Camry, but the template had been set: everybody from Acura to Lincoln ended up copying Lexus and selling chrome-nose family sedans as entry-level luxury cars. In the case of the Lincoln Zephyr/MKZ, there was a double helping of irony since the Lincoln Versailles had been an unsuccessful riff on the Ford Granada fifteen years before the ES250’s introduction.

Speaking of irony, it’s worth nothing that in 2006, Toyota took the final step and discontinued the Windom nameplate, replacing it with… Lexus ES. It’s been the most successful example of badge-engineering since the half-million-selling ’76 Cutlass, and perhaps the only one where the rebadge turned around and swallowed the original nameplate. The Little Camry That Couldn’t eventually became the Big Lexus That Could.

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35 Comments on “Capsule Review: 1990 Lexus ES250...”

  • avatar

    It’s also interesting to note that in its first year the LS 400 outsold the E class and 5 series combined simply because it had a V8 for the same price as the six cylinder in the MB and BMW.

    • 0 avatar

      Which has set the pace for pricing ever since. The base BMW and MB are the same price as the well equipped Lexus, Infiniti and Acura. Add “option packages” to the Germans to get the same equipment and you always then add 10-15K.

      I love how BMW (and M-B) packages the options. One you “need” with three you don’t care about. Collect the three you “need”, ie seat heater, and bluetooth, and OMG an iPod connections, and its……

      42k for a fully loaded TL, or 54k for a fully loaded BMW 335i. Option packages on the Germans are to get the price up to “what it should be”, more than any legitimate choice of equipment. Bluetooth is optional on a 40 k car?

      I’ve learned to buy lightly used….

  • avatar
    Amendment X

    So why don’t we have the frameless doors anymore? Safety regs?

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      I don’t think so. Subaru managed to build some very safe cars with frameless glass. Modern Porsches are still frameless as well (They used to be framed.)

      NVH has to be the culprit.

    • 0 avatar

      Jack is probably right. I distinctly remember Chrysler reps giving NVH the reason of using frames on PL2K Neon. It is significant because just a couple of years before I heard them bragging how they manage to stack more frameless doors on a pallet for transport to Belvidere. They were so self-congratulatory about their own cleverness, and then hello-o, it was all down the memory hole.

    • 0 avatar

      I think wind noise through the seals and reliability have done the frameless windows in. Those frameless windows get loose as a car gets older.

      Subaru has always claimed that putting the structure to hold the window lower in the door is better for center of gravity. I never bought that because I figure you have to put more total weight in the door to hold a frameless window by the pinching the bottom than you do by having it ride along a simple frame. Subaru must have changed their minds because they have gone to framed windows.

    • 0 avatar

      I love frame-less windows, I think they should be brought back.

    • 0 avatar

      as the owner of a 1988 toyota with frameless windows i can say the wind noise is crazy. the wind noise is only a little bit more with the window down then with it up, but it is very loud in my car at freeway speed, it would be unacceptable if the car was not so darn fun to drive; everything a new toyota is not, loud and fun.

    • 0 avatar

      I have frameless glass on my Probe GT. While they are kinda cool, now that the gaskets are 15 plus years old, they are starting to get a bit noisy. The windows also needed adjustment when the car was new…I’ll go with

    • 0 avatar

      The 2001 Camry Solara has frameless windows — I’m guessing this is because it’s a coupe. Is this common with coupes?

  • avatar

    The interiors have have been screwed together well, but the quality of leather was nowhere NEAR that of Mercedes. Still isn’t. The seats in my SC300 were falling apart when the car was less than 10 years old.

    I will give Lexus this though, back in the early ’90s, they had the best ergonomics in the luxury industry. The HVAC and radio controls just made sense, and they felt 10 years more advanced than the controls in a Mercedes or BMW.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Jack, your discussion of the evolution of Infiniti left out the “unusual” J30, which like the original Q45, had the “advantage” of not looking like anything else in the road, with the possible exception of a Hudson Hornet of the early 1950s.

