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2002 Lexus ES 300
Sam Moses

Introduction
When the Lexus ES 300 first arrived a little more than a decade ago, ES stood for "Executive Sedan," suggesting conservatism. Executives, not to mention sedans, have changed a lot since then. Now we have the all-new 2002 ES 300, with conservative execution but aggressive styling. From venerable to bold, one swift stroke. The careful elegance of this car is going to knock some executives' socks off.
Model Lineup
There's just one model, the ES 300 sedan, which borrows so many luxury features from the LS 430 that it's being called the "Baby LS 430" in the halls at Lexus. It starts inside with the shape and construction of the power front seats, and adds a Supplemental Restraint System of multi airbags. New standard equipment includes Electronic Brake Distribution (EBD), which works the antilock brakes independently on each wheel; dual-zone climate control with air filtration; seven-speaker, 86-watt audio system with single CD and cassette; water-repellant front door glass; and lamps that illuminate the doorsill and the ground when the doors are opened. The snazzy nine-spoke alloy wheels nicely set off the un-conservative styling.

And how's this for value? The base price remains the same, $31,505.

It will cost another eight grand or so to get it fully loaded, however. Options include Vehicle Skid Control ($650); Adaptive Variable Suspension ($620); the same Regency leather as in the LS 430 ($1560); a touch-screen DVD satellite navigation system featuring faster route calculation and voice guidance ($3960, including the leather and a six-disc CD); three upgrades in audio systems, the ultimate being a Mark Levinson system with six-disc in-dash (or console, with the navigation system) CD changer offering 240 watts ($3010, including the leather); a power rear sunshade ($210); high intensity discharge headlamps with automatic leveling and rain-sensing wipers ($640); heated seats ($440); and chrome wheels ($1700). Walkaround
It's the rake and headlamps that make the styling so striking and quietly dynamic. The front end seems to slope from the top of the windshield over the sculpted hood and tidy dark grille, down to the smooth airdam under the almost seamless front bumper. The headlight cluster sets a new benchmark in smooth, swoopy angularity, like silvery eyes pulled back at the corners. The tail light, similarly shaped, wraps forward as if stretching to meet the headlight. Every little corner contributes to the suggestion of shape-the rear window outline moves the lines up and away from the rear deck, for example. Even the underbody was addressed, as it's nearly flat. Not surprisingly, the overall design results in a very low 0.28 coefficient of drag (a measure of aerodynamic efficiency).

One measure of the success of the styling is that the car is bigger than it looks when standing alone. It's actually 2.4 inches higher than the old ES 300 (with an inch more ground clearance) but more aerodynamic. And with another two inches of wheelbase, there's four more cubic feet of interior room than before, making 10 percent more than the Mercedes C-Class. Trunk volume has also been increased, by 12 percent.

New technology in sound absorption and isolating engine vibration brings exceptional quiet and smoothness. Another trick from the LS 430 is the anti-vibration subframe mounting for the revised suspension. Behind the fit and finish is a great deal of careful design, detailed work, and use of the latest materials such as composites and resin-steel sandwiches. The car's quality construction can be felt and heard in the tight "thunk" in the closing of the doors, trunk and hood, and even in the solid feel of the turn signal stalk.

One of the engineering objectives of the new ES 300 was to make it the safest car in its class. The redesigned unibody chassis has computer-designed crush structures and passenger compartment reinforcements. The car's introduction to automotive journalists included the showing of a slow-motion crash-test video, a head-on impact at 40 mph, and the body can be seen rippling rearward like a wave, rolling with the crunch to the nose. The front end is totally crushed, but, remarkably, the windshield is unbroken and the doors can be opened. Additionally, the crash-test dummy was protected by front seats designed to reduce whiplash, and three airbags for the driver alone.

Under the hood, the emphasis was on increasing performance through efficiency rather than horsepower and torque. The 3.0-liter V6 was already pretty smooth, with the vee between the cylinder banks being 60 degrees versus the 90 degrees of many vee engine blocks (the narrower the vee, the better the balance). Lexus also uses sophisticated electronic engine mounts that change their vibration-dampening level as the engine speed increases.

The '02 produces the same 210 horsepower and 220 pound-feet of torque as the '01, but the acceleration has been improved (0 to 60 in 8.1 seconds) thanks mostly to a drive-by-wire throttle system pioneered in the LS 430. A new induction system and redesigned exhaust system bring more benefit, with emissions low enough for the ES to be classified as a ULEV (Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle) in all 50 states. A new five-speed automatic transmission helps increase EPA-estimated fuel mileage from 20/28 mpg city/highway on the current model to 21/29 mpg on the '02 model, despite a weight increase of 67 pounds. Interior
Inside, the first thing that strikes you is the purplish shade of the California walnut wood, which flows in a subtle T shape from the center console up to the dash then out to the back of each front door. The wood has a different look, and it works with the brushed aluminum trim. The standard steering wheel and shift lever are stitched leather and look very nice; the optional wheel is part walnut and the lever all walnut, and they add prestige.

A clean instrument panel features analog instruments with a white background, and they are easy to read. Besides the usual indicator lights, there's an exterior temperature gauge and an information display that covers fuel mileage, driving range and average speed.

We had a big problem with reading the radio and climate control digital displays in the sun, however. And the air conditioning has a tiny crumb-sized green light indicating it's on, which is undetectable in the bright of day.

The glove compartment contains a trunk lock, as well as trunk lid and fuel door releases; and the rearview mirror is self-dimming electrochromic, with a digital compass. The console holds a storage box with a power outlet inside, and two cupholders with adjustable rings. There's a purse hanger in the front passenger footwell, and two retractable coat hooks in the rear.

