The Lexus ES 300 is back for 2003 with no changes in its second year after a complete update just last year. It was then, and remains today, one of the best entry-level luxury cars on the market.
I wasn’t a big fan of the previous generation of the ES 300, but this new one outshines the old one, and the changes run far deeper than external appearance.
This ES 300 comes on an all-new platform — the basic architecture of the vehicle — with a wheelbase that is two inches longer than before, for better handling and more interior space (one of the few shortcomings of the previous generation).
Also, the new model is 2 1/2 half inches taller, which means that finally, tall people can fit comfortably in the ES 300 even with a sunroof installed.
There is more interior space, including more legroom in both front and rear.
The engine isn’t completely new, just much improved. Lexus took the 3.0-liter V-6 from the previous model and improved efficiency and response while reducing engine vibration.
Even though the new ES 300 has the same horsepower and torque ratings as before — 210 hp and 220 foot-pounds — both the 0-to-60 mph and quarter-mile performance figures were improved, and emissions were lowered enough to certify the new car as an "ultra-low-emissions vehicle."
The five-speed automatic transmission is brand-new, and with it comes better EPA fuel-economy ratings: 21 miles per gallon in the city and 29 mpg on the highway. That gives the ES 300 the best highway-mileage rating in its class, Lexus says.
Side-impact beams were designed for better protection in T-bone type accidents, and both side-impact air bags and a side curtain air bag system were added.
Inside, the ES 300 moved up to a new level of luxury.
The front seats, patterned after those in the LS 430, have a more comfortable profile, and include steel "S" springs like those used in fine furniture.
Luxury options include a wood-and-leather-trimmed steering wheel, one-touch open/close sunroof and a power-operated rear-window sunscreen.
An automatic door-locking system can be owner-programmed to work several ways. It can lock the doors when the transmission is shifted into drive, or when the car reaches a predetermined speed, or not at all.
Besides all of its functional changes, this newest generation of the ES 300 has much more curb appeal than before, something that was foremost in the minds of Lexus designers and engineers as they planned for this car.
They said one thing they realized early in the process was that a really emotionally stunning design is what was missing from what was otherwise a fine automobile. Like other popular cars such as the Toyota Camry (which shares its basic design and components with the ES 300) and Honda Accord, the ES 300 was a vehicle known for its impeccable quality and virtually trouble-free ownership experience.
But, just like the Camry and Accord, the car didn’t inspire the kind of emotional response that is generated by some vehicles — such as the Chrysler PT Cruiser and Volkswagen New Beetle, whose prices are way below those of any Lexus.
To fix that, the new ES 300 needed to be a head-turner, said Mike Watson, Lexus’ product education and development manager.
"The crisp, distinct styling is a clear departure from the current model, and Lexus did that for an important reason," he said. "We wanted to attract entry-luxury buyers" who weren’t even considering an ES 300.
The goal was to make the new ES 300 look more like a smaller, less-expensive version of the flagship Lexus LS 430 sedan, rather than having it, as before, look like a slightly more upscale version of the Camry.
Sort of like buying the smallest house in a subdivision full of large homes, having the ES 300 look like a junior version of the LS 430 makes it a much better value.
As a direct competitor to the Mercedes-Benz C-class, the ES 300 has an advantage in that this newest model has 10 percent more interior space than the C-class sedan, and there is more leg room both front and rear. The trunk is larger than that of the Mercedes, too.
Thanks to a new drive-by-wire throttle system pioneered in the LS 430, a redesigned cast-resin intake and acoustic-control induction system, upgraded computer software and a completely redesigned exhaust system, the engineers were able to enhance acceleration, improve fuel economy and reduce emissions at the same time, Lexus says.
Horsepower remained the same as the last generation’s at 210.
Vehicle skid control, a $650 option that was included on our test car, uses the standard antilock braking system and electronic brake-force distribution system, as well as electronic traction control, to keep the vehicle from skidding out of control during a panic maneuver.
Also included are auto-leveling high-intensity headlights, rain-sensing windshield wipers, and water-repellent front windows.
Standard features on our 2003 ES 300 (base price $31,625 plus $575 transportation) included 10-way power adjustable driver’s seat and eight-way power passenger seat, 16-inch aluminum wheels, one-touch power moon roof, dual heated outside power mirrors, power windows and door locks with remote control, tilt steering wheel and automatic climate control.
An AM/FM/cassette/single-CD audio system is standard, but our test car came with a navigation/audio system ($4,880) that included GPS satellite-based navigation with LCD screen, and a Mark Levinson audio system with six-disc CD changer.
Other options on our car included power adjustable brake and accelerator pedals ($120), a trunk mat ($69), wheel locks ($93) and a cargo net ($59). Total sticker was $38,071, including transportation.
All four windows have one-touch up and down, with a pinch-protection feature designed to keep little fingers safe.
The dual-zone automatic climate control has separate driver and front-passenger temperature controls, and a dust/pollen filter helps keep the air clean.