The Lexus ES300 – and before it, the Lexus ES250 – has always been the entry-level Lexus, based on the platform of its corporate cousin, the Toyota Camry. Lexus has done a good job of making that connection less than obvious, never more successfully than with the all-new 2002 ES300.
Since the car was new for last year, it enters 2003 with only one notable addition: Optional power-adjustable brake and accelerator pedals. Besides making for a more comfortable driving position, adjustable pedals allow people of varying heights to sit the recommended distance from the steering wheel and its airbag.
The ES went on sale in September, 1989, as the ES250, and then two years later, became the ES300. The numbers indicate the engine size – the ES300 has a 3.0-liter V-6. The 1997 ES300 was the third-generation model, and last year, the new ES was the fourth generation.
Each model ES can only be as good as the current Camry is, since so many parts are shared. The 2002 Camry is an excellent car, and consequently, so is the ES300. Last May, the ES300 outsold the Cadillac DeVille, making the Lexus the best-selling luxury car in the U.S.
Unlike the Camry, the Lexus has no available four-cylinder engine or manual transmission. The only powertrain available is the 210-horsepower, 3.0-liter V-6, with a responsive five-speed automatic transmission. The Camry is built in the U.S., but the Lexus is built in Japan, where it is sold as the Windom.
While there are obvious differences outside, it’s inside where Lexus justifies charging you more. (About $2,500 more over a loaded Camry, but that can vary according to options.) The ES300 interior is rich and handsome and exceptionally comfortable.
The test car had a $2,130 “Premium Package” that added leather trim and a six-disc CD changer to the stereo, plus a wood-and-leather steering wheel that added $330, and was worth it. There’s nothing wrong with the Camry interior, but the company saved the class for the Lexus.
The rear seat in the ES300 is pretty accommodating for two adults, and passable for three. There’s 14.5 cubic feet of trunk space, good for a car this size.
On the road, the ES300 gives a good ride, but it isn’t as plush as some luxury cars. Handling is crisp, enhanced by the standard 16-inch tires and wheels, but there’s some mild body roll when asked to corner sharply. Overall, it’s a nice compromise between comfort and agility. The test car had the optional ($650) anti-skid control, which uses onboard sensors to detect when the car is skidding, then it applies individual braking until control is regained.
The 3.0-liter V-6 is a superb engine, and with the five-speed automatic transmission, acceleration is above average. Fuel mileage isn’t – it’s rated at 21 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway. The engine prefers premium gasoline, but runs fine on regular.
The 2003 ES300 is, as the ES models before it, essentially viceless; if there is a cri ticism, it’s that it is lacking personality. People who complain about that might prefer the Lexus IS300 – it’s more than a foot shorter, but much sportier.