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New models - Lexus - ES

First Oz drive: Lexus ES300 moves up a class

Baby LS430: Lexus has moved the ES300 upmarket with the addition of features previously found on its more expensive models.

Lexus makes substantial changes - inside and out - as the ES300 goes more upmarket

17 Oct 2001

LEXUS has completed its new model trilogy with the release of the all-new ES300 middle-luxury sedan.

Coming hot on the heels of the IS300 and stylish SC430 convertible, the ES300 is part of a revitalised assault by Lexus on the lower reaches of the luxury car segment.

The ES300 was once the entry level model in the Lexus range, but it suffered from the stigma of being seen as little more than a luxury Camry.

Now that the IS models kick-off the Lexus product line, the company has chosen to push the ES further upmarket. It sees the ES300 as providing a direct path for buyers into the upper luxury market and so refers to the new model as "baby LS430".

The sole ES300 model is priced at $79,950, an increase of 5.1 per cent over the outgoing model, although with the DVD-based satellite navigation system fitted the price rises to $84,900 and it is expected most buyers will tick that box.

The new model not only looks completely different from its predecessor, as well as being longer, wider and taller, but there are substantial differences beneath the skin.

The ES300's 3.0-litre V6 engine is now in its third generation and has adopted VVT-i (infinitely variable valve timing with intelligence) technology as well as a three-stage acoustic controlled induction system (ACIS), which varies the effective inlet length to maximise torque at all engine speeds. The superseded model had a two-stage system.

VVT-i is now standard across the Lexus passenger car range, as the ES300 was the last model to pick-up the system. Other engine changes are reported by Lexus to have improved fuel efficiency as well as lowering emissions.

The new engine produces 158kW of power at 5800rpm and 299Nm of torque at 4400rpm, which represent increases of 9kW and 9Nm on the second generation engine.

Matched to the engine is a five-speed automatic transmission with a gated-shift as per the LS430.

The brake package is all-new with larger diameter ventilated discs on the front and twin piston callipers, while the rear discs are now thicker.

The suspension and steering hardware have been redesigned to suit the longer wheelbase and wider track of the new car.

Wheel/tyre size has been increased, moving up to 16-inch for the first time with 60-series profile tyres. Despite the longer wheelbase, the turning circle has remained virtually the same courtesy of an increased wheel turning angle.

Vehicle stability control (VSC) has also filtered through to the ES model, making it the last car in the range to receive this feature as well. In fact the ES300 now has the full Lexus active safety package of VSC, traction control, ABS with electronic brake force distribution (EBD) and Brake Assist.

Lexus's goal with the new ES300 was to make it the "global best in class in both active and passive safety", according to the car's chief engineer Kosaku Yamada.

So the full complement of passive safety features is also part of the ES300's specification, with the addition of front and rear curtain-shield airbags.

Interior space has increased in line with the larger exterior dimensions, with improvements to rear legroom, shoulder room and front headroom.

In light of its new status as the baby LS430, the equipment level of the ES300 has moved up a notch, gaining features previously found only on the premium GS and LS models, such as:
  • Heated front seats
  • Dual zone climate control air-conditioning
  • Rain-sensing windscreen wipers
  • Wood/leather steering wheel
  • Self-illuminating "optitron" instrumentation
  • Electric rear window sunshade
Although Lexus has only sold 232 ES300s in the past 12 months, it is forecasting sales of 800 units of the new model in 2002.

The company expects the mid-range contender to help push total sales for the marque to 3300 units, up from the 2500 sales it is banking on for this year. To date Lexus has recorded 1532 sales but the company believes it will move 1000 units between now and the end of the year.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

LEXUS claims it took an aggressive approach to styling the new ES300 in an effort to "generate emotion".

It certainly does generate a strong response from people who see it, but not always as favourable as Lexus might have hoped.

From most angles it looks decidedly ungainly with its slab sides, narrow glasshouse and bulbous wheel arch treatment creating a sense of excess, rather than just solidity.

Even with the largest wheel/tyre combination the model has yet worn (16-inch wheels), in visual terms it really needs 17 or 18-inch items to fill out the guards and give it a more flattering stance.

The GS300 was previously the stand-alone model of the Lexus family when it came to styling, but next to the ES300 it comes across as relatively conventional.

The ES300's best view is from full front where the headlight, bonnet and grille treatments reflect the themes introduced on the SC430.

Despite the level of development the ES300 has undergone and all the changes that have ensued, the driving experience was less than impressive.

The 5.5 per cent (about 80kg) increase in kerb weight is matched on paper by the power and torque gains from the new engine, but on the road the changes do not equate.

The car feels much heavier than the previous model and less lively in its performance, while the steering is devoid of feel and contributes to a sense of being removed from the act of driving.

But the car is quiet in typical Lexus traditions and offers a taste of the luxury found in the bigger, more expensive LS430.

A full road test in the coming months will tell the full story of whether Lexus has improved the breed and succeeded in moving upmarket with its controversially styled ES300, or whether it has missed the mark and is destined to remain a low-volume player in the luxury segment.

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