Updating a solid seller like the Lexus ES300 is an inherently dicey proposition. On the one hand, you don't want to mess up what has been a successful and proven formula; the very affordable ($31,505 for the 2001 model) ES300 has brought many first-time buyers into the Lexus fold and kept them there — people who have subsequently moved on and up to more expensive models, such as the GS series and LS430, as the years have rolled by.
But at the same time, staying still in a business where a 24-month product cycle is becoming common is perhaps even more dangerous. Leave things as they have been for too long and the world will pass you by like a diesel locomotive run amok.
So Lexus really had no choice about refitting and re-engineering its popular entry-luxury sedan, which has been on the market in its present form for several years now.
The question is — what do you think of it?
The new car, slated for an October introduction as a 2002 model, is a sleek transformation, a J-turn from the previous, more conservatively styled ES300. The roof, for one thing, is cut low, with an almost fastback rear glass area — sort of like an early '70s Mach 1 Mustang and very sharp — while the nose, with its swept-back, High-Intensity Discharge (HID) lights, shares its big-eyed and teeth-bared barracuda theme with the just-launched SC430 coupe.
Engineering-wise, two inches have been added to the wheelbase, so the 2002 ES300 is longer (and also roomier inside) than its predecessor. And while the '02 ES will, as before, share its basic platform with the lesser Toyota Camry (see the new Camry in this week’s Spy Shots) the '02 ES300 separates itself from its lesser kin by swaddling its owner with features and equipment neither offered nor available on the Camry.
2002 Lexus ES
These include: variable valve timing (VVTi) for the 3-liter, 210-hp DOHC V-6 engine, an adaptive five-speed automatic with manual shift feature, 16-inch rims, water repellent glass, dual zone climate control with filtration system, real Walnut wood trim, front and rear seat curtain-type airbags, auto-dimming, electro-chromatic inside and outside rear view mirrors, plus an optionally available touch-screen DVD-based satellite navigation system that, based on first impressions, is the equal of the system used by Acura in its cars, the best in the industry at the moment, in terms of ease of use.
The '02 ES will also offer, for the first time, the premium Mark Levinson audio system (people pay up to $100,000 for these custom-made, hoochey-koochie set-ups for their homes) first offered on the LS430 and other high-end Lexus models, with integrated multi-disc CD and tape player, plus many woofers and tweeters tied into an amplifier that will do justice to your favorite recording of Beethoven's Ninth.
Optional gear on the '02 ES -- likewise stuff that will not be offered on the Camry — includes high-end "Regency" leather for the seats and door panels, a beautifully finished wood and leather-trimmed sport steering wheel, rain-sensing wipers, an Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS) and Vehicle Skid Control (VSC) stability system, six-disc CD autochanger, and a power rear sunshade — the kind of stuff found on top-tier luxury models such as the $54,205 LS430 sedan. Adjustable pedals are going to be available, too — or will be, by January 2002, says Lexus.
On the downside — and this depends on your viewpoint and priorities — the
'02 ES300 continues as a front-wheel-driver, in contrast to its major competitors, the rear-drive BMW 3-Series, Mercedes C-Class, and even the Cadillac Catera. It continues to be motivated by, more or less, the same 210-hp 3.0-liter V-6 as used in the current (2001) ES300.
However, the new ES has a five speed automatic with tighter gear spacing than the four-speed box used on the '01 ES300, so the V-6 responds quite well, its so-so 210-hp rating notwithstanding. Lexus claims 0-60 times of about eight seconds flat, which is decently quick for this class, though slower than the BMW 3-Series and Audi A4 2.8.
2002 Lexus ES
The front-drive platform was dictated, as you might surmise, by the need to share essentials with the Camry. And the front-drive has advantages, such as in light snow or in rain, because the front-drive configuration offers superior traction in these conditions and is more "controllable" (and hence, less likely to result in an accident) for the average driver.
On the other hand, rear-drive is the ticket for those who value optimal performance and handling, because (a) the weight of the vehicle's powertrain is more evenly distributed, rather than being concentrated toward the front of the car, and (b) because on a rear-drive car, the front wheels do not have to deal with accelerating, as well as providing directional control, at the same time.
So on this point, it's a toss-up. Drivers who prefer ultimate handling and performance will probably continue to prefer the BMW 3-Series or the C-Class
Benz (which, incidentally, also offers a six-speed manual while the Lexus remains an automatic only machine).
But those looking more for a balance between absolute performance and day-to-day livability may find the sharp-looking ES300 to be nearly perfect. It's certainly a worthy alternative to the Audi A4, Acura 3.2 TL, and Infiniti I30 — all three of which are also front-drive, comparably priced — and fairly similar in the aggressiveness of their styling and the technology/features/equipment they offer.
Besides, Lexus has a ready alternative of its own for the hard-core performance enthusiast: the rear drive IS 300, which is now available with a five-speed gearbox, too.
No firm quote yet on pricing for the '02 ES300, but Lexus officials suggest the car will be priced in "the low $30s,” or close to the level of the current car, which carries an MSRP of $31,505.
2002 Lexus ES300
Base price range: $31,500-$33,500 (est.)
Engine: 3.0-liter V-6 with variable valve timing, 210-hp
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, front wheel drive
Wheelbase: 107.1 in
Length: 191.1 in
Width: 71.3 in
Height: 57.3 in
Curb weight: 3439 lb
EPA (cty/hwy): 21/29 (est.)
Safety equipment: Dual stage front airbags, side curtain airbags front and
rear, Brake Assist and traction control, anti-lock brakes
Major standard features: Dual-zone climate control air conditioning w/filtration system, power steering, windows, locks & mirrors; cruise control, keyless remote entry, auto-dimming mirrors, 16-inch alloy rims w/V-rated, all-season tires
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles