Car reviews - Lexus - ES - ES300 sedan
Equipment, ride comfort, cabin quietness, refinement, torque
Room for improvement
Sterile interior, flat seat cushions, rear headroom, steering
24 Apr 2003
By TIM BRITTEN
AS Australia's only front-drive Lexus, the ES300 tends to blur the Japanese prestige badge's statement on engineering philosophies.
Where its rear-drive siblings clearly ape Mercedes and BMW ideas on what makes a true prestige car, the ES300 is more closely aligned to Audi themes - or Saab, Alfa Romeo or Peugeot.
When it followed the bigger, rear-drive LS400 onto the Australian market in 1992 it immediately and significantly increased Lexus sales, quickly becoming the volume-seller for the emerging Japanese prestige badge.
Its role today has changed with the arrival of more rear-drive models, including the BMW 3 Series-challenging IS200/300 model that sits comfortably as the top-selling Lexus.
The ES300 comes in at number two, even if it sells at about half the rate of its little rear-drive sibling.
That the Toyota-owned badge takes the ES300 seriously is in no doubt either. The company launched a major redesign in late 2001 that took the car well beyond its original Camry roots.
As well as a new, bigger and safer body, and a new chassis, the ES300 picked up a more powerful, 158kW (149kW in the previous car) variable valve timing engine and a five-speed automatic transmission.
The workover included a new passive safety system that added full-length "curtain" side airbags and whiplash-resisting front seats to complement the adoption of new active safety features.
These included electronic stability control as well as a new braking system incorporating brake assist (to boost brake pressure in emergency situations) and electronic brake-force distribution to aid the already standard ABS.
The mid-size Lexus, as well as flaunting a new, slab-sided exterior, got a bigger, more luxuriously fitted cabin with leather trim, satellite navigation, sunroof, rain-sensing wipers, heated front seats and a trip computer as standard.
The ES300 today comes with all the fruit - although funnily, if the delete-option satellite navigation is not selected, the Lexus owner picks up a six-disc CD changer in place of the regular single-disc system.
The ES300 is pitched against market leaders such as entry level Mercedes-Benz E-class, BMW 5 Series and aspirant players Audi (A6), Alfa Romeo (166), Saab (9-5), Honda (Legend) and Peugeot (607).
In this company it is well priced, well equipped and has the appropriate amounts of comfort and road going dynamics to compete effectively.
It is probably less handy as a driver's car than anything else in the category, except maybe Honda's ageing Legend, although the new 3.0-litre V6 does prove to be both powerful and economical, and the new suspension system is at least absorbent and comfortable.
The interior, as you would expect, is lavishly fitted out, albeit in a slightly sterile Japanese style with flattish seat cushions, tightish rear headroom and absolutely no smell of leather. But it is bigger than the previous ES300 and presents no problems accommodating at least five adults.
And the attention to detail, as has become the Lexus standard, is impeccable.
The company says fit and finish have been raised to new levels - which is saying something because this is the badge that attracted attention from long-standing luxury players Mercedes and BMW in terms of its tangible quality levels.
Certainly you have to look hard for even the slightest flaw in the way the Lexus is put together.
And, even if the ES300 is not a sports sedan by any stretch of the imagination, it proves to be as competent on the open road as it is smooth and comfortable in around-town situations.
The suspension will produce some bodyroll but the Lexus grips quite well via its new 16-inch alloy wheels and the electronic stability control system means it is more than difficult to step out of line.
Brakes, with four-channel anti-lock aided by the brake assist and brake-force distribution systems, are excellent and quite confidence inspiring. And the new engine uses its variable valve timing to extract power and efficiency to the point where it is actually one of the quickest accelerating cars in its category, as well as one of the most economical.
Its 299Nm maximum torque output is exceptionally good for a normally aspirated 3.0-litre engine.
As would be expected, the Lexus cruises very quietly with little intrusion from road noise, apart from a distant drumming on rough surfaces.
Wind noise and engine noise are virtually imperceptible and the steering has a numb feeling that helps create a feeling of separation from the road and leaches personality out of the car. Certainly the ES300 does not speak to the driver in the same sense as a prestige German marque.
There are a few details that either surprise or irritate, such as the foot-operated parking brake and the lack of a memory in the driver's electrically adjusted seat. Then again, unlike many Japanese cars, it does have a proper trip computer.
The boot is a reasonable size but offers no split-fold rear backrest and makes do with a skiport to extend luggage-carrying abilities.
Passengers will probably appreciate the ES300 more than the driver because there can be no doubt it is a comfortable car to be in and offers a reasonable amount of space in both front and rear.
All the systems in the car are aimed at making it a pleasant place to be, whether it's appreciating the quality of the seven-speaker audio system - including front tweeters, a rear-mounted woofer and a separate power amplifier - or sublimating in climate-controlled comfort.
Despite its front-wheel drivetrain, the $80,000 ES300 is still quite a different style of car to the Audis, Saabs or Alfa Romeos with which it competes.
It is very distinctly Japanese in style and presentation, and embodies the Lexus belief that everything should be made to operate as silently and unobtrusively as possible, and that trim details should be microscopically perfect.
Lexus leaves the BMW and Mercedes chasing to models like the (in-line six-cylinder) IS200/300 and GS300.
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