Panic. Eyes wild with speculation. That sinking feeling when you know that you've tried your best, yet it wasn't good enough, it never really was. The bottom drops out of the market; your highest hopes and desires are dashed like mere driftwood onto razor-sharp crags of an unmerciful ocean. You look around you, and see others in the same predicament. Has everyone lost his job? Is the whole world in a recession? Who will shoot the bear with a tranquilizer dart and arouse the bull from its seemingly endless slumber?
Rest assured (ha ha), there are those out there with plenty of money from lucrative employment. And through the windy sea, we see an oasis of calm, a steady structure impervious to the fluctuations of the capricious economy in the form of a luxury car market that has burgeoned despite flagging Nasdaq ratings. There are luxury cars to be built and plenty of people to buy them.
These are salad days for the folks at Lexus, which has surpassed stalwarts Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac and Lincoln as the best-selling luxury brand in America. Within a one-year span, the company revived its entire car line with the excellent LS 430 (which now hogs one-third of the super luxury sedan market), the brand-new IS 300 and SC 430, and the shoehorning of the buttery 4.3-liter V8 into the GS. Now Lexus' bread-and-butter sedan, the ES, is the beneficiary of a redo.
The ES 250 was billed by Lexus as an Executive Sedan when it was first introduced in 1990. We're certain that all executives appreciated a thinly veiled Toyota Camry with a price premium (although it worked; Lexus sold enough of them to raise brand awareness). Admittedly, it was a stopgap plan, and Lexus completely redesigned the ES 300 in 1992, still basing it on the Camry platform, but with much more distinctive styling.
Like its predecessor, the 2002 ES 300, now in its third iteration, shares its basic architecture with the redesigned 2002 Toyota Camry, though its appointments reflect the high levels of comfort, convenience and refinement that have become trademarks of Lexus luxury. Along with the IS 300, Lexus is mounting a two-pronged attack on the entry-level luxury sedan battlefield. Whereas the IS evokes pure exhilaration of motion, the ES 300 is more about providing a sedate, composed ride.
"We don't have to develop a car that tries to be all things to all people," Lexus group Vice President Denny Clements stated, and we feel that there's a certain amount of honor in acknowledging a car's limitations. Many people simply don't give a fig about the performance potential of an automobile. A car is a conveyance, not a form of entertainment, and if they're lucky enough, their vehicle will also convey to onlookers the idea that they've achieved a certain level of success. For those consumers, the ES 300 will have tremendous appeal.
Touting the car as a "baby LS 430" (lacks the elocutionary élan of "baby Jag" or "baby Benz," doesn't it?), Lexus increased the ES 300's luxury quotient by emulating its big brother in terms of feature content. While its basic underpinnings haven't changed, the wheelbase has been stretched 2 inches and its profile heightened 2.4 inches, greatly increasing headroom; customer service had complaints from fez-sporting Shriners, apparently.
The big news is its new duds. We see that Lexus has taken the trend of the triangular headlamps endemic to the Celica and the Acura RSX, giving the front fascia a pulled-back look, as if a ponytail had been tightened. While it has raised some sardonic comments from our staff ("It looks like a Prius, an Avalon, a Paseo," take your pick of current and former Toyotas), at least there's virtue in arousing some form of emotion.
Still powering the ES is the 3.0-liter VVT-i V6 engine, which produces 210 horsepower and 220 pound-feet of torque. This is the same V6 that motivates the prosaic Camry, but with a few minor tweaks to make 18 more ponies. There's nothing wrong with the engine, with its smooth, quiet operation, but compared with some of its competitors with similar displacement and power rating (Lexus cites the Mercedes C320 as a rival), you feel that Lexus could have done more with the powerplant. At least it meets ULEV (Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle) specifications.
The V6 has been mated to a new transmission, upgraded from a four-speed to a closer-ratio five-gear unit. Upshifts are crisp enough, but downshifts are sludgy and come only after the car thinks about it for a while. Under most normal driving circumstances, it's perfectly acceptable, but trying to wring some spirit out of the ES 300 is more of an exercise in futility; it's as if some goblin had poured butterscotch sauce into the fluid reservoir. This could be attributed to our test car's status as a prototype vehicle; future production units could be in for more fine-tuning.
