The whole concept of "luxury car" has become somewhat hazy. It encompasses vehicles ranging from the low $30,000s to $80,000 and up. So marketing gurus came up with the idea of "entry luxury" to differentiate the lower cost luxury cars from the high-end ones.
But what's the substantive difference -- in terms of what makes a luxury car feel or behave "luxuriously" -- between, say, the $31,505 Lexus ES300 sedan and sleds costing twice that sum?
In many ways, the differences are not so vast as the price difference might suggest -- at least, in terms of material things, such as standard equipment and trim level. Even the cheapest 2001 model-year economy cars have or offer power windows, locks and air conditioning, cruise control and good radios. And it used to be (as recently as the late 1980s) that only top-tier luxury cars had or offered such things as automatic climate control, real wood trim, high-output, multi-speaker audio systems, traction control, engines with variable valve timing -- and the tight build quality of a hand-built object d' art put together by a team of old world craftsmen.
All that and…
Well, the 2001 Lexus ES300 has all these things, or decently close approximations, included in its base price. And it can be ordered with an adjustable suspension integrated with a Vehicle Skid Control (VSC) stability system, six-disc in-dash Nakamichi CD-player, high quality leather trim, among other such goodies. As such, it is every bit a real luxury car, "entry level" or not.
The main difference between it and its pricier brethren, Lexus and otherwise, comes down to such things as the size of the standard engine and the amount of horsepower. The 2001 ES has a 210-hp 3.0-liter V-6; the "premium" luxo cars in the $50,000 and up range typically have 300-plus-horsepower V-8s.
However, many luxury car buyers simply want a responsive, smooth and quiet engine -- not a gas-guzzling, big bore tire-fryer that compresses the spine as you slip-slide away from a traffic light. Looked at another way, the Lexus ES300's V-6 has about as much power as the 3.2-liter V-6 (215 hp) used in the Mercedes E320 and the 3.0-liter six (220 hp) used in the BMW 530i -- both of which are more expensive cars, but which the Lexus nevertheless compares to pretty well, when you look at the stats.
2001 Lexus ES
Another differentiator is the extent and abundance of electronic toys, such as GPS/satellite navigation systems, elaborate stereos, top-shelf safety advances -- and again, the ES300 has a high quotient of those things; see above.
The only real aspersions one can cast the ES300's luxury car credentials are that it is the last Lexus to be based on a hum-drum Toyota platform (the ES is built on a modified version of the same basic platform as the Toyota Camry), and that it's the last one that's still front-wheel-drive -- the design characteristic of an economy-type car. Most luxury sedans -- such as all current Mercedes and BMW models -- are rear-wheel drive, which offers better balance and road feel.
The ES300 has also been around for a little while now -- the oldest model in the current Lexus product lineup, in fact. With the recent introduction of the new IS300 sport sedan, the LS430 and SC430, the GS 300/400 twins, etc., the ES300 seems almost quaint in some ways. Time is so compressed in the car business that three or four years on the market seems like a geologic epoch. So much changes, so fast.
Still, Lexus has managed to do pretty solid work with the ES300, refining and tweaking the thing until its Toyota lineage is as hard to discern as the hint of great-grandfather's carbuncled chin on a newborn. The car's ongoing popularity in its segment is testimony to this.
The 2001 ES300 also carries a hard to refuse MSRP -- pay full sticker and you're still barely out of the $30,000s. With negotiating, incentives and rebates, this car should be obtainable for under $30,000 -- a few grand more than a loaded Camry V-6. You get the luxury car, the luxury dealer experience -- and 20 more horsepower (the Camry's V-6 is pokier at 190 hp). Not bad, that.
2001 Lexus ES
It's also a car to think about if you are considering an Infiniti I30, Cadillac Catera, or Lincoln LS V-6 -- a few of the ES300's mid-size, "entry-luxury" competitors. You might also take a look if you are contemplating a BMW 3-Series, Mercedes C-Class and Audi A4. The ES300 may not be as "sporty" as these Euro sedans, but it does have virtues that make it a contender for your attention in the entry luxury segment nonetheless.
Base price range: $31,505
Engine: 3.0 liter V-6, 210 hp
Transmission: four-speed automatic, front-wheel-drive
Wheelbase: 105.1 in
Length: 190.2 in
Width: 70.5 in
Height: 54.9 in
Curb Weight: 3351 lb
EPA (cty/hwy): 19/26 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, side airbags, traction control, ABS
Major standard features: V-6 engine, climate control air conditioning, power steering, windows, locks & mirrors; cruise control, seven-speaker AM/FM stereo cassette, leather and wood trim, 10-way electric adjustable driver's seat
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles