Once a wallflower, the Lexus ES 300 is now a bold-looking luxury sedan. Redesigned for 2002, the ES 300 looks smooth and sleek, yet larger and more substantial.
In fact it is considerably larger than the pre-2002 model, standing 2.4 inches taller and stretching 2.0 inches longer in wheelbase. Those added inches have given the ES 300 another four cubic feet of interior space; so that the Lexus is now 10-percent larger inside than a Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Trunk volume for the ES 300 was increased 12 percent over the 2001 model. At the same time, new sound-absorbing and vibration-isolating technologies have brought exceptional quiet and smoothness.
Lexus has justly earned a reputation for exceptional quality control and the ES 300 delivers a compelling combination of quality, comfort, refinement, and value. Behind the fit and finish is a great deal of careful design and detail work. Advanced composites and resin-steel sandwiches contribute to the quality you see and feel, from the tight thunk when you close the doors, trunk and hood; to the precision movement of the turn signal stalk.
For 2003, Lexus has added the option of power-adjustable pedals to the ES 300's long list of luxuries. Otherwise, the ES 300 is unchanged from last year.
ES 300 ($31,625)
The radical forward rake of the ES 300, combined with its streaked-back headlamps, make a striking and dynamic statement. The front end seems to slope down in one continuous curve, from the top of the windshield, over the sculpted hood and tidy dark grille, down to the smooth air dam under the almost seamless front bumper. The headlight cluster suggests silvery eyes pulled back at the corners.
The tail lights, similarly shaped, wrap forward as if stretching to meet the headlights. Every detail contributes to the suggestion of shape; note, for example, how the rear window outline lifts the glass area up and away from the rear deck. Nine-spoke alloy wheels nicely complement the styling.
What you can't see is that even the underbody of the ES 300 is smooth, nearly flat. All this smoothness contributes to exceptional aerodynamic efficiency, measured by a coefficient of drag (Cd) of just 0.28.
One of the engineering objectives behind the current ES 300 was to make it the safest car in its class. Computers aided the design of the reinforced passenger compartment and of the front and rear crush zones that crumple to absorb the impact of a crash. When Lexus officials introduced the car to the automotive press, they showed a video of a crash test, a head-on impact at 40 mph. In slow motion, we saw the body rippling rearward like a wave, rolling with the crunch to the nose. The front end was totally crushed, but, remarkably, the windshield remained unbroken, and the doors could still be opened. The front seats of the ES 300 are designed to reduce whiplash, and the driver is protected by no less than three air bags.
Another design goal for the current model was to boost performance through efficiency, rather than increasing power. The 2003 model weighs 67 pounds more than the 2001, and produces the same 210 horsepower and 220 pounds-feet of torque. Yet acceleration has improved, with 60 mph now arriving from a standstill in 8.1 seconds. A drive-by-wire throttle, pioneered in the LS 430, contributes to the quicker time. So does a new five-speed automatic transmission, a new induction system, and a redesigned exhaust. Better still, the ES 300 is classified as an Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (ULEV) in all 50 states, and rates 21/29 mpg on the EPA's city/highway cycle.
Inside the Lexus ES 300, the first thing that strikes you is the purplish shade of the California walnut wood trim, which flows in a subtle T shape from the center console up to the dash then out to the back of each front door. The wood has a different look, but it harmonizes with the brushed aluminum trim. The standard steering wheel and shift lever are covered with stitched leather and look very nice. You can order an all-walnut handle for the shift lever and a part-walnut wheel for an even more prestigious appearance.
The clean instrument panel features easy-to-read analog gauges with white backgrounds. In addition to the usual indicator lights, Lexus has provided an exterior temperature gauge and an information display that covers fuel mileage, driving range and average speed. But the digital radio and climate-control displays are difficult to read in bright sunlight. The crumb-sized green light that indicates that the air conditioning is on is undetectable in the bright of day.
The glove compartment contains a trunk lock, as well as releases for the trunk lid and fuel door. The rearview mirror is a self-dimming (electrochromic) unit, with a digital compass. The console holds a storage box with a power outlet inside, and two cup holders with adjustable rings. There's a purse hanger in the front passenger footwell, and two retractable coat hooks in the rear.
