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Street-Spotted: Lexus ES 250

There is almost no such thing as a hard-to-find, classic Lexus model -- for one thing the company has only been around since 1989 -- but a couple of cars come close. One of them is the very first generation LX 450, which was sold for a grand total of two model years and was basically a slightly more expensive Land Cruiser. The other is the first-generation ES 250, and we suspect that it's far more difficult to find in use today.

If you barely remember this model, that's understandable. When the Lexus brand was launched at the Detroit auto show in 1989 the LS 400 was the flagship of the brand and really the main point for launching the brand in the first place: Toyota wanted to beat Mercedes-Benz at its own game. The LS 400 offered a sleek, modern design that also appeared conservative but high-tech, with enough power for effortless cruising and a genuinely impressive interior.

But the LS 400 was not the only car launched by Lexus in 1989. Toyota did not want to launch a brand with only one model lest it seem like an one-off effort that could disappear in a few years, and also needed to offer some semblance of variety and a pricing ladder for those who might not easily afford the LS at Lexus dealerships. At the same Detroit auto show Lexus unveiled the ES 250, which was a rather thinly-disguised Toyota model, but priced some distance below the LS.

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It's sometimes said that the ES 250 was based directly on the Camry, but that's not entirely accurate. The first-gen ES was certainly based on the greater Camry family, which was far more varied in Japan than in the U.S. And included the Toyota Vista and the Camry Prominent, which was a luxury version of the JDM Camry of that generation. The ES 250 offered frameless side windows, in contrast to the U.S. Market Camry of the time, a different C-pillar design, and a different headlight pattern, among a number of exterior differences. The ES 250 was given a Lexus grille, of course, and other distinguishing details, including a taillight pattern that mimicked the look of the LS, but many aspects were identical to the Japanese-market Camry Prominent sedan.

As its name suggests, the ES 250 was powered by a 2.5-liter engine, a V6 good for 156 hp, but what is not often remembered is that in addition to the four-speed automatic the ES 250 was also offered with a five-speed manual. In hindsight the five-speed manual option sounds like it would be missing the point of owning a Lexus sedan, but since it was still 1989 outside midsize luxury sedans could still be found with stick shifts. Another anachronism was the standard offering of a cloth interior, but in practice we suspect that leather was more popular.

That's right: in 1989 you could get a Lexus sedan with a cloth interior and a five-speed manual. Just let this fact wash over you for a couple of minutes.

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But the first-generation ES 250 did not stay on the market for long, offered solely from the 1989 through the 1991 model years. It was a placeholder of sorts before Lexus developed a more differentiated ES sedan, with much more distinct styling, but even that model also had a Toyota counterpart in Japan named the Windom. So nothing went to waste, even if American buyers could not readily see Toyota versions of Lexus cars for which they had paid a premium.

We spotted this ES 250 (in the federally-mandated Lexus color) in Pennsylvania, which at times produces time-warp cars. The ES 250 is not easy to spot these days, and we generally don't think of Pennsylvania as the headquarters of rare, 30-year-old Lexus models. If anything, our money would be squarely on Florida if we had to try and find one of these for sale, and perhaps some pockets of Arizona and California. Perhaps it goes without saying that these were bought as plush but not exceptionally lavish runabouts by reasonably well-off retirees who may have cross-shopped them with similarly priced Buick models -- something that could carry golf clubs but wouldn't offer boat-like handling.

Have you seen one of these recently?

Let us know in the comments below.

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