The Morning Call and's view

The Lexus ES 300 has always been a popular model. For somewhere just north of $30,000, one gains entry into the Lexus league. That the ES 300 (or ES 250 as it was originally called) was little more than a thinly-disguised Camry never bothered buyers. One owner I know referred to her ES 250 as ”a Camry with an attitude.”

For the latest iteration of the breed, Toyota has attempted to further distance the two. But it’s easy to see the Camry’s goodness beneath the ES 300’s finery.

The car boasts a 2-inch longer wheelbase (at 107 inches) and increased height (at 57.3 inches). The styling takes advantage of the added size, with dynamic lines and aggressive jewel-like headlamps being the two most obvious changes. The dowdiness of the old model has been replaced by a luxurious grace. Still, the styling does recall that of the plainer Toyota Camry.

If sensory deprivation is not your idea of fun motoring, this is not the car for you. Start the engine and you’ll hear and feel nothing. It’s quite amazing. Move down the road and a distant noise reminds you that the motor is running.

Hitting a bump or rut is a non-issue, as you won’t really notice it. The test vehicle, supplied by Lexus, had the optional Adaptive Variable Suspension system or AVS in Lexus-lingo. This feature allows the driver to change the shock absorber damping rate in steps from a firm ride to a soft ride. The soft ride was most in keeping with the character of the car.

While there was some body lean and motion while tackling challenging pavement, it was very controllable. Switching to the firm mode made the bumps noticeable with a teeth-chattering clarity. Yet it didn’t reduce the body motion to any noticeable degree.

The aluminum 3-liter double-overhead-cam V-6 carries over from last year, with 210 horsepower. A new five-speed automatic is the engine’s smooth, willing partner. Power is about the same as before, yet the EPA rating has jumped from 19 to 21 mpg in city driving and from 26 to 29 mpg on the highway. Test mileage came in at 23 mpg.

Toyota has loaded up the ES 300 with safety gear. Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (or EBD), which guards against lock-up, is standard. An optional Vehicle Skid Control System incorporates the EBD system, anti-lock brakes and traction control systems into one system. It helps traction while cornering in all conditions. It also reduces power in addition to applying the brakes if the system detects a loss in traction. Daytime running lamps are also standard. Ditto front airbags, which are now joined by side-curtain airbags.

The cabin will look familiar to those who have spent time in a new Camry. The dash is upgraded, with wood trim and more opulent materials. But it looks very similar.

The one unwelcome similarity is the maddening (but thankfully optional) DVD-based navigation system, which also includes audio controls. It’s too distracting, and deman ds that the driver take his or her eyes off the road for too long. In addition, the glare from the screen can be distracting at night, while during the day, bright sunlight washes it out completely. Worst of all, the screen must be tilted out of the way to get to the cassette player.

Better to pop for the Mark Levinson sound system, which has a sound so superior, you’ll never want to get out of the car.

Another item of note is the purse holder. Lexus has placed the hook on the right side of the console. Only by sitting in the passenger seat could a woman take advantage of it.

The ES 300’s $31,505 base price includes a fair share of amenities, including a power moonroof, 10-way power driver’s seat, 8-way power passenger’s seat, auto-dimming heated power mirrors, auto-dimming rearview mirror, automatic dual-zone climate control, walnut trim, cruise control, cupholders, multi-function information display, one-touch power windows with pinch protection, out ide temperature gauge, AM/FM/cassette/CD audio system, programmable garage door openers and a tilt wheel.

One warning though: it’s easy to push the price of the new ES over $40,000, so watch your option choices carefully. Items such as a rear power sunshade ($210), high-intensity discharge headlamps ($640), wood and leather steering wheel covers ($330) and the DVD Navigation System with audio system upgrade ($4,860) come at extra cost. So, too, do the leather-trimmed seats.

But the ES 300 is easy to live with. The seats are soft and comfortable. The ride is comfy and quiet. The interior quality is top notch in every respect. The trunk is roomy. Even the change holder is felt-lined. Everywhere you look, Toyota has looked. That’s what makes this car, and its incredibly dampened character, so appealing.

It’s a car for those who feel driving is a chore that must be endured. If you’re looking for a BMW-like experience, the Lexus IS 300 is more your speed.

Otherwise the ES 300 is for you. There’s one way to sum up the opulent, yet practical character of the ES 300, and it is this: the Lexus ES 300 is the best Buick Toyota makes.

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