By on September 23, 2021

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.

[Images: Lexus]

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61 Comments on “Rare Rides: A Very Luxurious Camry, the 1990 Lexus ES 250...”


  • avatar
    wjtinfwb

    I guess I’m a bit of an odd duck, as I really liked the ES250 styling and appearance. The frameless door glass gives it an airy and clean appearance. THey definitely weren’t sport sedans but compared pretty favorably to a Maxima or Mazda Millenia of the day. Wish it was closer to me, it would be my new daily driver!

  • avatar
    Imagefont

    I used to have one of these. Blue on blue, leather, sunroof. Most comfortable front seat of any car I’ve ever owned. I rebuilt the 2.5 V6, which had gouged cylinder due to overheating a which I eventually traced to a split heater hose clamp. This after the dealer looked at it multiple times. How hard it is to replace the damn hoses? Freaking lazy unethical lying morons. Very quiet, just wonderful on a long trip, 155HP of very smooth delivery, if not downright fast. It’s not a car you needed to go fast in, it’s for cruising and eating highway miles.
    But, interior quality was crap like all Toyota’s, dash crumbled apart. Real wood though, today it’s just plastic with a picture of wood.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Really nice car and worth the price. If I needed a car I would buy it despite it being almost 32 years old. Looks brand new.

  • avatar
    eggsalad

    Mother bought one. She actually wanted a high-zoot Camry, but the Toyota dealer treated her like poo, so she went down the street to the Lexus dealer, who treated her like the Queen she thought she was.

  • avatar
    theflyersfan

    That is still the nicest old Camry in existence and even though it was a rush job, it shows how serious Toyota was in making Lexus work. And then there was the Infiniti dealer across the street with the M30 stopgap and the less said about that, the better.

    Peak Japan, leading into peak Toyota, and for $6,000 and so few miles, it would be nice to have as a piece of the past.

    And then the next ES was one of the biggest homeruns for Lexus. You can still see those on the roads today. Gotta start somewhere…

    • 0 avatar

      M30!

      https://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2017/11/picture-time-infinitis-forgotten-m30-300zx-engine/

      • 0 avatar
        theflyersfan

        As I recall, aren’t you a fan of the M30?
        I just thought it was WAAAAY too mid-1980’s looking, especially in the interior, and as a new brand starting out, needed to be a little more modern looking. But that original VQ engine, so smooth, so much torque, and sounded so good in the Maxima.
        Like Lexus, it was like Infiniti went “Oh Crap!!! We can’t launch with just one car – pick another one off of the shelf and make it work.”
        And then Lexus brought the SC-series out, and Infiniti countered with the one-and-done J-series. (sigh…)

      • 0 avatar
        eng_alvarado90

        I liked the oddball J30 better. Actually I still do!

        • 0 avatar
          theflyersfan

          @eng – so do I. There was nothing else like it on the roads at the time. I remember it being very cramped and the trunk suffered because of the shape, but it really was a looker. I wonder what if they actually decided to give it another generation and what it would have became.

    • 0 avatar
      tonycd

      Agree, flyersfan. This was a nice car because the Camry it was based on was a nice car. I was so impressed at how easily my mom’s Camry could be one-fingered down the road, it was a real factor in sucking me out of a GTI and into Japanese iron for my next car.

      Sure, even at the time, nobody mistook this for leading-edge engineering. But it was comfortable, pleasant and dependable, and the Lexus-grade interior trimmings added to it were top-shelf.

  • avatar
    crtfour

    Wow amazing. I would definitely drive this just to have something different, plus it’s a Lexus so will still last forever. So nice and easy on the eyes ; the styling of today’s vehicles does nothing for me.

  • avatar
    Imagefont

    Also, this car should have had a beige / tan interior. A blue interior on a white (and not really white, more like a cream) is suspicious. No buy.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    Lexus and Infiniti both had lame “second” cars for their brand intros; Lexus fixed that situation post-haste, Infiniti didn’t.

    In any case, what we have here is a very expensive Camry, particularly with the cloth seats.

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      Infiniti also got into the entry level sport sedan market with the G20. The Integra of the Infiniti brand.
      It was a rebadged Nissan Primera with the 2.0 liter SR20DE out of the Sentra SE-R.
      I have a neighbor who owns a nice unmodified G20i in pewter with the rear wing. One of those vehicles you don’t see often anymore.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    I remember just how much the people ignored these, and then how much they jumped all over the ’92 ES 300. (And the latter had much of the same feeling of no-effort-spared engineering that you got from big brother.)

    My best friend in high school was from a family of wealthy Taiwanese immigrants. Dad bought a first-year LS 400 when it came out, and then he bought Older Sister (then in college) an ES 300 when it came out. I got to drive both of them and, in 1992, they just felt completely like the cars of the future. I had literally never driven anything as well-engineered, despite growing up in a BMW family.

