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These Automakers Had Very Different Approaches to Luxury in the 1990s

Since I have a fleet of aging, heavily depreciated luxury cars, I decided to do a little comparison test — a luxo-barge shootout that nobody asked for. All three of my fancy sedans happened to be functional at the same time, so I figured this was as good of an opportunity as any — and I really think pointing out the differences between these automakers in the 1990s highlights a big problem with the luxury car market today.

In 1995, if you were a midlevel accountant and you wanted to spend your latest bonus on a down payment for a new car, the difference between models was vast. At the time, every automaker had different approaches to building what they thought was the best luxury car in the world. In between your feverish bookkeeping, you could see these differences as you thumbed through the sales brochures stashed away in your desk drawer. The Mercedes pamphlet said “don’t die wondering” what it’s like to own a Mercedes, while Buick described sitting in their seats as “the most desired position in the world” — and Lexus encouraged you to buy their cars because “it says you have money, not had money.”

It’s funny Lexus would make fun of “old money,” as their cars were excellent imitations of the cars the aristocracy liked to drive. The first-generation LS started life from reverse-engineering the 1980s Mercedes S-Class, and my 1993 Lexus ES300 was the first midsize sedan offered by Lexus that wasn’t a rebadged Camry. While the Japanese brand was new to the luxury game, they made a huge splash building simple, stylish cars — with an old-school obsessive focus on build quality. Interplanetary mileage on the odometer is a common sight with Lexus models of this era, as they were built so well — much like European cars of the decade prior. In the case of my rare 5-speed manual Lexus, it sat abandoned for years — but it started right up after its long slumber, and it easily made the 300-mile trek home. Finding a sturdy, simple luxury car offered with a manual transmission is almost impossible nowadays, unless it’s biased way too much as a sports car.

My 1995 Mercedes C 36 AMG is certainly sporty — and, sadly, was never offered in the United States with a manual transmission — but the car achieves good performance without sacrificing comfort. AMG cars used to be great at finding this perfect blend between luxury and performance, but they’ve gotten way stiffer in recent years — probably because they couldn’t stand seeing their cars getting beat on the track by BMW’s M performance division. Another big difference between now and then are the priorities with engineering and design. In the 1990s, Mercedes still went about making luxury cars by building the best-engineered car with the highest-quality construction, components and finishes. Today, launching a new luxury car more closely resembles a new Apple product launch, as all anybody cares about anymore is the technology.

Interestingly enough, my 1996 Buick Park Avenue Ultra is the technology leader of this trio — but not like a modern car. For example, an entire panel is devoted to vast array of switches to find the perfect seating position for the most comfortable automotive seats I’ve ever sat in. All of the technology offered inside this Buick is aimed at making it the most sumptuous-feeling sedan in the world — and the engineers couldn’t have cared less about how this car handled a slalom course. In the ’90s, Buick wasn’t trying to imitate the Europeans, and sales were great. In 1995, Buick was bragging about the Lesabre being the best-selling full-size car in America — and their cars were easily the most comfortable American-built cars as well. Unfortunately, Buick took a nose dive with interior quality not long after this, and the horrible plastic interiors were made worse by the blobby exterior styling decisions. Although Buick has re-emerged from their dark ages in recent years with much nicer-quality cars, they share more in common with European competitors than the Buicks everybody loved in the 1990s.

For me, lining up these three old barges is way more interesting than lining up the similarly styled, similarly equipped offerings of today, with their identical approaches to delivering a luxury/sport-ish car experience. There are a few bright spots here and there, such as the new Lincoln Continental — but apparently those aren’t selling very well. So I’m probably way out of touch with what the buying public actually wants — and this comparison test was a totally useless exercise. At least my hoopties got to stretch their legs for some screen time, so it’s not a total waste. Find a sedan for sale

Tyler Hoover went broke after 10 years in the car business and now sells hamburgers to support his fleet of needy cars. He lives in Wichita, Kansas.

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  1. The ES300 reminds me so much (at least in terms of reliability) of my son’s recently departed 1997 Tercel. At 250k+ miles on the original engine, clutch and transmission, the only thing that finally stopped it was when a semi tried to occupy the same space.  Luckily, his GF/ who was driving it was not hurt, but the loss of that car was heartbreaking.  He’d had it the last year of high school (2008/9), through his AF Academy years and into his first duty assignment and steadfastly refused to get rid of it.  It never broke.  Ever.  So, now they are borrowing my 2013 Cruze and may keep it, so that will send me on the search for a replacement.  That ES would make a stupendous DD, with it being a manual as icing on the cake.

  2. Good video, however, I disagree with what you said about European cars being less reliable than American and Japanese cars. As cool as the supercharger Park Avenue is, I’ve never heard of one reaching 1 million miles on the original engine, like some Mercedes and Volvo’s do. 

    • Before the 1990s European cars (especially Mercedes) were the poster child for reliability.

      Since then they’ve been at the bottom of the barrel, especially at the higher end. The entry-level models like the 3-series are about average for reliability nowadays, but cannot hold a candle to Toyota and Honda.
  3. The Continental would sell better if they sold for $15000 less than they do. Until then, they are a tough sell. they start in the high $40’s which isn’t really any better than the E Class or 5 Series. Lincoln’s own MKX is cheaper, which doesn’t help!

    • The Continental offers a lot more features per dollar than the German flagships, which is what it actually competes with, as a full-sized sedan.

      Even compared to the E Class and 5 series they are already better equipped for the same price.
      The real problem is brand cachet.

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