    Neither car was particularly successful, I believe; and both were pulled off the market after a few years. After that, the M30 — a re-badged Maxima — appeared to have been the only thing paying the Infiniti dealers’ rent until the introduction of the FX35/45 and G35.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      I have definitely NOT forgotten the J30… I have personally put several thousand miles on ’em. Look for a future CapReview.

    • 0 avatar

      You mean I30 / I35 for the Maxima-rebadge. My parents had both a J30 and an I30 (now a G35 and an RX350). The I30, after 13 years and 91k miles, had only 3 mechanical repairs (and probably 6 or 7 collision or otherwise driver-caused repairs). The J30, 2 mechanical repairs (until it was totaled by a Suburban head-on and an XJ6 sideswipe – while at a complete stop at a stoplight).

      I remember my Dad looking at the 2nd gen ES300 – it was an engineering feat – like you weren’t driving a car it was so smooth and quiet compared to the competition. Alas, the unique styling and engine note of the J30 won him over.

  • avatar

    A minor point: the first-gen M45 was not a Cedric (or a Gloria; those were both Y34s). The M45 was the successor Y35. Other than styling similarities, everything that counts was different, most notably the engine.

    I remain a fan of the first-gen M45. Subtle to the point of self-effacing, capable, and elegant–sort of a Japanese Phaeton.

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      Technically, but the Y35 was basically a Y34 with a front subframe to take the V8 from the 3rd-gen Q45.

    • 0 avatar

      My dad has one. It’s a nice enough car… quick. However they botched the handling details. With all that power its brakes absolutely blow, and its handling is weird… the shocks are stiff, I am guessing to cope with the rubber band tires, but the springs and sways are soft to keep the ride comfortable which kills the handling. It was a weird, last minute throw together that was saved by a good interior and motor.

      I do think it was a better luxury car than the relatively raucous almost unrefined 2nd gen that followed… but the BMW competitor or w/e they marketed it as it was not.

  • avatar
    the duke

    I don’t think the Cutlass was as badge-engineered a car as these (the ES250). My dad’s first car (and my first car to drive) was a 1977 Olds Cutlass Supreme Coupe, same as the 1976 (before all GM A-Body cars got downsized in 1978). It had the Oldsmobile V-8 (this was the year some got a Chevy, that would make for an interesting TTAC post), and an interior completely different than the other GM A-Body cars.

    I would argue that with distincitve sheetmetal (no panels interchange), a brand specific engine and interior, the 1976 Cutlass was not a badge engineered car. Once GM went to “GM Powertrain” and there were no more unique brand-specific engines, then yes, they were badge engineered.

    More related to this post – Acura suffered the same fate. Its two best models, the Legend and Integra were killed, and the brand is, to my eyes, irrelevant today.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      I am a big fan of the A-bodies and will do some research on them.

      My mother bought a leftover 1977 Supreme Coupe in the last part of 1977. It had the 403 Olds engine that would also find an unhappy home in the ’78 Trans Am.

      From (I believe) 1975 to 1979, the Cutlass was America’s best-selling car. And yes, the ’74-’77 cars had marque-specific bodywork.

  • avatar

    This may not be important to rough and thumble folk who relish the idea of going toe to toe with a car salesman, and I do not know if it was the case back when Jack’s father go his Lexmry, but Lexus sells the dealership experience these days as a major differentiation point. I laughted at it back when I was younger.

  • avatar

    The Infinitis the wrecking yard acquired seldom sold parts; neither collision nor break-down parts.

    Boss quit buying them.

    Lexuses (Lexi) were hot.

    Those chrome Infiniti wheels sat forever. Ugly beyond belief. The poorly clad chrome cladding steadily peeling away despite sun-protected and safe from bumps and dings. Ugly wheels.

    Gag-inducing. Reeking of cheap.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    The Lexus ES has gotten steadily less attractive, more bloated, and heavier.

  • avatar

    Definetly the 1992 ES300 was much more beautiful.

    The rear taillights of both the ES300 and LS400 were busy and many bulbs turned on when the brake was pushed.

  • avatar

    While the current LS460 does about the same annual volume in the United States as the Mercedes-Benz S550, it does so with a base price that is almost $23,000 below that of the Benz.

    It’s more of a problem for MB, actually.

    Same goes with VW Passat. Yes, it asks 15% more than its Japanese competitors and the sales is dismal.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve seen both the current Jetta and Passat interiors in person, and they blow away the current Corolla. Haven’t seen a Camry.

      The VW look luxurious, the Corolla… ummm no.

  • avatar

    Modern Porsches are still frameless as well

    As soon as u touch the door latch the glass will drop few mm, just enuf to clear the rubber weather seal, is a brilliant idea except some day when it gets old it could be a night mare to adjust or fix.

    I heard thru the grape vine that a Prancing Horse 599 has similar feature, but gave the owner a ton of grief, as its pretty difficult to make her work right.

    • 0 avatar

      RE: the glass electronically dropping a few mm on the “frameless” door.
      The 2005+ Mustangs have that feature.
      And the retired (last generation) T-Birds also had it.

    • 0 avatar

      I had a rental Mustang convertible that dropped the window a skootch when the door handle was lifted. If you tried, you could “beat” the drop and catch the glass on the roof.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      Cars with the “auto-drop” feature are virtually useless in the winter if you store them outside. My S5 and Boxster both do this. It’s possible to shatter the door glass trying to operate the door in an Ohio winter.

  • avatar

    “And thus the old man acquired a two-tone-blue ES250. He’d never even so much as sat in a Camry…”I wonder how many other ES 250s were sold in the same manner, i.e., as an introduction to the pedestrian (but well-built) Camry that luxury car buyers wouldn’t be caught dead cross-shopping.

  • avatar

    I didn’t realize how much the interior took from the stock Camry until I saw the photo. Aside from added wood, slightly different HVAC controls, and a beefy airbag equipped steering wheel, everything inside looks exactly like the 88-91 Camry right down to the transmission lever.

    I’m glad I wasn’t the only person to notice how gutless the 155hp V6 was. On my mother’s Camry V6, the best I could muster was 0-30mph in 4.6s and 0.60mph in 12.5s, about the same as my 103hp Galant. The engine did sound great though, and it seemed it was copied by Ford for their Duratec V6.

  • avatar

    A terrific observation! Very well done!

  • avatar

    When I was in high school my father gave me a 1989 Toyota Camry V6 LE. It was a great little car but I always wished it was the Lexus ES250 because it was the same car but more luxurious and much more unusual.

  • avatar

    I’m thrilled to see this article on the long forgotten ES250. I was a big fan of this car when it came out. Around that time of 1990 I was enamored with Japanese cars, they really seemed so superior and every new release was such an advance. Of course Lexus was the latest triumph and the LS 400 was the “best car in the world.” Unfortunately, I knew the big Lexus was way beyond my family’s reach, so I latched onto the next best thing, the ES250. My dad was looking for a replacement for our family’s Maxima, and I lobbied hard for the ES250.

    When I went to the Lexus dealership, I was blown away by the experience. I had already been to a lot of car dealerships at that age (13) and Lexus was nothing like any I had been to. It was more like visiting a fancy bank, with granite floors, leather couches and a classy, subdued atmosphere. We actually had a female (very rare to this day) sales agent who had an educated, professional demeanor unlike any car salesman I had seen. I think I still have the thick sales booklet for the ES250 from that visit. At any rate, my dad didn’t buy the ES250 and instead picked up a lightly used ’88 Acura Legend. I was alright with that pick and I later got a lot of enjoyment driving that car.

    One last thought – the ES250 and Acura Legend to some extent competed with the entry-level German cars like the 3-series and Mercedes 190E. Despite all the auto rags picking the new Japanese upstarts over the staid 190E (see the C&D comparo from I think ’92), I have to say that today I still see old Mercedes all over the road and those original Lexi and Acuras seem to have been driven into the ground.

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