2002-2005 Lexus ES300

Greg Anderson
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Scott Dahlquist
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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.

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