ROANOKE, Va. - A drive along freeways and back roads of Virginia in the quiet and comfortable ES 300, makes evident the raft of changes wrought to the entry-level sedan in a cushy line by Lexus, the upscale offshoot from Toyota.
As the only front-wheel-drive Lexus sedan, the midsize ES 300 looks slick and sophisticated in the smart suit it donned in 1997. For 1999, the ES packs a modified 3.0-liter V-6 engine with a few more horsepower underneath its stylish togs.
The ES 300's variable valve timing helps bump horsepower to 210.
1999 Lexus ES 300 engine
The new engine provides best-in-class muscle of 210 hp. Variable valve timing for intake and exhaust enables the plant to muster healthy low-end torque for quick acceleration but still earn efficient fuel economy rates. A new intelligent electronic four-speed automatic transmission also drops into the ES to make the best use of the added power.
Optional controls for suspension and stability
In addition, the car offers sophisticated new equipment such as an adaptive variable suspension system (optional) and the Lexus vehicle stability control system - VSC - which compensates and corrects for lateral skidding.
The adaptive suspension amounts to a semi-active damping system with sensors on-board to measure irregularities of a road surface, the vehicle's speed, braking and steering input from driver, plus any vertical movement of the chassis. A computer analyzes this data, then makes instantaneous changes for each wheel's shock absorber settings and continuously adapts the suspension to maintain smooth and comfortable ride characteristics.
The VSC device integrates anti-lock brakes and traction control to correct oversteer or understeer when cornering, and can actually pull the vehicle back on to the proper path without driver intervention.
1999 Lexus ES
A number of new convenience features also apply to the ES 300 now, including ten-way power adjustments for the driver's bucket seat with two memory settings, and a front passenger seat with eight-way power controls. Front windows and the optional moonroof now have a one-touch down feature for opening and closing, and a twist to the key on the left-side door lock will lower all windows and open the moonroof.
New options for the ES 300 include a six-disc CD changer mounted in the glove box and a Nakamichi audiophile system with 215 watts of power and multiple speakers.
These fine-tuning measures elevate the plush Lexus hauler to near limousine luxury, while preserving the sporty handling that distinguishes it from its larger stablemates.
A generation of change
The ES 300 looks slick and sophisticated, and its lines flow in a streamlined way, thanks to a 1997 redesign that increased the overall size of the vehicle, with a wider track and longer wheelbase and body.
As is usual with Lexus, the quality, fit and finish will impress the scrutinizing eye, as it rivals that ultimate Lexus sedan, the LS 400. The ES's safety systems also impress, beginning with twin airbags for front riders as well as side-impact protection from an airbag mounted to the outboard edge of each front seatback. A three-channel anti-lock device links to the four disc brakes, and traction control is now standard gear.
With its slant toward luxury, plush comforts are at hand inside ES 300. Power controls attach to virtually everything. We were able to customize the bucket seat to a precise fit. What's more, the knobs and buttons on driver's armrest, center console and dash seemed ergonomically ideal, and the console added an armrest which fit just right.
The back-door entry into a luxury line
Lexus offers the ES 300 as a less costly alternative to the LS 400 sedan. Differences between these two cars have more to do with down-scaling of physical dimensions than anything else because the smaller sedan still provides sophisticated luxury features and eye-popping novelties, such as electro-luminescent analog instruments which seem to float in three-dimensional glow.
1999 Lexus ES
Climb inside, shut all doors and you'll seal yourself in an isolation chamber shrouded in heavy layers of sound-deadening materials No other automaker does a better job of isolating passengers in a quiet cabin virtually removed from harsh external noise and free from inherent machinery vibrations. Credit a unitized chassis, which produces a stiff platform and helps eliminate sound-intensive rattles typical of lesser cars.
For a vehicle canted toward luxury, the ES 300 is surprisingly fun to drive. The ride quality feels delightful. That stiff chassis forms a solid platform to attach a fully independent MacPherson strut-type suspension which has been set up impart a gentle ride and allow sporty response through the rack-and-pinion steering mechanism. The front and rear suspensions permit the ES to act aggressively agile, as proved on too many of Virginia's tight mountain turns.
The car seems remarkably complete in base form, too, with important safety gear like the anti-lock brakes and traction control already aboard, plus such conveniences as air conditioning and an automatic climate control system, heated exterior rearview mirrors, a theft-deterrent system, automatic headlamps, and remote keyless entry system.
Pricing for current editions begins at $30,790, with $495 added for delivery to a Lexus dealer. Options include the adaptive variable suspension ($620), leather seat upholstery ($1,835), power moonroof ($1,000), the Nakamichi sound system ($1,630), 6-disc CD changer ($1,080), and chrome wheels ($1,700).