SEE ALSO: Lexus Rover Buyer's Guide
Although the high-profile, high-priced cars at the prestige end of the luxury segment of the automotive marketplace get most of the attention, the real money is at the other end. Cars in the $30,000 to $40,000 range, often called "near-luxury", are the volume sellers. So, it is not inaccurate to say that the "near-luxury" niche is really the mainstream of the luxury car segment. Cars in this range are doubly important as they are not only desirable cars in themselves, they introduce customers to a manufacturer's line.
The Lexus ES300 is an excellent example of the importance of the near-luxury car. It is the company's best-selling vehicle, accounting for over half of total Lexus sales. It is seen by many owners not as a stepping stone to a more expensive Lexus, but as a goal in itself. Market research showed that the original ES300 was admired for its Lexus qualities - luxury, comfort, and quietness - but criticized for a relative lack of performance and spirit. Lexus has not reached its successful position by ignoring criticism, however minor. When the second-generation ES300 was introduced this fall, the car was very much an evolutionary development, but with increased performance and even greater refinement.
I had the opportunity to drive the 1997 Lexus ES300 at the press introduction last fall in Virginia, and more recently, for a week at home. In Virginia, I was able to do a side-by-side comparison between 1996 and 1997 cars. The 1997 ES has great continuity with the previous version, but is subtly improved in every way, with better interior space utilization and a sportier character.
APPEARANCE: The ES300 has been restyled for 1997. At a casual glance, the 1997 version looks no different than the original ES300. The general shape is the same, but a close inspection reveals that no body panels carry over from 1996. The 2.4-inch increase in length is not readily apparent. Creased character lines in the front fenders, sides, and hood, chrome trim around the grille, and more pointed corners to both the headlights and side windows add up to a leaner, crisper look. The projector-beam headlights of the 1996 ES have been replaced by brighter multi-reflector lights for 1997. As before, the protective bumper fascias and lower side molding are of a contrasting color to that of the main body panels. The rear deck, rear panel, and taillights have the most continuity with the previous generation, but are all subtly different.
COMFORT: As with the exterior styling, the interior of the 1997 ES300 is only superficially similar to that of the '96 model. There is slightly more interior space, but redesigned seats, door panels, and windows help give an impression of even more spaciousness. The interior redesign is more than a restyling. Convenience and useability are improved. As an example, the parking brake control has been changed from a lever on the console to a foot pedal. A small change, but details make the difference and console access is improved. The 1997 ES300 is well-equipped in standard form, with all expected amenities, and real wood trim. The optional leather used for seats and trim is the same as is used on the LS400, and leather seats include two- position memory for the driver's side. The revised, improved rear seat is roomy, comfortable, and has cupholders, storage space, and ashtrays. The instrument panel uses an "Optitron" white cold-cathode-tube instrument cluster, which is bright and easily visible in all light conditions. Climate control and AM/FM/cassette/CD sound systems work well and easily. Console storage space has been significantly increased with a two-layer storage compartment.
SAFETY: The 1997 Lexus ES300 has a stiff safety-cage frame including energy-dissipating ribbing in the roof pillars, three-point safety belts for all occupants, dual air bags, and antilock brakes. The standard remote keyless entry system uses "rolling code" technology to prevent unauthorized access.
ROADABILITY: Not only is the 1997 ES300 is smoother and quieter than the 1996 model, it is also quicker and more nimble. Steering feel is improved. The basic suspension calibration has been revised, and the optional semi-active adaptive variable suspension system (AVS) makes the ES into a driver's car. AVS electronic wizardry allows peaceful coexistence between ride comfort and sportier handling.
PERFORMANCE: The smooth, torquey 3.0-liter, dual overhead cam, 24-valve V6 used in the 1997 ES300 carrys over from the previous generation, but has numerous internal enhancements for greater power and torque. The 4-speed electronically-controlled automatic transmission now has adaptive software logic that changes shift points depending on how the car is driven. In normal operation, shifts are extremely quick and smooth. Under hard acceleration, shifts are firmer, but never rough.
CONCLUSIONS: With increased refinement and performance, and a lower base price, the 1997 Lexus ES300 really does give "first class accommodations at a business-class price."
SPECIFICATIONS 1997 Lexus ES300 Base Price $ 29,900 Price As Tested $ 34,807 Engine Type V6, dual overhead cams, 24 valves Engine Size 3.0 liters, 181 cu. in. Horsepower 200 @ 5200 Torque (lb-ft) 214 @ 4400 Transmission 4-speed electronically-controlled automatic Wheelbase / Length 105.1 in. / 190.2 in. Curb Weight 3296 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 16.5 Fuel Capacity 18.5 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded premium Tires P205/65 R15 Goodyear Eagle GA Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / dual link independent strut Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 19/26/23 0 to 60 mph 8.6 1/4 mile (E.T.) 16.5 sec Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.29