Rare Rides: A Very Luxurious Camry, the 1990 Lexus ES 250
Today’s Rare Ride was the only other car accompanying Lexus’ LS 400 at dealerships in 1990 and 1991. The fanciest Camry offered in the US, it was a badge conversion from a Camry sold in the Japanese market.
But consumers saw through the charade, so while the high-effort LS 400 flew off the showroom floor, the minimal effort ES just sat there.
Much like the ES as it exists today, the first (V20-based) ES 250 was front-drive, had a V6 engine, and was designed for a two-lane comfort cruise. As Toyota approached its launch date for the flagship LS, they realized it wouldn’t be a great look to sell a singular vehicle under its highly anticipated and all-new brand.
The answer came from the Japanese market V20 Camry, which was launched in Japan late in 1986 for the ’87 model year. The V20 was a Camry of quality that was built domestically in Kentucky and established the nameplate in the US market. Camry would then take off with the now-legendary 1992 XV10 redesign.
While the V20 was sold in its sedan and wagon variants in North America, one body style was withheld: a frameless window pillared hardtop. Known as the Vista or Camry Prominent (after 1989), the luxurious Camry edit wore entirely different body panels to its sedan counterpart even though it looked almost identical. The Vista was a whole inch lower for a more sleek appearance, which meant it had notably less headroom than the cheaper sedan upon which it was based. Vista was never meant for export markets and was the official replacement for the prior generation’s five-door body style.
“This will have to do though,” said Lexus management. So the Vista became the ES 250 and was coded VZV21. The interior and exterior were quickly given a Lexus once-over. Outside, the ES grew a larger grille and tail lamps, additional chrome trim, and LS-adjacent wheels. All first-gen ES 250s had a suitably upscale two-tone paint scheme. The Vista’s interior was transformed via genuine wood appliques, ruched leather (usually), and lots of beige materials. ABS, airbag, a power sunroof, and CD player were standard. All ES 250s used the same 2.5-liter V6 from the Camry, though consumers had a choice in transmissions (wow!), and selected from a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic.
Lexus marketed the ES as “the luxury sedan of sports sedans,” which didn’t really hold up given its 159-horsepower engine, and very soft everything else. Customers weren’t too intrigued by a 1990 price tag of $22,000 ($47,803 adjusted) and saw it for what it was: a stop-gap until a real ES could be developed. Thus the ES remained in its first generation for only 1990 and 1991 before it was replaced by the much more successful XV10-based ES 300. Lexus sold less than 40,000 Es250s over those two years.
And that makes today’s Rare Ride a particularly unusual find. Beyond its low 38,000 miles traveled, it pairs a blue cloth (!) interior with a white and beige exterior. Your author has never seen an ES 250 with cloth, and never a blue interior with a white exterior. The ES is yours for $6,000.
Interested in lots of cars and their various historical contexts. Writing things for TTAC since late 2016 from a home base in Cincinnati, Ohio. You can find me on Twitter @CoreyLewis86, and I also contribute at Forbes Wheels.
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