Although unremarkable in styling and personality, the Lexus ES 300 occupied an important place in the Lexus lineup during its 12-year run from 1992-2003. While the company's high-tech LS flagship enjoyed greater fame, the relatively affordable ES sedan was the car most consumers test-drove when they arrived at Lexus dealerships. It was the epitome of the entry-level luxury sedan -- and the sustained success of the Lexus brand likely has much to do with all the good first impressions the ES 300 made.
While Lexus sold three generations of the ES 300, those initial impressions remained remarkably consistent: Pick any year and you'd find a roomy, well-built midsize sedan that felt uncommonly luxurious for its price point. A quick drive would have revealed an astonishingly serene cabin, a supple ride quality and a refined, if uninspiring drivetrain. As such, the Lexus ES was close to the ideal car for harried commuters pulling down a comfortable salary. When it turned out to be extremely reliable as well, the ES 300's reputation as a low-maintenance entry-luxury sedan was assured.
Most Recent Lexus ES 300
The third and final generation of the Lexus ES 300 lasted only two years, 2002 and '03, as a midcycle refresh brought a larger V6 engine, necessitating a name change to ES 330. Like the ES 300s before it, this one was a midsize, front-wheel-drive sedan, heavily based on the Toyota Camry.
The two shared most basic components, but the Lexus had a more potent version of the 3.0-liter V6 with 210 horsepower and 220 pound-feet of torque (compared to 192 hp and 209 lb-ft in the Toyota), as well as a five-speed automatic transmission instead of a four-speed. Suspension tuning was also a bit different, and only the Lexus could be fitted with optional adaptive shock absorbers. More obvious to most buyers were the ES 300's unique styling cues, higher-grade interior materials and longer list of amenities.
Major standard equipment on the Lexus ES 300 included 16-inch alloy wheels, a moonroof, power-adjustable front seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, a seven-speaker CD/cassette audio system, faux walnut cabin accents and a full set of auto-dimming mirrors and one-touch up/down windows. Also standard were front-seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags, but you had to pay extra to get stability control.
Leather upholstery was technically optional, but you'll be hard-pressed to find a used Lexus ES 300 with cloth. Among the other available extras were HID headlights, a premium-grade Mark Levinson audio system, a DVD-based navigation system, heated front seats and a wood/leather steering wheel. A CD changer was also available and could be located in the dash or the center console, depending on whether it was ordered with the nav system. The only equipment difference between the 2002 and '03 models was the possibility of ordering adjustable pedals on the latter.
In road tests of the ES 300, editors noted that it was a refined and elegant car well suited for those who wanted a focused luxury sedan, rather than a sport sedan. "There is tremendous value to be had in the Lexus ES 300," we wrote. "The interior makes the owner feel like he spent $70,000 rather than $35,000. It's roomy enough, powerful enough and comfortable enough with a suspension that can tame a winding road as easily as it can a potholed parkway. No, this is not a direct competitor to the BMW 3 Series. But the ES sure makes for a convincing argument to pass over a Mercedes-Benz C-Class."
The only significant complaint you'll hear from our editors and Lexus ES 300 owners involves transmission performance. The five-speed automatic shifted smoothly in normal traffic situations, but when the car was driven more aggressively, it responded with harsh upshifts and delayed downshifts.
Past Lexus ES 300 models
Consumers shopping for a used ES 300 will find plenty of examples from the previous generation, sold from 1997-2001. This was the first ES sedan to distinguish itself from its workaday Camry sibling, and it did this with an extra dose of horsepower, sleeker styling and additional luxury content.
Initially, the ES 300's all-aluminum 3.0-liter V6 offered 200 hp; however, in 1999, Lexus installed a heavily revised version of this engine equipped with variable valve timing. In addition to 10 more hp, the new V6 delivered more torque and lower emissions. A four-speed automatic was standard throughout the run, but Lexus changed the gearing in '99 to take advantage of the engine's broader power band.
Judged by today's standards, this Lexus ES 300 will undoubtedly seem light on amenities, though all models came with alloy wheels, power front seats, automatic climate control and full power accessories. Leather upholstery was optional, as was a CD player. Safety-minded buyers will probably want to skip right to the 1998 model year, as this was when the ES received side airbags and reduced-force front airbags. A premium Nakamichi audio system joined the options list that year, followed by stability control in 1999 and HID headlights in 2000.
Like its successor, the 1997-2001 ES 300 was a comfortable, capable entry-level luxury car with no sport-sedan pretensions. "If your daily commute is primarily straight-line freeway travel, and you're looking for the most luxury for the least money, the Lexus ES 300 scores top marks," we wrote at the time. "But if you're the type of driver who not only uses curvy roads, but also seeks them out, the Lexus will leave you unimpressed. It's not that the car can't go around corners. It actually does quite well when pushed. But nothing about the car, with the possible exception of its killer brakes, inspires performance driving."
The original Lexus ES 300 was sold from 1992-'96. It was a more obvious Camry clone than subsequent ES 300s but was quite popular with consumers nonetheless. Early models had a 3.0-liter V6 rated at 185 hp. In '94, Lexus fitted the car with a new aluminum-block, 3.0-liter engine good for 188 hp and a significant bump in torque. Although a five-speed manual was standard on 1992 and '93 models, the vast majority of ES 300s from this generation were sold with a four-speed automatic.
Standard equipment included antilock brakes, automatic climate control, an eight-speaker cassette stereo, full power accessories and walnut interior trim. A passenger-side front airbag was added for '94. Leather upholstery, a moonroof and a CD changer were optional throughout the run.
If you encounter an ES sedan built before 1992, it's the ES 250, sold in 1990 and '91 only. A hasty rebadging of the Camry from that era, this car didn't really live up to its luxury billing.