It used to be that when buying a luxury car, your choices were limited to cushy, glitzy Cadillacs, Chryslers, and Lincolns. You worked hard, served your country, scrimped and saved, and when you got that gold watch after decades of corporate service, you went and rewarded yourself with a brand spanking new Fleetwood, New Yorker, or Continental. While the masses spilled out of cities and sprouted suburbia, grabbing up these massive land yachts along the way to signify the good life, driving enthusiasts discovered and became smitten by European models that emphasized engineering and road manners over chrome trim, hood ornaments, exaggerated bodywork, and vinyl padded roofs.
Seemingly overnight, favorable media reports and neighborly word-of-mouth transformed these fun-to-drive but infrequently seen BMWs, Jaguars, and Mercedes-Benzes into the gotta-have-it symbols of success, and by the early 1980s, young Americans no longer aspired to a Coupe de Ville painted Retirement Gold. They wanted a sporty BMW 3 Series like the one Andrew McCarthy drove in “Pretty in Pink,” and they wanted it by the time they were 30 years old. Ignorant to rapidly shifting consumer preferences, Cadillac, Chrysler, and Lincoln chased Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” to the grave, nearly nailing their own coffins shut in pursuit of short-term profits.
In fact, Lincoln has yet to recover. But we digress.
In the late 1980s, along came Acura, Infiniti, and Lexus, and they changed the rules forever. Arrogant German automakers, certain that discerning luxury car buyers would sniff their noses at these Japanese upstarts, actually scoffed when Toyota announced the Lexus lineup for 1990, dismissing it as leathered-up family sedans utterly devoid of character or pedigree. Even Detroit’s Big Three, which had just begun to pull its collective head out of the sand, barely glanced in Japan’s direction while it tried to figure out how to design compromises (like the DeVille Touring Sedan and Mark VII LSC) that would simultaneously please aging traditionalists and young Euro intenders. And then Lexus sales skyrocketed, rewriting the luxury car rulebook in the process, teaching everyone a lesson or two about how to build cars that Americans will buy time and time again.
Today, just 20 years after the first Japanese luxury models rolled off a boat into the Port of Los Angeles, Acura, Infiniti, and Lexus enjoy a significant share of the luxury car market. And for 2005 and 2006, each has a brand new $50,000 sedan for sale. We thought it might be a good time to figure out which one is best, discovering in the end that any of the three is worthy of your aspiration.