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
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
The interior is more spacious than before, indeed, Toyota says
the ES300 has more total legroom than a standard wheelbase
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
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
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
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
After I was finished playing, I put it in normal and left it
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
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.