A Priceless Piece of Americana - 1996 Lexus ES 300 Long-Term Road Test
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1996 Lexus ES 300 Long Term Road Test

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1996 Lexus ES 300: A Priceless Piece of Americana

September 18, 2012

1996 Lexus ES 300

So as I rolled into the lane between the corrals where they were staging the car show part of the 2012 Hooligan, the parking guy looked twice at the 1996 Lexus ES 300 and inquired if I’d be entering the show.

“Of course,” I replied.  “It’s a priceless piece of Americana.” And after I thought about it for a second, I realized that this is more than just blather, because this cheap and cheerful ES 300 really is a car with a story to tell.

1996 Lexus ES 300

About 1996, the car industry had finally recovered from the big business bust at the end of the Reagan years that made sports cars disappear from the streets and nearly put Porsche out of business. The Japanese premium brands had all appeared and they proved enormously influential, changing car design both in the U.S. and in Europe (even though executives in both places naturally denied it). Lexus seemed to resonate the most with Americans, and in this Lexus ES 300, you can see why.

The Lexus ES 300 is meant to be perfect transportation, a refined, reliable and unobtrusive means of getting from here to there. It’s dressed up in the fashion of the 1990s – an elegant form, high-quality paint, the two-tone treatment that has been part of American automotive style since the 1920s, the glitzy self-indulgence of gold trim, and the flashy chrome-finish wheels that dominated the 1990s.

Even the cabin is an aesthetic marvel – the warm tones of the wood trim, the techno-trickery of the electroluminescent instrument display, the modestly bolstered chair-like seats, the wears-like-iron leather upholstery, and a steering wheel without control buttons.

This is simple transportation that has been executed according to a very high standard of quality, and it's interesting that this is what made the car appealing then as a luxury device and still makes it appealing now as a used car.

Surprisingly enough, this line of patter worked on almost everyone who passed by the ES 300. No one thought twice to see it parked next to a Corvette C2 or a Triumph TR-4 or the phalanx of Fiat 500s across the road, or even the street-legal Can-Am replicar.

Of course, the prize of the day went to a clone of an early-1970s Porsche 911 RS and not to us, but the Lexus got noticed. We were chatting about it with someone and actually never mentioned the name of Edmunds when a tall, spindly young guy with a floppy hat and shorts pipes up, “The ES 300 from Inside Line?!  I read the site every day!  Love that car!”  So apparently this Lexus is famous.

There were about 200 cars at my pal’s event, and he and his neighbors raised about $3,500 for their volunteer fire department. We’re going back next year. This Lexus ES 300 might just be a used car, but it still tells a story about the things that every American wants in a car, whether it’s new or used.

Michael Jordan, Executive Editor, Edmunds.com @ 149,100 miles

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