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.