SEE ALSO: Lexus Rover Buyer's Guide
Lexus has been a phenomenal success story, going from introduction to luxury segment benchmark in under a decade. The company's LS400 premium luxury sedan could be seen as the car that forced the German competition to increase comfort in their luxury cars, and to add amenities such as cupholders. Lexus's RX300 sport-utility vehicle established that genre as a major player in the mid-priced luxury market. And the ES300 continues to be an important competitor in the $30,000 to $40,000 "entry-luxury" category. In the past, the ES300 has been lauded for its comfort and quietness, and criticized for a lack of character and performance. The second-generation ES, introduced in 1997, went a long way towards quelling those criticisms, with more power from its 3.0- liter V6 engine and a sportier attitude. But Lexus's corporate motto, "the relentless pursuit of perfection," is not just an empty slogan, it is the company's attitude toward building cars. And so, the ES300 received a major performance boost from the incorporation of variable valve timing into its engine in 1999, and the available "Vehicle Skid Control" (VSC) stability control system. For the 2000 model year, it gets a very slight facelift and a host of convenience, safety, and performance features. A recent week with a 2000 ES300 was followed by a long- distance day in its larger sibling, the LS400. That just served to remind me of the similarities between the two. While it is true that the ES300 is built on the same platform as the Toyota Camry (or, conversely, just as true to say that the Camry is built on the same platform as the ES), the ES is far closer to the LS than to the Camry. It shares little but the basic chassis platform with the Camry, having its own unique sheet metal, engine, and interior. And, while the ES300's interior is definitely influenced by the LS, with its newly-increased power and upgraded suspension the 2000 version has more than a bit of the sporty character of the awesome Lexus GS400 sport-luxury sedan.
APPEARANCE: The difference between last year's ES300 and the 2000 model are subtle, and concentrated at the front of the car. The chrome frame around the grille is a little thicker, and there are two horizontal bars in the grille instead of three. As before, slightly- contrasting side cladding connects the front and rear bumper fascias, but the front fascia is much more aggressive. It helps define the ES's sportier character, as do five-spoke alloy wheels. The rear styling is highlighted by redesigned taillights. It has the look of conservative elegance.
COMFORT: If the 2000 ES300 is sportier on the outside and under the hood, it hasn't lost any of its Lexus luxury comfort inside. And getting in is easier, thanks to an LS-like key that integrates the remote-entry fob into the key. Once inside, the two-tone dark gray over cream design is familiar, but augmented by California walnut trim on the doors and console, and now also around the audio and climate system controls on the instrument panel. The 10-way power-adjustable driver's seat and 8-way power front passenger seat are as comfortable as expected, and the rear bench takes advantage of the ES300's size to provide true midsize space for three people. The instrument panel layout is very much like that of Lexus's premium LS400 sedan, with an instrument cluster that uses cathode-tube illumination and LED indicator needles for easy visibility and low eyestrain. Glovebox-mounted CD changers are becoming more common in luxury cars, but most sacrifice all of the space in the glovebox. Not the ES300. Its optional six-disc changer is conveniently-placed and leaves useful storage space. Elegant design and functional comfort are the hallmarks of the Lexus ES300.
SAFETY: The 2000 Lexus ES300 has a strong passenger compartment protected by front and rear crumple zones. All seating positions have three-point safety belts, and dual front and side airbags help protect front occupants. Electronic traction control, antilock brakes, and daytime running lights are standard equipment.
ROADABILITY: My test car had the optional "Adaptive Variable Suspension" (AVS), a highly-recommended semi-active system that continuously changes each shock absorber's damping rate in response to conditions. It also allows a choice of basic rates, from a soft "comfort" to a firmer "sport". The "sport" setting decreases body motion but doesn't compromise comfort, and gives the ES much improved handling response. The "Vehicle Skid Control" (VSC) stability control system now includes a brake assist feature that supplements driver pedal pressure in emergency situations. As expected, in any setting the ride is smooth, with bank-vault solidity and quietness.
PERFORMANCE: Introduced for the 1999 model year, the VVT-i version of Lexus's 3.0-liter aluminum alloy V6 makes 210 horsepower and 220 lb-ft of torque. VVT-i stands for "Variable Valve Timing with intelligence," and is an electronically-controlled mechanism that continuously varies valve timing and overlap for improved performance and decrease fuel consumption and exhaust emissions. The ES has "Low Emissions Vehicle" (LEV) status, and goes well over 20 miles per gallon even in mostly city driving. It also makes 80 percent of peak torque - 176 lb-ft - as low as 1600 rpm, for instant acceleration in any gear with a minimal need for transmission downshifting. The VVT-i system has transformed the ES300 into a quick and sporty luxury car.
CONCLUSIONS: With its upgraded engine and available adaptive suspension, the 2000 Lexus ES300 has been infused with some of the soul of Lexus's fast GS400.
SPECIFICATIONS 2000 Lexus ES300 Base Price $ 31,405 Price As Tested $ 36,101 Engine Type dual overhead cam 24-valve V6 Engine Size 3.0 liters / 183 cu. in. Horsepower 210 @ 5800 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 220 @ 4400 rpm Transmission 4-speed electronically-controlled automatic Wheelbase / Length 105.1 in. / 190.2 in. Curb Weight 3,373 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 16.1 Fuel Capacity 18.5 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular (87 octane) minimum, unleaded premium (91 octane) for best performance Tires P205/65 VR17 Goodyear Eagle GA Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent MacPherson strut Drivetrain front engine, front-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 19 / 26 / 21 0 to 60 mph 8.3 sec Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.29 OPTIONS AND CHARGES Leather trim package - includes: memory for driver's seat and outside mirrors, Homelink universal transceiver $ 1,885 In-dash 6-CD auto changer $ 1,080 Adaptive variable suspension $ 620 Vehicle skid control $ 550 Trunk mat $ 66 Destination charge $ 495