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2002 Lexus ES 300 Road Test

By CharlesOfria

Category: $30,000 to $35,000 Near Luxury Sedan
Who should buy this car: A person who is looking for a mid-sized sedan that is a cut above the average sedan in styling, comfort, luxury & performance.
Comparable cars in this class: Acura 3.2 TL,  Audi A6, Cadillac Catera, Infiniti I30, Lincoln LS, Mazda Millenia, Volvo S60
Every time Lexus has a press preview for a new car, I approachthe event with great expectations.  Thislatest debut, the fourth in less than a year, was held at the Foxwoods Hotel andCasino, a large complex built on an Indianreservation where Connecticut anti-gambling laws are powerless to stop theinflux of visitors with gambling fever.  This resortis surrounded by rural farmlands and meandering roads, a perfect setting for afirst-time evaluation of a new vehicle.

For the introduction of the ES 300, Lexus brought out about a dozenpre-production prototypes so that we could see them, drive them and kick their tires.  Thispilot production run is the final step towards a full production automobile andis fairly representative of the cars that will be hitting the showrooms this fall. 

My first impression is that Lexus has raised the bar yet again on smoothness anda quiet ride.  The new ES 300 promises to be Best In Class for thosequalities that make a Lexus, a Lexus.  Body gaps are even narrower than before and the interior trimmings are first class. Many new optionsare available for the ES that were formerly reserved only for the flagship LS. These options include a new and improvedDVD based navigation system and a superb Mark Levinson Audio Package.

Lexus' hallmark Smooth and Quiet ride reached a zenith with the new LS430, but this new ES comes remarkably close, notonly with the excellent Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS) option, but with the standard suspension as well.  This car is probably the best riding, quietest carin its class with creamy ride motions on every road surface that I encountered inthe couple of hours that I test drove this car.  All this plushnessdid not come at the expense of good handling either.  Steering control,directional stability and cornering were all first rate.

The Lexus ES 300 is, and always has been based heavily on the Camry platform,so many people discount it as being just a glorified Toyota.  I suspect that the people whohold that opinion haven't driven an ES 300.  If they had, they would consider a Camry to be ajunior Lexusinstead.  Behind the wheel of this new car, you get the feeling that it was designed from the ground up to be a Lexus with few compromises.

The styling on the new ES takes cues from other cars inthe Lexus family.  The rear end treatment was taken from the LS430 (whichborrowed heavily from Mercedes Benz); theside windows seem to have been lifted from the GS line; while the front looks alot like the new SC430.  It seems like Lexus is searching for a familyidentity beyond the stylized L in the grill (or in the case of the ES 300, onthe hood).   Frameless door glass from the previous model is gone in favor ofless wind noise and a quieter cabin (my guess is that cost played a part inthat decision as well).

The interior has all the expected Lexusbells and whistles, from the signature electro-luminescent instrument cluster tothe dual-zone automatic temperature control, not to mention the well-thought-outlayout of the dash.  Everything from the cup holders to the convenient pursehook on the passenger side of the console has a quality feel and is placedright where you would want it to be. The driver's seat with its 10-way power adjustments and 4-way adjustableheadrest was both comfortable and supportive.

Engine performance, on the other hand, has not improved, which is a disappointment. The 2002 model has the same horsepower andtorque ratings (210 HP & 220 lbs ft.) as last year.  Full throttle acceleration was adequate but not exhilarating when comparedwith other cars in this class.  The 0 to 60 figure supplied by Lexus was8.1 seconds which was about what I thought it felt like.   This putsit towards the back of the pack in this aggressive, performance oriented marketsegment.  On the plus side, the ES 300 now meets the superstringent ULEV emissions certification and also gets better gas mileage with anexpected EPA rating of 21 mpg city and 29 mpg highway.

You won't feel the limitations of this engine during normal driving.  Aslong as you don't floor the pedal, throttle response is quite good.  Thisis due to thenew drive-by-wire system where the gas pedal controls the throttle throughelectrical signals and a computer instead of by a cable.  The brakes feltstrong and responsive, although I couldn't get too exuberant due to an all-day rain.  Ican, however, vouch for all the computerized skid control systems that kept meout of trouble on the rain-soaked roads.

Beside the electronic throttle, thebig changes to the powertrain include the new super-smooth five-speed automatictransmission.  Theshift lever for the new automatic runs a gauntlet through the zigzagtrack so popular on today's premium cars.  The idea of this design is toallow you to shift manually to the next gear up or down without overshooting your target. Thisshould come in handy on winding mountain roads where you oftenshift between 2 and 3 in order to take advantage of engine braking. The problemis that the 2-3 shift, a common move, is not well controlled andit's easy to shift past 3 and wind up in 4th. The obvious solution would be tohave the E-shift buttons for full manual control when desired, like the ones found in the IS300, but Lexustells us that if they added that feature, they wouldn't be able to meet the stringent ULEVemissions standard.  Besides, the reason why Lexus has two cars in this pricerange is so they could target one toward sporty driving (the IS300) while theother one can be tailored for luxury (the ES300).

Safety features include dual-stage front airbags, front seat mounted sideairbags and new side curtain airbags that protect the head and upper torso ofboth front and rear seat passengers.  The driver's front airbag will detectif a small person is driving (by the seat position) and deploy with extra lowforce where necessary.  Dual-thickness side pillars and reinforced floorpanstructure improve side impact protection while redesigned seats have improvedwhiplash protection.  Varying metal thicknesses are used in the front bodystructure to better control and absorb impact energy and protect the passengerarea from deformation.

