Theme: Benchmarks – the moving goalpost

Legend has it that Lexus´engineers explicitly used the 1991 BMW E-36 version of the 3 series as a benchmark for their 1999 IS200, right down to giving it rear wheel drive and a straight six engine.

1999 Lexus IS 200 - from Wikipedia.
1999 Lexus IS 200 – from Wikipedia. There´s a balance problem, isn´t there? The front of the car is visually lighter than the rear.

By the time the IS200 came out, the E46 had replaced the E36. The benchmark that Lexus had chosen was obsolete. At this point BMW had settled on a slow detachment from its roots as a “hard as nails” small sports saloon and was well on the way to becoming, in ordinary trim versions, a Munich Mondeo, though to be fair, that´s unfair to Ford´s Mondeo of the same period. As I see it, the car Lexus benchmarked was already

1991 BMW E-36 3-series. No chrome, flatter pressings, bigger. Mediocrity plus 20%.
1991 BMW E-36 3-series. No chrome, flatter pressings, bigger. Mediocrity plus 20%.

visibly less distinctively better than its mass-market peers. If you set park a late model Sierra or Renault 21 with an BMW E30 (1982-1991) there is no question which vehicle has been more carefully designed and which has the better material choices. If the E36 is a safer and more secure drive than the tail-happy E30, fine but there is no way the later car has the same physical integrity. It´s also markedly bigger than the E30 and had already moved up a size from being a kind of super-Escort to being a slightly better type of family car. The E46 of 1998 restored some of the lustre of the E30 at the same time as being a fundamentally larger and less focused product. It was comfier and easier to live with than the E30 but also more like the Mondeos and Vectras it liked to feel superior to.

1988 BMW E-30. Even in four-cylinder base model trim it looks solid. A handuful in the wet though,and rather cramped. Image: Wikipedia. Send them a donation now, please.
1988 BMW E-30. Even in four-cylinder base model trim it looks solid. A handuful in the wet though,and rather cramped. Image: Wikipedia. Send them a donation now, please.

The Lexus IS200 didn´t leap ahead as a result of its close mimicry of the BMW. Journalists felt there was too little that was original and the BMW still did the job better. While Lexus benchmarked the format of the BMW they might better have benchmarked just how the Bavarians were assembling their interiors. Though very solid, the Lexus did not present something sufficiently unToyota to convince BMW buyers to leave their 3s. Quantitative benchmarks are easy to define but it’s often qualitative aspects that win over (or lose) customers.

If Lexus had benchmarked the packaging of the E36 and the quality of the E30 then they might have had more luck. To really succeed they´d needed to add something else, something new which wasn´t really there. Thus benchmarking is good for setting a minimum requirement, good yet not sufficient. Originality is what is needed to capture people´s imagination, the more so when trying to steal sales. BMW didn´t need (and didn´t deploy) any imagination on the E36 but they didn´t have to. Lexus were offering a different proposition (“change over to us”) where benchmarking was necessary but not sufficient.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

2 thoughts on “Theme: Benchmarks – the moving goalpost”

  1. A bit harsh, no?

    Also you open with “Legend has it that Lexus´engineers explicitly used the 1991 BMW E-36 (…) right down to giving it a rear wheel drive and a straight six engine”; shouldn’t that say ‘starting with giving it rear wheel drive and a straight six engine’ instead? That was the obvious place to start (although they could have used a V6 instead admittedly) and the point of the ‘legend’ is that the Lexus engineer not only copied the basic formula of the 3-series, but went as far as dismantling the said car to get as close as possible to the winning recipe.

  2. I have to vocally disagree, I’m ‘fraid! The E36 may not be the last word in terms of rubostness and quality, but as a piece of design, I consider it among the most important cars of the 90s. It didn’t arrive as a shock therapy à la Bangle, but the E36 certainly caused quite a stir when it was originally unveiled and briefly troubled the more conservative of BMW buyers. That it’s impact has been almost forgotten is due to the simple fact that so much of the ensuing decade’s car design has followed in the E36’s footsteps.
    Much more than well-loved cars like the 8 Series, and at eye level with classics like the E32/34 saloons, the E36 serves as a particularly lasting part of Claus Luthe’s stylistic legacy. In a decade’s time, appreciation for this car will have come full circle.

    The E30, on the other hand, appears to be a car benefitting from a generous helping of nostalgia. Its chassis was pretty much outdated the day it came to market, the four door variant looked (understandably) imbalanced – not to mention its competition, the mighty Mercedes W201/Ushido/190 E, which had E30s for breakfast in almost any regard.
    Which is not to say that I dislike the E30 – the convertible in particular is a wonderfully understated, elegant machine. But we shouldn’t overestimate either its significance or its qualities.

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