The cars we loved.
The luxury car market can be summed up easily this way: before and after the Lexus ES300. Before ES300, luxury cars were often big, fussy if they came from Europe or had uninspired handling (if they came from
America). Near luxury cars were in short supply and suffered the same traits as their larger brethren. When the Toyota created its luxury brand “Lexus” launched the ES250 in 1989, the second car in the fledging company’s line, it redefined the near luxury market, just like the larger LS would for large luxury cars. It would not be long before the ES line would get a makeover. The new car was sleek and very modern with an aerodynamic drag Cd of 0.32.
Redefining Entry-Level Luxury
While the ES250 was a good attempt to distinguish the brand from the Camry, it was boxy looking next the the LS sedan. The Lexus style would be fully realized in 1991, with a bump up in displacement to a 3.0 from a 2.5L V6. The new ES300 would remain Lexus entry-level car, but was by no means entry-level like. Despite sharing parts with the Toyota Camry, it managed to have a distinct personality all its own, even if it may have looked like America’s favorite Toyota from some angles. For starters the ES300 came in one model, one configuration with one engine choice. Although they were made with 5 speed manual transmissions, you’d be hard pressed to find a North American car with anything other than the four speed automatic. Many cars from the second generation feature a distinctive two-tone paint scheme, often with grey at the bottom. Top versions of the Camry would later feature a similar scheme, confusing the two somewhat from a distance. To help offset any confusion, the ES usually came equipped with distinctive three prong-six spoke wheels.
While the ES250 was powered by a Camry 2.5L V6, the ES300 would get a 3.0 with 187 hp. Because the Lexus ES300 placed particular emphasis on comfort and handling over the Camry, it came with a different suspension setup with front and rear independent MacPherson struts. The smooth ride was more like an American luxury car, but with better handling. The Lexus advertising tagline “The Pursuit of Perfection” applied to the ES as much as the LS, as they both had a robot like precision that prompted some automotive journalist to label them boring or without personality.
The ES300 was priced at just under $27,000 initially, but as demand went up, so did the base price. The interior featured nice luxury touches including an optional Nakimachi stereo. To insure that less noise from the outside came in, asphalt insulation was stuffed into the body panels. By 1993 a passenger airbag had become standard equipment along side ABS and traction control. ES models were not sold in Europe or Japan, where Toyota had similar cars, but it was available in Australia. The US was the primary market for the ES as it became Lexus top-selling car for more than 15 years.
Automotive Media Darling
The baby Lexus got rave reviews. Nearly all automotive journalist praised its combination of technology, comfort and reliability. Although the ES300 was no hot rod, it coud manage a respectable sub 8 second 0 to 60 time. Publications like Consumer Reports made a regular habit of selecting the ES300 as a best buy, and for good reason. The ES300 sent the old guard of Mercedes (who had a midsized near luxury sedan since the 80’s) and Audi running to the drawing board. Other manufactures like Cadillac who had never taken the compact or mid-sized luxury segment seriously, suddenly had new product to sell in the form of the captive import Catera. Suddnly other Japanese luxury brands like Acura and Infiniti would see their market share being cut by the Lexus. Other like Mazda would change their mnd about a new luxury brand altogether.
The ES300 has since evolved, now in its sixth generation, it still maintains the same balance of technology, performance and comfort established by the ES250 in 1989 and refined by the ES300 in 1992. Used ES300 from the second generation (91′-96′) make great used cars, although they are old enough to have had less responsible owners as they change hands. Even with well over $150k miles, a good example can go for well over $4k. Like the Camry, they are easily to maintain and reward regular maintenance with mileage figures beyond the 200k mark. You couldn’t say that about a lot of luxury cars from the early 90’s.