All this crash protection is fine, but what's more important to me is theactive safety features designed to help you avoid an accident in the firstplace.  Standard active features include 4-sensor, 4-channel anti-lockbrakes (ABS), Electronic Brake Force Distribution (EBD) and daytime runninglights.  Optional features include Vehicle Skid Control (VSC) whichincorporates Brake Assist and Traction Control (TRAC).  VSC works bymonitoring the steering wheel position, speed and inertia in order to determinewhether the car is following the path that was intended by the driver.  Ifthe system detects that the car is beginning to skid, it will apply individualbrakes and reduce engine power to bring the car back under control.  Butwhile this system can work wonders, it can't disobey the laws of physics, soyou'll still need to drive sensibly.  Sorry to disappoint. 

In the short amount of time that I had behind the wheel, I can tell you thatall the smoothness was not at the expense of handling or road feel. I found the directional stability to be first rate while steering feel was upthere with the best of them.  I couldn't really test cornering limits since it was raining the whole day and the roads inthe Connecticut woods didn't have shoulders, just large unforgiving trees. Lexus wouldn't be very happy with me if I tested all those fancy air bags on one of theirexpensive prototypes.  I will save the more aggressive testing for theproduction car which is due to hit the dealers by October.

I could have used more wheel time to complete my evaluation of this newLexus, but they had to pack up the cars and ship them to the next pressevent in another part of the country.  The driving was over, but my ferry to Long Islandwasn't scheduled to leave for another three hours, so I wandered into one of the many casino rooms at Foxwoods to seewhat those one-armed bandits were like.  I sat down, noticing that they nolonger have arms, just buttons.  I read the instructions, fished for a quarter, dropped itin and was greeted byan incessant clanging bell.  I had won at 400 to 1, which meant that my quarterbecame a hundred bucks!  Since I am normally not a gambler, I decided toquit while I was ahead and I left with a "cat who swallowed thecanary" grin on my face.

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How would I improve this car?

  • More power
  • Add real station-select buttons on cars with the Navigation system
  • I'll have more suggestions after I get my hands on a production model 

How does the ES 300 fit yourdriving style? 

Conservative drivers your dream come true, Smooth, comfortable and quiet, easy to control and predictable. This car is the one to beat. 

Sporty drivers Electronic throttle is very responsive, handles well for a car with such a cushy ride,  Not as powerful as the other cars in this class.

Fast drivers Should opt for the Adaptive Variable Suspension. The firm setting provides this car with the character you are looking for as far as handling goes, but for all around performance, you may be happier with a Lexus IS300 or maybe an Acura TL Type S.

Specifications 

Engine Type 3-liter DOHC V6, Cast aluminum block and  heads. Variable Valve Timing with Intelligence (VVT-i).  Meets Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (ULEV) certification
Compression Ratio 10.5 : 1
Horsepower 210 @ 5,800 RPM
Torque 220 @ 4,400 RPM
Fuel Recommended Regular 87 Octane Unleaded.  Premium fuel can be used for improved performance
Transmission Five Speed Electronically Controlled Automatic
Tires - Standard
No-charge option
P215/60R16   V-speed rated High Performance summer tires
P215/60R16   V-speed rated High Performance All Season tires
Overall Length 191.1"
Wheelbase 107.1
Width 71.3"
Turning Diameter 36.1 ft Curb to Curb
Curb Weight 3,439
Fuel Tank 18.5 Gals.
Miles Per Gallon Estimated EPA city 21, hwy 29. 
Acceleration 0 to 60 8.1 Seconds (Lexus Estimate)
Top Track Speed 140 mph (Lexus Estimate)
Base Sticker Price N/A  Expected to be in the low $30's

Standard Equipment
Lexus ES 300 Front Wheel Drive Sedan

  • 3.0-liter V6-cylinder engine, 210 HP, 220 lb.-ft. of torque
  • Five-speed electronic automatic transmission
  • Electronic Throttle Control System
  • Front ventilated and rear solid disk brakes
  • 4-sensor, 4-channel anti-lockbrakes (ABS)
  • Electronic Brake Force Distribution (EBD)
  • 16" x 6.5" alloy wheels with 215/60 R16 V-rated tires
  • 10-way power driver's seat and 8-way power passenger seat
  • Power front and rear windows with auto up/down and pinch protection
  • Heated outside mirrors
  • Automatic dual zone climate control
  • Dust (particle) interior air filter
  • Manual tilt steering wheel
  • Programmable garage door opener (Home-link)
  • Auto-dimming, electrochromic inside rearview mirror with compass
  • Multi-information display with trip computer
  • Purse hanger located in the front passenger footwell area
  • Alarm with immobilizer, and in-key remote control
  • Lexus Premium AM/FM ETR with auto-reverse cassette and single CD player
  • Genuine California walnut trim
  • Multi-function in-key remote
  • Trunk pass-through
  • Tool kit
  • First aid kit 

Major Available Options

  • Leather trim interior with 2-position memory 
  • Six-disc in-dash CD auto-changer 
  • Mark Levinson Audio Package 
  • One-touch open/close moonroof 
  • Optional DVD-based navigation with three position tilt screen, multi-route calculation, multi-destination input, and route preview 
  • Wood & Leather Steering Wheel 
  • Heated Front Seats with two heat settings
  • High Intensity Discharge Headlamps (HID) 
  • Rain sensing wipers
  • Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS) 
  • Vehicle Skid Control (VSC) 
  • Power Rear Sun Shade 
  • Chrome Wheels
  • Adjustable Brake & Accelerator Pedals (est. January availability)   

For more information on the ES 300, visit Lexus.com

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