2001 Lexus ES 300 Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Your own idealized universe.
The Lexus ES 300 delivers a seamlessly smooth and reliable driving experience. It's one of the most refined cars in the so-called near-luxury class. Add dealer satisfaction that's consistently rated among the best, and the ES 300 becomes a hard bargain to beat.
ES 300 retails for $31,505. There is only one trim level, and only one powertrain, a 3.0-liter V6 coupled to a four-speed automatic transmission.
The options list is short but includes some significant hardware, including vehicle skid control and brake assist ($550), and variable adaptive suspension ($620). New for 2001 are several optional packages, mostly combining leather trim with sound-system upgrades and other luxury items. Buyers can realize significant savings by checking off the package rather than ordering the same items a la carte.
Front side-impact airbags that deploy from the seat bolsters are standard, along with the requisite dual front airbags.
Introduced in late 1996, 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 is more stylish as well, with its frameless windows and blacked-out center pillar simulating the look of a hardtop coupe; its aggressive, multi-refractor headlights; its perfectly matched body seams and gem-like paint.
The look has become familiar, but Lexus massaged it a bit last year with a new grille, featuring a wider chrome frame and two chromed horizontal bars instead of three black ones. The front bumper was reshaped for a more chiseled look, while High-Intensity Discharge (HID) headlights became a new option. In back, redesigned tail lamps adopted clear lenses.
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. Last year, Lexus recessed the rear seats, giving the driver a better view out the back.
One of the Lexus trademarks has been superior fit and finish for its dashboards, door panels and other interior surfaces. 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 buttons for the optional memory feature on 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 optional 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.
There is even 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 feature two temperature settings.
The trunk is larger than many in the class with plenty of room for a couple of golf bags.
The overriding impression one takes from the ES 300 is that it's smooth and quiet. 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.
The 3.0-liter 24-valve V6 delivers 210 horsepower and 220 pound-feet of torque. Equipped with variable valve-timing (VVT-i), the engine provides strong low-rpm power, unlike a lot of other multi-cam, multi-valve engines. About 80 percent of the ES 300's 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. 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 four-speed electronically controlled 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.
Vehicle Skid Control ($550), the term Lexus applies to its optional electronic stability system, is something that until recently was reserved for much more expensive cars. The Lexus Vehicle Skid Control system relies on a computer and sensors in the wheels and steering column. When it anticipates the driver is losing control, it decreases engine power or applies the brakes on individual wheels to help keep the car pointed in the intended direction. It works in conjunction with the traction control system, which reduces front wheel spin when accelerating on slippery surfaces.
Vehicle Skid Control comes with Brake Assist, which 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.
ES 300 comes standard with four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes.
With front-wheel drive, the ES 300's basic handling trait is understeer, a condition that intuitively signals the driver to back off the throttle if he or she is going too fast in a corner. ES 300's steering is a bit slow compared to a true sports sedan, 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. The Lexus doesn't lean excessively through curves, and it remains stable and predictable when it changes direction quickly and repeatedly. ES 300 isn't as playful or responsive as a BMW 3 Series, but it's 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.
But the real mission of the ES 300 is quiet, unruffled comfort, where occupants are never jarred by expansion joints or uneven pavement. The refinement level goes up another notch with the optional Adaptive Variable Suspension system ($620). AVS 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 between Sport and Comfort modes.
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 better 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 another car with the same balance of comfort, luxury, performance, refinement and quality finish as the ES 300. It's easy to understand why this sedan is one of the best sellers in its class.
ES 300 ($31,505).
Options As Tested
Lexus Value Package ($1,965) includes leather interior trim, leather-wrapped steering wheel, memory driver's seat, heated outside mirrors with memory, interior air filter, Homelink integrated garage door opener, in-dash six-CD changer, power moonroof; heated front seats ($440); Vehicle Skid Control ($550) includes Brake Assist.
ES 300 ($31,505).
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