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SEE ALSO: Lexus Rover Buyer's Guide

New Car/Review

1997 Lexus ES300

by John Heilig

SPECIFICATIONS

ENGINE:             3.0-liter V-6
HORSEPOWER/TORQUE:  200hp @ 5,200 rpm/214 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm
TRANSMISSION:       Four-speed automatic
FUEL ECONOMY:       19 mpg city, 26 mpg highway, 17.9 mpg test
WHEELBASE:          105.1 in.
OVERALL LENGTH:     190.2 in.
OVERALL HEIGHT:     54.9 in.
OVERALL WIDTH:      70.5 in.
CURB WEIGHT:        3,296 lbs 
FUEL CAPACITY:      18.5 gal.
LUGGAGE CAPACITY:   13.0 cu. ft.
TIRES:              205/65VR15
INSTRUMENTS:        Speedometer, tachometer, fuel level, 
                    water temperature, digital clock.
EQUIPMENT:          Power windows, power door locks, 
                    power mirrors, cruise control, 
                    air conditioner, AM-FM stereo 
                    radio with cassette, anti-lock 
                    braking, dual air bags.
STICKER PRICE:      $30,485 (base)

Toyota builds two cars off the "Camry" chassis--the Toyota Camry and the Lexus ES300. Strangely enough, the two cars are about as different as they come.

The Camry is a very nice full-size sedan in the Toyota mode. It is very well built, and is one of Toyota's "American" cars, being built in Georgetown, KY. It's also popular. More than 300,000 were built in 1996, for example.

The Lexus, however, is built on a Lexus mode. To be perfectly honest, the first time I drove the ES300 I had to check to be sure I wasn't in the bigger LS400. The ES300 approaches silence levels, when it's running, of the LS400, which is a compliment. There is a slight amount of road noise. You hear the bumps more than you feel them. And you hear a slight amount of tire noise. It is a very quiet-running car, much quieter than the Camry.

The similarity with the LS400 exists in the instrument panel as well. You turn the key and the red needles light up on a black background. Then the background lights up with the gauges to match the needles. Instrumentation consists of the standard four of speedometer, tachometer, fuel and water gauges, but the light show that accompanies them is very much like what you'd find in the LS.

In normal operation, the ES300 is a "basic" car, except for the silence and great performance. It is powered by a 3.0-liter V-6 that drives the front wheels through a four-speed automatic transmission. The engine is rated at 200 horsepower, which is a good number. There was more than enough power to do anything I wanted to do at any time. There was one day during our run when we had to cover a lot of miles in a short period of time to make appointments that were unfortunately scheduled too close together. I was able to "fly" between the appointments and even take a shower.

The shower was necessary because the ES300's trunk holds two golf bags. It might even hold a third, but we didn't check it. One of those "appointments" was a round on a course a half hour away from home. The trunk is only rated at 13 cubic feet, but all the space was useful. To protect you when you're loading or unloading, the trunk lid is held up by hydraulic struts.

Inside, the ES300 has all the luxury touches you'd expect from a Lexus, including wood trim. Seats are leather-faced, and there's a power sunroof. Rear seat leg room is excellent and you can fit five people in comfort in the ES300. The center rear passenger will have a slight battle with the tunnel, but it's a winnable battle.

Handling is also excellent. The ES300 uses an optional Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS) system that is based on the LS400's semi-active air suspension. AVS monitors engine and vehicle speed, steering wheel movement, braking, acceleration and the vehicle's vertical motions to control shock absorber damping to match road and driving conditions. Therefore, each wheel's suspension can adjust itself continuously over each bump.

Our race between appointments took us on an assortment of roads from twisty back country to Interstate to rural. In fact, we had to make one U-turn on a busy street and I was impressed with the ES300's tight turning radius.

Under the hood, everything is within easy reach, although the spark plugs are hidden by the neat Lexus valve covers. The engine oil and transmission dipsticks are clearly labeled and are right in front to make fluid checking easy. In addition, the fluid tanks are easy to find and fill.

The only major complaint I had with the ES300 was that the footbrake was too easy to hit when entering the car. Under the footbrake is a nice dead pedal to rest your foot, so the two probably balance out.

All in all, the ES300 is a nice solid vehicle built in the Lexus mode. Even though it's almost identical to the Camry, it's a much better car than the Camry. It's hard to believe the cars are built by the same company.

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