If any car embodies the ‘‘near luxury’’ sedan class, the Lexus ES300 is it. For a modest premium over a well-outfitted family sedan, the ES300 adds the essential luxury and prestige elements of the Lexus brand. But being a benchmark also means being a target for competitors, albeit it a moving target, as this is the all-new 2002 ES300. It’s larger and even better appointed. So is the ES300 still near luxury, or is it right on the mark?
Like many judgements in this often subjective automotive business we work in, the answer to that question depends on your perspective. And perhaps a better term to describe this fluctuating and sometimes hard to define segment of automobiles would be ‘‘entry-level’’ luxury rather than ‘‘near’’ luxury. Because while the 2002 Lexus ES300 doesn’t totally match the refinement offered by its upscale stablemate the LS430, it does do an excellent job of giving buyers more than a taste of the brand’s full-blown luxury treatment.
The ES300’s styling, sleek and more refined than its predecessor’s, received mixed reviews from our staff. Most liked the new wedgy face, with its more bulbous, cat eye headlamps that flow smoothly into the fenders. But others thought the higher and more sharply defined beltline makes the car look too slab-sided. While at the rear, only a slight differentiation in the taillight design separates the ES300 from its engineering kin, the all-new Camry. All agreed, however, that the redesigned platform, with its 2 inch longer wheelbase, now at 107.1 inches, and the 2.5 inch increase in body height, 57.3 versus 54.9, are big pluses.
The Lexus marque established its reputation in part by offering a superior big car ride quality in its mid-size sedans. And the ES300 continues that tradition. The ES300 rides on an independent, gas-charged MacPherson strut suspension with stabilizer bars. Our tester came with the optional Adaptive Variable Suspension system that alters each wheel’s damping rate according to road conditions.
Controlled from the cockpit console, AVS offers 4 individual settings ranging from a soft comfort mode to a stiffer sport mode, with intermediate settings in between. And unlike some adaptive systems, there is a noticeable difference in the two extremes. But we were disappointed to find that the stiffer modes also increased the amount of suspension noise coming from the rear of the car, especially on rough surfaces.
At the track, a trip through the low speed slalom revealed no real surprises. Understeer on turn-in is moderate and transitions are predictable. But the engine-speed sensitive rack and pinion steering unit did have trouble keeping up with rapid and repetitive switchbacks. Our tester came with the optional Vehicle Skid Control which also includes traction control, and the VSC earned its keep throughout the exercise.
What was surprising was the steering system also lagging behind in our over-and-back high speed lane change. This unusual occurrence made this avoidance test a little more dramatic, taking extra muscle to steer the car back into the proper lane.
There was no drama, however, when it came to stopping. The ES300’s 4-wheel discs with ABS and Electronic Brake Force Distribution brought us down from 60 in an excellent 115 feet. Brake Assist is also included as part of the skid-control option.
The ES300’s get-up-and-go is supplied by an updated 3.0 liter, twin-cam, 24-valve V6 that in addition to Variable Valve Timing with intelligence, also features a new electronic drive- by-wire throttle. Output is 210 horsepower and 220 pound-feet of torque. Smooth powertrains are another quintessential Lexus hallmark, and this one is no exception. 0 to 60 came in 7.6 seconds, and the quarter mile passed in 15.9 seconds at 90 MPH.
Out on the highway we found plenty of power on reserve for brisk passing and the new 5- speed automatic transmission is an ideal match for the engine. But unlike most of its competitors there’s no manual shift mode, and like the new Camry we tested earlier, we noticed an occasional shudder in the transmission when releasing the throttle between 40 and 50 MPH.
Another cornerstone of the Lexus brand is a plush and well appointed cabin. And again, in this regard, the ES300 doesn’t disappoint. Tasteful genuine wood trim and, on our car, soft leather upholstery, greet you as you open the door. Buyers will also find heated front seats with 10-way power adjustments for the driver, 8-way for the passenger. And for the safety of all occupants, there’s front and side impact airbags, and front and rear side curtain airbags.
For their enjoyment, our tester came with the available Mark Levinson audio system that includes an in-dash CD player and a 6-disc changer in the console. Its touch screen controls share space with the optional single-disc DVD-driven navigation system. Using the system was harder and more distracting than the industry’s best. But there were no complaints about audio quality or the comprehensiveness of the nav maps, or the easy to use dual-zone climate controls. The rear seat room garnered rave reviews, especially from our taller staff members, for its more spacious head and leg room, and for the available sun screen. The 14.5 cubic feet of cargo space is pretty accommodating, too.
Like most if its competitors, the ES300 carries a base price in the low 30’s, $32,080 to be exact. And like the others, factor in the options and that price quickly escalates. So our tester went out the door for a not-unreasonable-for-its-class $39,935. That’s with a $4,860 package that includes navigation, Mark Levinson audio, leather, and seat memory.
In fact, when you compare it to its similarly equipped German rivals, the ES 300 undercuts them by several thousand dollars. And that’s the Lexus trait we like the most. With its genteel, if non-acrobatic road manners, velvet powertrain, and plush accouterments, the new ES300 easily maintains its leader status in the price-sensitive segment it helped define. But, the 2002 Lexus ES300 delivers so much of what most people look for in a luxury car, it’s hard to say its “near” or ‘‘entry-level’’ or any other term that indicates it has a way to go. It’s already here!
Engine: 3.0 Liter, Twin-cam, 24-valve V6
Torque: 220 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 7.6 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 15.9 Seconds @ 90 MPH
60-0 MPH: 115 Feet
EPA Mileage: 21 MPG City 29 MPG Highway