  • avatar
    ajla

    Car is sold.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Not only have I *seen* an ES with cloth seating, I *had* one for a few weeks in 2006. The example in question was a 2001 black/silver two tone ES300 -also sans moonroof- originally sold by Rohrich Lexus on nearby West Liberty Ave. I found it extremely strange it was missing the leather and roof, made it feel so much more like a “Camry”. I suppose Lexus then and in the ES250 actually made you pony up for leather?

    That ES300 was not the first ES I had driven but the first I had for any length of time, and much like my impressions of the RX300 after a first drive my thoughts were simply: “no balls”. Having an LS400 for a while the previous year set a certain standard for “Lexus” in my mind, not that the LS was “fast” per se but the perception of power was certainly there (similar to how a tuned Cadillac 4.5/4.9 felt, not actually fast but some oompf). I’ve never driven the RL, but on paper they are similar though the RL’s drivetrain implementation is different and likely drives more “stately”. I seem to recall the Gen 2 Legends feeling as such vs a contemporary near luxury FWD equivalent.

    I kinda want that ES250… but no room… unless someone wants to hand me at least $5K for my cherry Pontiac sedan…

    • 0 avatar

      I would like to drive a first-gen RL. Always liked how they looked. And the later ones were made at the time you got sat nav, CD, and cassette all in the dash.

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        The KA9 RL (which was really the third gen Legend) is the only one which is similar to its predecessors. The subsequent KB1/2 were closer in design to the TL/Accord though they featured the first vestiges of SH-AWD. They are beigemobiles I have seldom seen in real life or in auction reports with only two MYs of significant production (05-06).

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acura_RL

        Not that the KA9 is or ever was commonplace, but I’ve always kind of wanted one. But between the specs, low mileage (17/24), and available options they are really not much different than other similar options.

        • 0 avatar

          Oof for the power that economy isn’t too good. Special props to the few that were blessed with dark purple-gray wood, and green!

          https://static.cargurus.com/images/site/2018/11/08/15/32/2004_acura_rl_3_5_fwd_with_navigation-pic-7762374892661406710-640×480.jpeg

          And when I say green I mean GREEN.

      • 0 avatar
        dal20402

        The first-gen RL drives a lot like a second-gen Legend with three football players sitting in it. It’s more durable, though, because they fixed the EGR clog issue that led almost inevitably to head gasket failure in Legends. And the seats are more comfortable.

        • 0 avatar
          28-Cars-Later

          “The first-gen RL drives a lot like a second-gen Legend with three football players sitting in it”

          Are you referring to added weight?

          Do people swap the upgraded seats or other bits into the Gen 2 Legends? I only ask because you’re sort of an expert on those.

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            Yes, it’s heavier, and the suspension is also softer, so you get a bit more bounciness.

            People swap RL engines and transmissions into Legends all the time (and even put Legend heads on RL blocks), but not interior pieces. I think there are just too many differences.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            Thanks. I could see adding weight for a more “luxurious” feel but I wonder if it contributes to the mileage issues. What sort of mileage does your Legend get?

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            The C32, for all its Honda-like responsiveness and eagerness to rev, doesn’t do Honda-like fuel economy. I get around 16/23 with the Legend, although that includes a lot of very hilly city. Fourth gear is also pretty short, which affects highway fuel economy; it does much better at 65 mph than 75.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            I figured it had something to do with the longitudinal drivetrain but when you mentioned additional weight I wondered if that was the culprit.

    • 0 avatar
      DungBeetle62

      The thing is so, so many folks in Lexus’s bulls-eye weren’t (and still aren’t) looking for balls. They want peace and quiet and reliability. That’s what’s often so funny in Forums like this “Well who wouldn’t want an Alfa 4C?” “Most of the world, actually.”

      My folks got the Gen 2 ES that came after this one. Mom had a Sedan DeVille and there was some wacky suspension glitch – one of those things you hardly notice in everyday driving but is an annoyance a noise or a moan or a click. The car was barely out of warranty timewise and completely within the mileage range; but they were quoted upwards of $4000 for the fix. Something in my Dad just snapped and after decades on no-imports, everything GM after 1971 they traded in the Caddy for a CPO ES300. OK, they briefly flirted with a Camry when Mom ended up with a Grand Am in 1987, but otherwise USA all the way. Within a month he ended a series of S-10 pickups and Blazers and got an RX. That was probably 25 years back. They’ve been loyal Lexus customers ever since – the ES is long gone since retirement but a series of RX’s continues. They’ve never, ever, not once had a problem with anything big, stupid and pricey breaking.

      I was never crazy about the frameless windows, so when car envy struck the Mrs. we got her an 3rd Gen ES. She’s now on her 3rd. I wouldn’t drive it like I do my Miata but I’m also a lot more relaxed after a 3 hour drive in it.

  • avatar
    Lightspeed

    Still can’t believe I passed on a low-mileage, excellent condition ES250 for a Volvo 850 wagon that was utter trash. This led to our household’s no European car ever again rule.

