Half Moon Bay, California Contrary to what economists may expect of a luxury product manufacturer, Lexus seems to thrive in a stagnant market. According to vice president and general manager Denny Clements, Lexus passenger-car sales this year are "up 63 percent in a market segment that's down 2 percent."
Credit this statistical anomaly to the fact that last year, sales at Toyota's premier brand weren't so hot; in fact, if not for the introduction of the sporty new IS300, car sales would have dropped more than 10 percent in the midst of the best automotive sales year since the invention of the rubber tire. But better products beget better sales. In the past year, the IS300, the SC430 hardtop convertible, and the redesigned LS430 sedan all have shaken up their respective segments. The last streak of hits that long came from Suzuki--that's Ichiro Suzuki, the Seattle Mariners' rookie leadoff extraordinaire, in case you don't follow America's pastime.
As the volume leader for Lexus cars, the ES300 is key to the brand's success. Just as the Camry pays the bills for Toyota (it's America's perennially popular family car, with more than 400,000 annual sales), the ES300 keeps the lights on at Lexus dealerships (except maybe in California). Lexus hopes to import 50,000 ES300s this year, up about 20 percent from a year ago. Although it shares much of its architecture with the Camry (look for our first drive of the new Camry next month), there's value in the ES300's extra cost.
Unlike the last model's conservative sheetmetal, the 2002 ES300 is no one's cure for insomnia. Gone is the stodgy two-tone paint scheme of the previous model, which was meant to imitate bigger brother LS400. Large headlights swoop their way up the front quarter-panels, drawing attention to the creased hood and lateral character lines, which taper in a slight rise just above the artistically arranged wraparound taillights. Rounded C-pillars hint at the company's sporty GS-series sedan, and with another two and a half inches of height, the ES300 gives passengers an extra inch of headroom.
Passengers also will appreciate the quality of interior materials, which are soothingly similar to those of the flagship LS430 and fitting for a car whose name stands for "executive sedan." We basked in the sound quality pouring from the Mark Levinson audio system. We lounged on seats covered in regency leather. We drummed our knuckles on real California walnut, which covers much of the dash, the shift knob, and three separate curved chunks of the steering wheel. Most of these fineries are optional, but equipped to the hilt, the ES300 becomes a true luxury car--inching its way closer to forty grand with every check on the order sheet.
Among those options is the Lexus Navigation System, a phenomenal gadget that operates from a DVD-based map database that includes destinations in Canada, among other software upgrades. We can hardly wait to test it out en route to Canada's cultural epicenter, the Windsor Casino, just across the Detroit River. Further innovations to the nav screen allow it to tilt electrically to reduce glare, and it rotates horizontally to reveal an in-dash CD player.
Attention to detail--a Lexus trademark--is nowhere more eloquently expressed than in the subtle, synchronous movement of the interior bits and pieces: The glovebox drawer, the ceiling-mounted sunglasses holder, and the wood-paneled ashtray cover all open at the same slow rate. That curious engineering achievement, which was pointed out to us by chief engineer Kosaku Yamada, illustrates the car's utter seriousness about creating a harmonious environment for its occupants. With the engine on and the stereo off, the cabin is exceptionally quiet. New body insulation absorbs sound instead of just blocking it, and wind noise is quelled by a flat underbody and a 0.28 coefficient of drag--unless you hang an arm out the window, air turbulence is barely perceptible.
The smooth, 210-hp, 3.0-liter V-6 is carried over, mated to a new five-speed automatic transmission. With the aid of a drive-by-wire electronic throttle, performance is slightly improved: The ES300 accelerates to 60 mph in 8.1 seconds--quicker by 0.2 second. Not much has changed about the car's predictable handling and cushy ride, which will comfort ES300 loyalists. The caster trail of the front wheels has been increased to reduce torque steer, and although the suspension geometry has been modified and the wheelbase extended by two inches, the chassis is still prone to understeer in typical front-wheel-drive fashion.
The ES300's must-have accessory is the Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS), which now controls each damper independently. Operated by a switch near the shifter, AVS comes with four levels of support, although only the most extreme settings offer any real contrast. At its softest (comfort) setting, the dampers extend their full range, soaking up bumps so you don't have to. At the firmest (sport) setting, the car behaves quite differently, taking a quick set around corners and limiting body roll to improve handling. The difference is like going from a Buick Century to a BMW 530i at the flip of a switch. For about $600, that's not a bad trade-up.
But even with its trick suspension, the ES remains a soft and snuggly sedan. Lexus hopes to win over Mercedes-Benz C-class buyers by offering more interior room and comparable amenities, but cars such as the C-class and the BMW 330i land on the other side of the line between luxury car and sport sedan. The Acura TL--the ES300's closest competitor-- has more standard equipment, comparable interior space, and 50 more horsepower (in the Type-S), but it does not approach the Lexus capacity for indulgence. But as Clements points out, "We don't have to be all things to all people." The IS300 will appease performance seekers, and that's how Lexus has gained a competitive edge: Its products cover all the bases.