The standard fabric seats offer 10-way power adjustment for the driver and eight-way adjustment for the front-seat passenger. The shape and construction of the front seats is borrowed from the Lexus flagship LS 430. The seats are very comfortable and the seating position is excellent, with lots of front-seat legroom. There are good places to brace your limbs, and a big dead pedal for your left foot. Our loaded test model came with the plush Regency leather, which is nice, but its slippery surface allowed our upper body to slide a bit in aggressive corners.
The current ES 300 is a bit larger than the previous-generation model, inside and out. Front and rear headroom are increased by 1.7 and 1.4 inches, respectively, while rear legroom has grown from 34.4 to 35.6 inches. Somehow front legroom suffered, however, shrinking from 43.5 to 42.2 inches. And despite the increased height, there doesn't seem to be an abundance of headroom; a 5-foot, 10-inch driver can touch the headliner by stretching a bit. The slope of the rear window doesn't allow a panoramic view, though it still fills the rearview mirror. The mirror is mounted so close to the headliner that adjusting it requires an awkward grab at its bottom edge.
According to Lexus, the optional third-generation DVD navigation system is state-of-the-art, designed for intuitive operation. A tilt screen and simplified graphics contribute to easier on-the-road viewing, and the system can provide multiple routes to multiple destinations for those so intuitively inclined. Route calculation is twice as fast as in pre-2002 models, and voice guidance directs you back to the route if you blow it. The database also contains the location of airports, banks, hotels, restaurants, shopping centers and even ATMs.
The Lexus ES 300 delivers a smooth, refined ride. Its highly polished suspension features a rear subframe borrowed from the LS 430 designed to reduce vibration.
Our test car had the Adaptable Variable Suspension, which continuously changes the shock absorber dampening rate at each wheel in response to road conditions, vehicle speed, and steering and braking inputs. The driver can switch among four stiffness settings, which might be overkill, especially since neither the firmest nor the softest were extreme. The firmest position wasn't harsh around town (although it was definitely stiff on a washboard gravel road), and the car didn't wallow during spirited cornering in the softest position. But the system is tuned very nicely, and provides a great ride under all conditions.
The ES 300 rolls on low, wide tires (P215/60R15). The four-wheel independent strut suspension is designed to minimize body roll, and strengthened subframes allow precise handling. The speed-sensitive power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering has a very nice touch: light, but with good feel, effortless around town.
The brakes, too, were effortless, yet sensitive. The first time we applied them, at 30 mph, we went, Whoa! We think most drivers will quickly adapt to the low effort level, and even appreciate it.
Toyota's 3.0-liter V6 was already pretty smooth, partly because the 60 degree vee between its cylinder banks was chosen for optimum balance. (Many automakers compromise with a 90 degree vee, which allows their V6 engines to be manufactured with the same tools as their V8s.) Lexus also uses sophisticated electronic engine mounts that change their vibration-dampening level as the engine speed increases.
But performance from the engine and transmission offer less to boast about. The all-aluminum, 24-valve V6 produces 210 horsepower with refinements that have made it smoother and quicker. The ES 300 accelerates decently, but it's left behind by the BMW 330i, Acura TL Type S, and Infiniti G35.
The transmission is a five-speed automatic with manual shift capability, and it's a solid advancement in technology over the four-speed automatic installed in the pre-2002 car. Aggressive upshifts are snappy, and casual upshifts are invisible, but the downshifts aren't always smooth; and we were surprised by how frequently the transmission kicked down, given the engine's healthy 222 pound-feet of torque.
The ES 300's weight distribution of 61 percent front, 39 percent rear might limit its cornering potential (that's where the Skid Control option comes in). But remember, the ES is the conservative Executive Sedan. For rakes who really enjoy driving, Lexus offers the similarly priced IS 300, with rear-wheel drive and a five-speed manual gearbox.
The 2003 Lexus ES 300 delivers a smooth, refined ride, a smooth engine, a quiet cabin, and quality construction and materials throughout. If offers bolder styling and stronger performance the pre-2002 models, and is a strong contender in its class.