1997 Lexus ES 300

By November 10, 1999
1997 Lexus ES 300

Who’s number one? Calling one car the best in any particular category is a tricky proposition, because there’s always the random variable of individual tastes to consider.

In the entry luxury segment, for example, we’re inclined to prefer the BMW 328i, simply because we find it the most gratifying to drive. There are plenty of other tempting choices too–the Acura TL, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Infiniti I30, the new Cadillac Catera and the all-too-frequently overlooked Mazda Millenia.

But for all-around excellence in this competitive realm, the new Lexus ES 300 strikes us as a pacesetter. Maybe even the pacesetter.

Yes, this is a re-design, rather than an all-new car. But it’s improved in every respect–a little more character to its styling, stiffer chassis, reduced curb weight, better handling, more power, improved aerodynamic efficiency and more room inside.

And, more remarkable, Lexus has trimmed a tidy $2500 from the base price, thank you very much. That’s a can’t-miss recipe for success, and it also raises a question: how’d they do that?

The universal emphasis on cost engineering adds an intriguing new dimension to our job: trying to figure out where the manufacturer did the whittling.

That’s always tough sleuthing, because you can bet they’re not going tell you, and in this case it’s difficult indeed.

About the only things that are readily apparent are the ES 300’s new reflector headlamps, which are substantially cheaper than the previous projector beam setup, and a simple pushbutton reset for the trip odometer instead of the electric reset used on the ’96 model.

But these cost cuts don’t detract at all from the finished product.

The new headlamps actually enhance the new front end appearance, in our opinion, and also do a better job of lighting in the immediate vicinity of the car.

And the new LS 400-style electroluminiscent instruments, among the best and most attractive in the entire industry, certainly offset any sense of the ordinary that might go with a plain old mechanical reset for the trip counter.


As before, the new ES 300 shares its front-drive chassis with the new Toyota Camry, sharing that entails a two-inch stretch in wheelbase, a 30% upgrade in chassis stiffness and sharper steering response.

It also shares the Camry's excellent 3.0-liter V6 engine, but with a difference; the ES 300's induction system gets extra engineering refinements that yield 200 horsepower, compared to the Camry's 194. That's 12 hp more than the 1996 ES 300, and there's more torque to go with it.

Harness 200 horsepower to a car that weighs in 78 pounds lighter than its predecessor–as well as almost 500 pounds lighter than the Cadillac Catera–and you get a nice uptick in 0-to-60 performance.

With its standard four-speed automatic transmission, the ES 300 isn't the quickest in its class, but no one could call it slow. Passing performance is brisk, and top speed is a snappy 137 mph. And in all its paces, we found the ES 300 to be as smooth and quiet as any car in its class, as well as some that are substantially more expensive.

The changes to the ES 300's exterior are subtle, but discernible–a little more sculpting in the hoodline, a little more character in the front end appearance, and a slightly more aggressive look overall.

The more determined look is a response to consumer clinics that told Lexus researchers the ES 300 should be a little more fun to drive.

Besides adding power, one of the sure-fire ways to go after a higher fun-to-drive index is via the suspension, which is just what the Lexus engineers have done. The ES 300's independent suspension is essentially the same as the Camry's, but here too, Lexus has added an extra dimension in the form of an optional variable shock damping system.

Lexus calls it the Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS), and for $600 we think it's an absolute must-have feature. Here's how it works. The system varies the firmness of the shocks within four driver presets–soft, normal, sport and hard–on a basis of information supplied by a variety of sensors that monitor cornering loads, engine rpm, vehicle speed and braking.

It's not as sophisticated as Cadillac's Integrated Chassis Control System, but its functions are distinctly tangible to the driver and for a car in this class it's a bargain.

Interior Features

Inside, the ES 300 is what we've all come to expect from a Lexus–quiet, handsome and, thanks to the wheelbase stretch, roomy, fore and aft.

It's not quite as quiet in the rear seat area as the larger Lexus, but it ranks at the top of this class nonetheless. It's also as good as any in terms of standard comfort/convenience equipment. Although our test car had extra goodies–leather upholstery, part of a package that also includes a position memory feature for the power driver's seat ($1650), an in-dash auto CD changer ($1050), and a power sunroof ($1000)–we suspect life in an ES 300 would be perfectly tolerable without them.

It will certainly be more tolerable for rear seat passengers. Although the increased rear legroom doesn't look like much on paper, it feels bigger in the real world, and comfortable for two adult-size people–provided they're not basketball players. Headroom is no better than average in this car, particularly sunroof-equipped models like our tester.

Overall, the ES 300's stretched rear seat legroom moves it up a couple of notches compared to its competitors. Although it's not as roomy as the Catera, which is tops in this class, it's improved, an improvement that erases one of the few complaints about the earlier model.

Safety features are up to current standards, and we applaud Lexus for including antilock braking as standard equipment.

Driving Impressions

Without the AVS system, the new ES 300 feels very much like its predecessor–smooth without being mushy, competent but not quite as decisive as some of its sportier rivals, although the stiffer chassis would probably produce slightly quicker times on a slalom course.

The one major exception to the foregoing is the variable assist rack and pinion power steering system, which delivers much better road feel than the previous ES 300, a welcome improvement the Lexus shares with the Camry.

But with AVS, the ES 300 acquires a little more character–at the driver's discretion, of course. In the sport mode, it's distinctly more decisive in all its maneuvers, without sacrificing an ounce of ride comfort or traditional Lexus strong suits like quiet operation and superb interior appointments.

We wouldn't call this car a sport sedan. It's automatic only, and for our money a manual transmission is an essential part of the sport sedan ethos. BMW and Infiniti both offer 5-speed manual transmissions on the 328i and I30, respectively, and shifting for yourself definitely makes the going more fun when fun is the objective.

However, automatic transmissions dominate the realm of entry luxury, and the ES 300's four-speed automatic is smoother than most. It also makes the most of the added power of the high-tech aluminum V6, which was one of the best in the business in the previous car and is even better now.


The new ES 300 offers a compelling blend of quality, power, all-around competence and creature comforts that's tough to top.

Stir in the head-turning incentive of a dramatic price reduction, and you'll see all the other guys asking the same question that we've been asking.

How'd they do that?

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