Smooth and sophisticated.

by Albert Hall

Base Price $31,405
As Tested $36,920

The ES 300 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 the so-called near luxury class -- sedans that range in price from about $29,000 to $36,000. Athletic reflexes make it fun to drive. And it's an attractive car.

For 2000, the ES 300 gets a minor styling update in the front end, plus host of safety, convenience, and luxury enhancements. It received a new powertrain 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 be another way for critics to say they couldn't find much wrong with the car.

Model Lineup

The Lexus ES 300 retails for $31,405. Only one model is available, which comes with a 3.0-liter V6 coupled to a four-speed automatic transmission.

Walkaround

The ES 300 remains the least expensive and most popular car in the Lexus line. (Only the RX 300 sport-utility out-sells the ES 300.)

The ES 300 shares its basic architecture with the highly competent Toyota Camry, but it is far more polished and more luxuriously trimmed. The ES 300 was introduced in late 1996, 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.

For 2000, the front fascia gets massaged with a new grille, featuring a wider chrome frame and two chromed horizontal bars instead of three black ones. The front bumper has been reshaped to present a more chiseled look, while High-Intensity Discharge headlights are a new option. In back, redesigned tail lamps now use clear lenses. The sharpened stance can be enhanced further with new optional 16-inch alloy wheels.

The 3.0-liter, 24-valve V6 carries over from last year with 210 horsepower and 220 foot-pounds of torque at 4400 rpm. Equipped with variable valve-timing (VVT-i), the engine provides strong low-rpm power, 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 going when the driver steps on the gas, it gets going faster in short order.

An electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission is standard, as are anti-lock brakes and traction control. 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. The Lexus Vehicle Skid Control system uses a fast computer and sensors in the wheels and steering column. When it anticipates the car is about to go out of control, the system decreases engine power or applies braking force to individual wheels to help keep the car pointed straight. An addition to the system for 2000 is Brake Assist. This feature interprets a quick, hard application of the brake pedal as emergency braking. If the driver is not pressing on the brake pedal hard enough to activate the anti-lock brakes (a common occurrence in accident situations), the system supplements the applied braking pressure to ensure maximum stopping performance.

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 by $5,000.

Interior Features

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 an hour. For 2000, the rear seats are recessed more, giving the driver a better field of view out the back. The trunk is larger than many in the class with plenty of room for a couple of golf bags.

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 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.

Improvements to the interior for 2000 include an Automatic Sound Level feature on the stereo, which adjusts volume according to ambient noise, and an auto-dimming electrochromic inside rearview mirror and driver's side-view mirror. Optional heated seats now feature two temperature settings.

Driving Impressions

Smooth, smooth, 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 changes.

With variable valve timing, there's a deep well of torque at all engine speeds. Off-the-line response is excellent, and the ES 300's 0-60 mph times (in the low eight-second range) rank near the top of the class. Jab the accelerator at around 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 predictable 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 way too hard or not hard enough.

Occupants travel in quiet, unruffled comfort in the ES 300, never jarred by expansion joints in the pavement. The refinement level goes up another notch this year with the optional ($620) Adaptive Variable Suspension system (AVS). The system continuously changes each wheel's shock absorber damping rate in response to road conditions, vehicle speed, and driver inputs. It also allows the driver to select a "sport" or "comfort" ride characteristic. Upgrades like this show that Lexus is constantly tweaking the ES 300 to offer additional sophistication.

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. 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

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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