by Albert Hall

Balance, refinement and more speed.

Base Price $30,905
As Tested $36,412

This is the entry-level ticket to the Lexus experience. And all of the Lexus experience is here.

The Lexus ES 300 is arguably the most refined automobile in what auto marketers call the near luxury class -- sedans that range in price from about $29,000 to $36,000. It's also quite nice to look at. Athletic sporting reflexes make the ES 300 good fun to drive, and it has more power for 1999.

Throw in dealer satisfaction that's consistently rated among the very best, and the ES 300 proves tough for other car builders to match. Over the years the ES 300 has performed with such appliance-like efficiency that auto critics have made vague claims about its lack of soul. This could really be another way of saying that the critics can't specifically find much wrong with the car.

Walkaround

The ES 300 remains the least expensive car in the Lexus line, yet like most Lexus products, its overriding characteristic is smoothness. Until Lexus launched its hot new RX 300 sport-utility vehicle in 1998, the ES 300 was always the company's best seller.

The ES 300 is actually a highly polished, more luxuriously trimmed version of the Toyota Camry, and that's no dig. The car at Lexus dealerships today was introduced in late 1996 as a 1997 model, and by now the look is familiar: frame-less windows with a blacked-out center pillar that creates the impression of a coupe; aggressive, multi-refractor headlights; perfectly matched body seams and gem-like paint. Yet the '99 ES 300 has some revisions under its steel skin. It weighs a bit less than the '98 despite a number of improvements, including a thorough reworking of the drivetrain.

This year's 3.0-liter V6 produces more power -- 10 more horsepower and 10 more foot-pounds of torque -- than it did in 1998, even though the displacement is the same. Equipped with the new variable valve-timing system (VVT-i), the revised engine also offers improved fuel efficiency and reduced emissions. The most noticeable benefit from the driver's seat is that this engine provides better low-rpm power, which is often a weakness with four-cam, multi-valve engines. About 80 percent of peak torque is available from 1600 rpm all the way to the tachometer's redline. So, no matter how fast the car is already going when the driver steps on the gas, it gets going faster in short order.

With the revised engine comes a stronger, electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission. Like the automatic, anti-lock brakes and traction control are standard equipment. Front side-impact airbags that deploy from the seat bolsters are standard along with dual front airbags.

The ES 300 offers a sophisticated electronic skid-control system as a $550 option -- something that until recently was reserved for much more expensive cars. Using a fast computer and sensors in the wheels and steering column, the skid-control system senses what the driver is trying to make the car do, then compares that to what the car is actually doing. If the driver's wishes and the car's direction of travel don't match, the system decreases engine power or applies braking force to individual wheels to help prevent loss of control.

At its base price the ES 300 is fairly well equipped, and its strengths still shine through. Yet with the preferred options on our test car, including leather, a moonroof and CD changer, the price increases a significant $6,000.

The first two recommended maintenance procedures -- basically changing the oil -- are thrown in.

The Inside Story

It's officially classified as a compact, but the ES 300 provides plenty of space for large adults in the front seats. The back seat comfortably accommodates three children, or two adults in stretches up to about 60 minutes. The trunk is good for a couple of golf bags, and larger than many in the class.

One of the Lexus trademarks has been superior fit and finish for its dashboards, door panels and other interior surfaces. The ES 300 meets that standard. None of the plastic or vinyl surfaces look hard, brittle, or cheap. Judicious use of walnut trim and an outside temperature indicator add an expensive feel. The electroluminescent gauges pop in the brightest sunlight, yet are easy on the eyes in pitch dark. Nearly all switches fall intuitively to grasp with little distraction, and they work with a firm, satisfying click. Unfortunately, the memory buttons for the driver's seat are an exception. They're small, located on the side of the seat bottom, and troublesome to work in the dark.

Most other manufacturers still mount their CD changers in the trunk. Lexus, on the other hand, has found a way to put the ES 300's changer in the dash, within easy reach of the driver or front passenger. And there's still adequate storage space for odds and ends in the cabin.

Ride & Drive

Smooth, smooth, smooth, very quiet and smooth. That's the overriding impression one takes from the ES 300, whether it's compared to a Mercedes-Benz C280, an Audi A4 or an Oldsmobile Aurora.

Noise and vibration control in the ES 300 cabin matches cars that cost $10,000 more. Its 60-degree V6 engine design is inherently smoother than a 90-degree V6. Lexus takes that a step farther with electronically controlled engine mounts that change dampening rates as engine speed increases and decreases.

With variable valve timing, there's a deep well of torque at all engine speeds. Off-the-line response is improved considerably, and the ES 300's 0-60 mph times (in the high seven-second range) now rank near the top of the class. Jab the accelerator at, say, 45 mph, and the transmission drops to a lower gear immediately. The ES 300 accelerates with a nice shove in the small of the back, and 75 mph arrives in a whoosh. Its V6 is so smooth and torquey that enthusiast drivers will pine for a manual transmission.

Of course, the enthusiast driver might prefer rear-wheel drive, because it allows a car to be turned consistently using the gas pedal. The ES 300's basic handling trait is understeer -- a nice, safe condition that intuitively tells the driver to back off if he or she goes too fast into a corner. Its steering is a bit slower than that on some sports sedans, and its all-season tires limit grip in ideal conditions. Yet given those limitations, the ES 300 is surprisingly responsive when pointed down a fast, twisting road.

Tight, solid body structure is one reason. A strong unibody limits flex, and allows the ES 300's MacPherson-strut suspension to keep the tires firmly planted during aggressive cornering. This sedan doesn't lean excessively through curves, and it remains stable and predictably consistent when it changes direction quickly and repeatedly. No, the ES 300 isn't as playful or responsive as a BMW 3 Series. But the Lexus is good, clean fun, and it accelerates as fast as or faster than a number of other European sports sedans. Anyone who claims the ES 300 isn't sporty is either driving too hard, or not hard enough.

The skid-control electronics aren't a gimmick, either. Granted, nothing can overcome the laws of physics. But when a driver is surprised by slippery pavement, or a turn that tightens a little too quickly, the ES 300's anti-skid electronics can buy precious fractions of seconds. That can make the difference between a nervous moment and a serious incident. Most of the time, the system works without the driver noticing.

Occupants travel in smooth, quiet, unruffled comfort in the ES 300. They are never jarred by chunks or expansion joints in the pavement. Further, an ES 300 owner can expect fewer interruptions in the course of all the pleasant motoring. With its 18.5-gallon gas tank, this compact luxury sedan can go 400 miles or more between fill-ups.

Final Word

For the price of a well-optioned ES 300, you could buy a larger car, or one with a more powerful V8 engine, or one that sticks to the pavement longer in a high-G turn. You could buy a sedan that appears to have as much equipment and similar specifications for several thousand dollars less. But you might not find one with the balance of comfort, luxury, performance, refinement and quality finish as the ES 300. So it's not hard to understand why this sedan is one of the best sellers in its class.

If you're shopping for a $35,000 sedan, the ES 300 is worth a look, no matter your tastes or predilections.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

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