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

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author photo by Tyler Hoover March 2018

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.

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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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
These Automakers Had Very Different Approaches to Luxury in the 1990s - Autotrader