  • avatar
    Imagefont

    The 2.5V6 was beautifully made. Deep skirt iron block, all four of the main bearing caps were connected together in a single casting. Dual overhead cams, bucket tappers with shims and mechanical lifters. I had it bored 0.020 over, polished the crank and the cams were within spec. Just the nasty gouge on the cylinder, part of the piston skirt broken off. Drove it from Texas to Washington state to Olympic NO and camped for three weeks. 2400 miles in three days, incredibly comfortable. If I could buy another car like that today I would. But it’s all go fast performance crap with a horrible ride. It was so quiet inside too, you’re so much more comfortable after a long drive in a quiet car.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    https://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/06/capsule-review-1990-lexus-es250/

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      Car wasn’t all that. And a cracked block at 122,000 miles? Most un-Toyota like.

      Hey, what’s your feeling on the late-aughts Fusions/Milans?

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        Probably decent at the time, my ex bought a ’10 Milan in 2012 and liked it. Later in 2012 I dated a girl with an ’08 or ’09 Fusion that had some kind of smog air pump issue which was going to run her $900 (which was a lot more then than in JPow bux). However I’ve been anecdotally told *all* Ford in more recent years starts to have niggling (usually electronic) issues after year seven, so caveat emptor on those.

        If I was going to chase one it would be a Milan or Zephyr before MY10, I think Mercury included some options N/C over the Ford version and Zephyr more or less the same thing but better content (don’t think the 3.0L Duratec powered 06-09 had air ride or weird issues like the Water Pump of Death™ which plagues the ’10-15?).

        • 0 avatar
          sgeffe

          Not to mention that certain OEM parts become unobtainium around that timeframe.

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            Yep. Hard and fast rule: no daily drivers older than 15 years. That’s when parts just start to fall off the face of the earth.

            Exceptions for vehicles like 911s or Fox Mustangs where you can basically buy an entire car’s worth of aftermarket parts.

          • 0 avatar
            sgeffe

            I’ve heard that Ford is especially guilty of discontinuing parts earlier than many other manufacturers. I think Honda, for example will produce interior bits for a particular model for ten years after the generation is no longer for sale. I’ve heard that for common parts like dash pads or even fuse panels and the like, you’re SOL after about seven years, even for something like an F-150.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            @dal

            I would say ten years unless the DD you find is low miles/well kept and the unexpected breakdowns should be more preventable (seals, fluids, sensors, wearables) as opposed to whole components just up and failing at random due to age/use.

            I think Freed was asking for his kid’s use though, I’m not sure what her uses are exactly but her needs may grant more latitude to the general rule – especially in this world today. I think I’ve driven my DD less than 5K since March 2020 with the Pontiac maybe at 1300 miles, the C70 just over 1,000 and the 244 a few hundred – maybe 7500 miles or less in 18 months?

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            @sgeffe

            I’ve heard the same, Ford historically also will pull poorly selling models very quickly unlike GM who will nearly always let something run the whole product cycle (I will be interested to see if Mach E gets the axe in Q4 2022, unless its sales pick up).

          • 0 avatar
            MRF 95 T-Bird

            sgeffe- When I owned my MN-12 Thunderbird as well as my 87 Fox body one there were a number of parts that the dealers wouldn’t stock or were discontinued. Many of the internet sources like TCCOA were reliable outlets.
            In the early 90’s I picked up a first generation 81 Honda Prelude. A number of items were discontinued by my local dealers but were available by independent catalog only purveyors.

          • 0 avatar
            ajla

            I don’t know if it is still the case (or ever was) but I believe Mercedes keeps making parts for at least 30 years on everything and even longer than that for the fancier models.

          • 0 avatar
            SaulTigh

            I guess I didn’t get the memo. My daily driver is 20 years old, my part time driver is 26 years old. Thus far I haven’t had any issues getting parts to keep either of them going, but then again I don’t care about trim pieces or a lot of stuff that probably would be hard to find now.

            They’re also both vehicles that were made in very large numbers, which I think helps in the longevity. Good luck getting parts for your VW Phaeton.

  • avatar
    sgeffe

    I’d forgotten that these had airbags in them! I thought that these had the mouse belts like the Camry.

    Did these return to base elements as quickly as the Camrys did? I recall that the Camrys started showing rust around the door bottoms before the 4th-Gen Accords of that same period started rotting around the rear wheelwells. Toyota thumped Honda rustproofing for one more generation, IIRC, as the 1994+ Accords still had the Honda cancer by around year seven, while I think I saw a rust-free XV10 maybe a year or so ago! (As tank-like as those were, my guess is that they’ll survive a nuclear apocalypse, since Toyota probably threw EMP protection into the vehicular electronics! :-D )

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    Doesn’t surprise me that this Lexus is sold. I would have been tempted to buy it myself if I lived closer. 6k for this car is not really that much considering it is a Lexus and like new with low mileage. I like the white with the blue interior.

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