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.
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
visibly less distinctively better than its mass-market peers. If you 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.
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 have 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.