The standard fabric seats offer 10-way power adjustment for the driver and eight-way for the front passenger, so the seating position is excellent, with lots of front-seat legroom. There are good places to brace your limbs, and a big dead pedal for your left foot. Our test model was loaded, and had the plush Regency leather. The seats are very comfortable, but if you try to drive the ES 300 around corners like a sports sedan, your upper body will slide a bit.

Increasing the size of the ES 300 resulted in more headroom, and more legroom in the rear. Front and rear headroom increased by 1.7 and 1.4 inches, while rear legroom grew from 34.4 to 35.6 inches. Front legroom suffered, however, shrinking from 43.5 to 42.2 inches. Despite the increased height, there doesn't seem to be an abundance of headroom; a 5'10" driver can touch the headliner by stretching a bit. And the slope of the rear window doesn't allow a panoramic view, though it still fills the rearview mirror. The mirror is mounted so close to the headliner that it has to be grabbed awkwardly from the bottom to adjust.

The optional DVD navigation system is state of the art, designed for intuitive operation, according to Lexus. It has a tilt screen and simplified highway graphics for easier viewing, and multi routes to multi destinations for those so intuitively inclined. This system is third generation, and route calculation is twice as fast as before, with voice guidance that directs you back to the route if you blow it. In French, if you want it. The database also contains the location of airports, banks, hotels, restaurants, shopping centers and even ATMs. Driving Impressions
Suspension and styling are key strengths to this car, and the suspension is highly polished. Our test car had the Adaptable Variable Suspension, which is tuned very nicely, although four stiffness settings might be overkill, especially since neither 4 (firm) nor 1 (soft) were extreme. We drove in position 4 around town and it wasn't harsh (definitely stiff on a washboard gravel road, though). Conversely, the car didn't wallow during spirited cornering, even in position 1. The ride simply can be made great in all conditions.

The 16-inch tires have gone from 205/65 to 215/60, making them lower and wider. The four-wheel independent strut suspension is the same design as before, (it keeps body roll down), but strengthened subframes allow more precise handling. The speed-sensitive power-assist rack-and-pinion steering has a very nice touch: light, but with good feel. We got into the ES 300 after a week in a very nice Volvo C70, also front-wheel drive, and immediately noticed the effortless steering.

The brakes, too, were effortless; very nicely sensitive. The first time we applied them, at 30 mph, we went, "Whoa!" You get used to it quickly, and appreciate it.

If the styling and suspension are the strong features, the engine and transmission offer less to boast about. The all-aluminum, 24-valve V6 engine produces the same 210 horsepower as the previous ES 300, although refinements have made it smoother and quicker; its 0-60 acceleration time of 8.1 seconds is decent, but may be disappointing if compared to some of the high-horsepower competition, such as the 260-horsepower Acura TL-S.

The new transmission is a five-speed automatic with manual shift capability, and it's a solid advancement in technology over the old four-speed automatic. Aggressive upshifts are snappy and casual upshifts are invisible, but the downshifts aren't always smooth; and we were surprised at how frequent the transmission kicked down, given the engine's healthy 222 pound-feet of torque.

The ES 300 shares its platform with the new Toyota Camry (similarly styled), and its front-wheel-drive layout puts it in the category with the Audi A4, Acura 3.2 TL, and Infiniti I35. Rear-drive sedan competition includes the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes C-Class, and Cadillac Catera (soon to be replaced by the sporty CTS).

The ES 300's weight distribution of 61 percent front, 39 percent rear might limit the cornering potential (that's where the Skid Control option comes in), but then Lexus offers a rear-drive alternative, the IS 300, with a five-speed gearbox for those truly into driving. Summary
The 2002 ES 300 is a strong contender in its class, if not the new favorite. And if the old ES 300 was a deserved success, the new one, a much better performing and better looking car for the same price, has got to be considered a winner.

Model as tested
ES 300 ($31,505)
Basic Warranty
4 years/50,000 miles
Assembled in
Kyushu, Japan
Destination charge
575
Gas guzzler tax
N/A
Base Price
31505
Price as tested
39045
Options as tested
Navigation Package with Regency leather and Mark Levinson audio system ($4860); California Walnut trimmed steering wheel and shift knob ($330); heated front seats ($440); HID headlights ($640); Adaptive Suspension System ($620); Skid Control ($650)

Model Line Overview
Model lineup
ES 300 ($31,505)
Safety equipment (standard)
frontal airbags; front seat side airbags; front and rear airbag curtains; Electronic Brake Distribution; Child Restraint Seat anchors
Safety equipment (optional)
N/A
Engines
3.0-liter V6
Transmissions
5-speed automatic

Specifications as Tested
halogen headlights with foglamps; heated rearview mirrors; California Walnut trim; power adjustable front seats (10-way driver, 8-way passenger); 7-speaker radio/cassette/CD audio system

Engine & Transmission
Engine
3.0-liter V6
Drivetrain type
front-wheel drive
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
210 @ 5800
Transmission
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
21/29
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)
N/A

Suspension
Brakes, front/rear
disc/disc with ABS
Suspension, front
4-wheel Independent, MacPherson strut with front anti-dive geometry
Tires
P215/60 R16
Suspension, rear
4-wheel Independent, MacPherson strut with front anti-dive geometry

Accomodations
Seating capacity
5
Head/hip/leg room, middle
N/A
Head/hip/leg room, front
38.5/55.5/42.2
Head/hip/leg room, rear
37.4/55.5/35.6

Measurements
Fuel capacity
N/A
Trunk volume
14.5
Wheelbase
107.1
Length/width/height
191.1/71.3/57.3
Turning circle
36.1
Payload
N/A
Towing capacity
N/A
Track, front/rear
60.8/60.4
Ground clearance
6.1
Curb weight
3439


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