Piloting the ES 300 around the hills of San Mateo, Calif., we noted the smooth, overboosted nature of the steering rack; it was exceedingly easy to pull in and out of parking lots. As most front-wheel-drive, nose-heavy vehicles will, the ES was subject to understeer and a healthy dose of front-end plow. To address torque steer, Lexus made modifications to the steering rack, and we noted the absence of this intrusive characteristic common to most front-wheel-drive cars powered by 200-plus horses.
Like most Toyota products, the excellent brakes offered no-nonsense halting power with perfect pedal modulation. The discs are ventilated up front and solid in the rear, and to increase the safety quotient, an army of active safety systems (and their impressive acronyms) stand guard. Electronic Brake Force Distribution (EBD) monitors vehicle load and adjusts braking power accordingly. The optional Vehicle Skid Control (VSC) supplements the traction control (TRAC) to sense wheel slippage and apply brakes to the misbehaving wheel, returning the car to its intended course. In case you didn't stomp on the brake pedal hard enough to engage the ABS, Brake Assist will kick in to stop the vehicle expediently.
The ES 300 rides on a MacPherson strut front and multilink rear suspension tuned for comfortable cruising. Around town, it floats plenty and absorbs road anomalies, providing a cushion-soft ride. For those who prefer a tad more road feel, Lexus provides an optional Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS), adjustable through a switch next to the gearbox. This feature has been improved to control damping on both front MacPherson struts independently, rather than concurrently. The difference in ride quality was discernable enough to deem it a worthy component.
Again, consumers interested in the ES 300 don't care so much about its athleticism as its ability to coddle. Lexus has paid plenty of attention to this, and it shows. Our test car allowed the driver to be ensconced in a power-adjustable, heated seat covered in soft Regency leather, the same as in the LS 430. Its myriad of functions allowed for a high degree of comfort, with enough lateral and side support, power-adjustable lumbar support and articulating headrests, although the steering wheel lacks a telescoping feature. Occupants of the cabin are also treated to the same California burled walnut that graces other Lexus models as a standard feature. Optional are a wood-and-leather steering wheel and a one-touch open/close sunroof.
You may have noticed that we keep invoking the LS 430. Another optional component that has trickled its way down the Lexus bloodline is the truly marvelous Mark Levinson sound system. Aside from amazing sound quality, the system includes a six-disc in-dash CD changer. You can opt for a non-Levinson six-disc changer, as well.
The new ES 300 also benefits from Lexus' excellent navigation system, which, in this writer's humble opinion, spanks the systems of its competitors in terms of ease of use and quickness of computation. The DVD-based system shows byways and backways of the 48 contiguous states on one disc, and the voice of the Lexus lady who gives you instructions sounds so polite and friendly that you feel like asking her to be your child's godmother. Amongst others, the system stores the addresses and phone numbers of 2,403 Thai food joints and 2,378 brew pubs, but it doesn't tell you if the service staff is particularly attractive or not. If you opt for the nav system and a six-disc changer, the changer cartridge will be located in the center console, but will still have a single-disc feeder and a tape player behind the navigation screen, so you'll be able to access seven discs.
Further spiffifying the ES are the available self-leveling xenon headlamp package that includes rain-sensing wipers, and a power rear sunshade. Built-in luxury touches include a trip computer, a rearview mirror that features a compass, dual-zone climate control with an air filtration system, HomeLink and one-touch up and down windows. And to measure up to the other vehicles in this class, Lexus has installed full side curtain airbags for both front and rear passengers to protect precious noggins from impacting the side windows during a serious collision.
As of press time, Lexus had not released the price for these cars, but speculated a range in the low to mid $30,000. Many of the above-mentioned features are pricey options, however, and we can see the sticker price quickly mushrooming as you make your ES more like an LS.
Lexus seems to have hired a fortuneteller with the ability to predict exactly what the car buyer wants; goodness knows that it's selling enough of its automobiles. And by all indications, the company will have another home run on its hands with the 2002 ES 300.
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