KANANASKIS, Alta. — One wrong turn in the pre-dawn darkness and I was 30 kilometres further into the mountains of Alberta's Kananaskis country.
That meant 60 kilometres that had to be made up if I was to get my passenger to the Calgary airport in time for flight check-in.
That's when I found out just how good the new Lexus ES 300 really is.
Like Toyota's Camry, with which it shares its platform, the entry-lux Lexus is almost all-new for 2002. It is also substantially different from the Camry.
Their shared origin has been something of a sore point for Lexus executives, who cringe at the characterization of the ES 300 as "just a Camry dipped in gold." The two are as diverse, or more so, than most other shared-platform passenger cars on the market, they rightly point out.
Those differences begin with styling. Although both share an extended-cabin profile, not unlike that of Chrysler's large-car lineup, their body surfaces are entirely different.
Most striking of the ES 300's features are its front and rear lamp assemblies. The fronts, which flank a small and unobtrusive bar grille, are enormous and sweep way back over the top of the fender. The rears, in turn, wrap around the rear-fender sides — like high-fashion sunglasses, according to the Lexus designers (though they didn't say why).
Along with an aerodynamic overall form (0.28 Cd), a chiselled character line high on the body side, and a unique roofline that bears some resemblance to that of the sporty GS 300, those features give the ES 300 a character all its own. Parked side by side with a Camry, there is no mistaking one for the other.
Dimensionally, the Lexus is 50 mm longer than the Toyota, although both share the same 2720-mm wheelbase. More importantly, that wheelbase is 50 mm longer than its predecessor's — additional length that translates directly into added rear seat room.
Insufficient headroom was one of the few complaints current ES 300 owners expressed, so providing more became one of the fixed targets for the new car. Consequently, overall height was increased by 60 mm, in turn permitting a revised door-frame and roof-rail structure that added to overall structural rigidity and side-impact protection.
The front-wheel-drive ES 300 is more about luxury than technical specification, however, and this latest model moves even further in that direction, now that Lexus also has the rear-wheel-drive IS 300 to challenge more sporty competitors such as the BMW 3 Series.
In fact, Lexus says the ES 300 can be considered a junior version of the ultra-lux LS 430. It is a legitimate claim, for it now offers many of the same features and amenities — from the same high-grade leather trim and water-repellant side-window glass to standard safety features such as multi-stage front, front-side, and side-curtain airbags, and options that include a power-operated rear-window screen and Vehicle Skid Control (VSC).
The standard equipment list is long: power seats, one-touch windows, and mirrors; dual-zone automatic climate control with air filtration; premium audio with integrated cassette and CD players and Automatic Sound Level adjustment; a trip computer; Homelink-compatible garage-door opener; and auto-dimming rear-and side-view mirrors, to name but a few features.
Inside, soft colours and textures prevail — all accented with real California walnut trim, finished in a reddish tone and polished to a high lustre.
The instrument panel, which incorporates a cluster of three deeply recessed, round gauges, sweeps dramatically down into the centre console, creating a broad T-form structure.
Ergonomics are for the most part above reproach, although the ES 300 employs a step-function tilt adjustment for the steering column rather than the Camry's continuous adjustment, and it lacks the Toyota's mist function on the wiper control stalk.
Room is more than ample, both front and back, even for adults of above-average size, and the trunk, with a capacity of 519 L, is gargantuan. No fold-down rear seatback, though — it would compromise structure and noise, vibration and harshness priorities.
Exceptionally low NVH levels have become a Lexus trademark, and the ES 300 continues that tradition, with care taken to minimize those levels in every aspect of its design. Detailed NVH-abatement features include insulation materials that absorb rather than just block sound waves.
Mechanically, the ES 300 is powered by a refined variant of the same 3.0-litre, DOHC V-6 engine, with VVT-i and Acoustic Control Induction system, that powers the current model. Though it continues to be rated at 210 hp at 5800 rpm and 220 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm, Lexus says real-world performance is improved, in part because of its new drive-by-wire (electronic throttle control) system.
Performance is also aided by a new five-speed automatic transmission with electronic logic to prevent excessive up-and-down shifting on hills.
Based on Lexus's figures, 0-to-100 km/h should be achievable in less than nine seconds — better than with the current car.
At the same time, fuel economy is improved, and the ES 300 satisfies both current LEV and future ULEV emissions standards.
Suspension is fully independent, with struts and anti-roll bars all around, and four-wheel-disc brakes with ABS and P215/60R16 Michelin all-season tires are standard.
Only one ES 300 model is offered, with a base MSRP of $43,300 — $600 lower than that of the current model.
Two option packages, Luxury and Premium, are available to upgrade equipment levels for those who want it all.
The Luxury package includes VSC and traction control, an integral six-disc CD changer, power rear-window sunshade and moonroof, rain-sensing wipers, and high-intensity discharge (HID) headlamps.
The Premium package adds a high-zoot Mark Levinson audio system, wood-and-leather steering wheel, and Adaptive Variable Suspension (AVS).
Although AVS is currently available, it has been improved to provide instantaneous adjustment of individual damper rates, rather than just of front and rear pairs.
Accordingly, it now provides additional roll-stiffness, as well as dive, squat and ride control.
Four driver-selectable AVS settings are provided, and the base-suspension calibration falls somewhere between its Sport and Comfort extremes.
My ride for that early-morning airport run was equipped with the Premium package, and thus AVS. With it set for Comfort, the car was something of a marshmallow, but on Sport mode it transformed into a capable corner-carver that was — surprise — a delight to drive, at speeds I'll never admit to, on those mountain roads.
Steering, brakes, throttle, suspension — they all worked together so progressively my passenger didn't scream once. And we made it to the airport in time for a pre-flight coffee.
More luxurious it may be, but for the first time the new ES 300 also delivers a welcome level of real driver enjoyment.
Bravo! Real-worldReal-world performance soars E-mail: mgmalloy @ aol.com E-mail: mgmalloy @ aol.com
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