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1997 Lexus ES300

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

The 1997 Lexus ES300 is a nearly-all-new replacement for the

former ES300. If you liked the looks of the old one, you'll like

the looks of the new one.

Despite what you may have read, here or elsewhere, they are so

similar I can barely tell them apart even when they're

side-by-side.

If, however, you liked the old ES300 so much you bought one,

you may not be as impressed by this similarity, because your

neighbor can now essentially buy your car brand new for $4,000

less than you paid. That's the downside a manufacturer faces

when it finds a way to lower prices.

As before, the new ES300 is the upscale sister of the Camry,

which is also new for 1997 (see accompanying story). To me, the

1997 ES300 looks more like the 1997 Camry, at least in profile,

than the previous pair of siblings did.

Toyota is a little sensitive about the commonality, stating

that the two cars share only something like 20 per cent of their

parts — maybe, if you count engine and transmission as one part

each.

The interior is more spacious than before, indeed, Toyota says

the ES300 has more total legroom than a standard wheelbase

S-class Mercedes.

The usual luxury touches are here, and moving the CD changer

into the glovebox, a la big brother LS400, is a triumph of

packaging that makes other manufacturers' trunk-mounted systems

embarrassingly obsolete.

The engine's the same 3.0 litre four-cam 24-valve V6 used in

Camry, but the ES300 wrings an additional handful of horses (200

versus 194) and pound-feet of torque (214 versus 209) out of it

by virtue of a dual-passage muffler, which opens a bypass at

high engine revs to reduce back pressure.

Concerned that this will spoil the traditional Lexus silence?

No worries. If you're driving that hard, mechanical, tire and

wind noises will have taken over anyway.

Toyota spoils this otherwise nice motor with a standard

traction control system. It should be called an "acceleration

control system" because it doesn't let you have any

acceleration.

At one point I was pulling onto a main thoroughfare from a

cross street. With this stout engine I knew I had enough room in

the approaching gap in the traffic flow to fit in. But the

pavement was slippery, dusted with winter road grit. The front

wheels were cranked for the turn, so the inside front wheel was

lightly loaded, and I got a hint of wheelspin. The traction

control kicked in, and there I was, effectively stalled in the

middle of on-rushing traffic. I nearly got creamed.

The ES300's four-speed automatic transmission is again the

same box as in the Camry; also as in the Camry, it occasionally

exhibits a discernible thump on shifts, especially if you're

leaning on the throttle.

Toyota has added what they call semi-active suspension as an

option on the ES300. Semi-active is like semi-pregnant or

semi-dead; what it is is adaptive shock absorbers, rather like

Cadillac and Corvette among others have had for some time.

An onboard computer can choose from 16 firmness settings,

depending on road and engine speed, suspension travel, steering

wheel rotation and brake light switch application. Via a

console-mounted knob, the driver can also select from four

ranges: soft limits the system to settings one through eight;

normal is one through 11; sport, three through 13; hard, eight

through 16.

The theory, as it always is, is to reduce the

ride-versus-handling compromise inherent in shock absorber tuning. The

practice, as it almost always is, is that there isn't a whole

heck of a lot in it. Switch to hard, and sure, you'll feel every

bit of pebbliness in the pavement. Switch to soft, and you

won't.

After I was finished playing, I put it in normal and left it

alone.

The one application that is noticeable and welcome is how the

system controls dive under braking. That's where the brake light

switch sensor comes in, and it works a treat. Whether it's worth

$4,830 depends more on how badly you want the CD changer, power

sunroof and chrome wheels that are packaged with it. (The CD and

roof are available in a separate $2,630 package.)

All this suspension trickery is let down by Toyota-typical

steering that must stem from its engineers spending too much

time playing video games. It's light, numb, devoid of feel.

Perfect for profiling down Yorkville Ave., or wheel-twirling

into the parking lot of the Granite Club. If you're blasting

down Muskoka's Peninsula Rd., you want more tactile information.

The so-called import entry-luxury market is dividing itself

into two categories: cars with a serious fun-to-drive factor,

typified by the BMW 328 and Cadillac Catera, and silent,

luxurious cars for those who don't really want to get involved.

The Lexus ES300 sets the standard in the latter group, which

includes Nissan's Infiniti I30 and Honda's Acura 3.2TL.

Despite the exterior and mechanical similarities, Toyota has

managed to distance the 1997 ES300 from the 1997 uplevel Camry,

not so much by improving the former as by dumbing down the

latter.

With clever marketing and by throwing tonnes of money at

customer satisfaction, they've also created an instant heritage

of quality and reliability for the Lexus trademark.

And by pulling the ES300's base price down to $42,960, Toyota

has made the ES300 more accessible..

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on

driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the automaker.

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