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Lexus drivers still enjoying their 'silk rocket' ES 300 owners remain devoted to luxury-bred sedan

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

What is it about owning a Lexus that elicits such servile devotion? "I do a pat-down of my husband before I let him in (the car).

He gets 20 questions: Any pencils in your pockets? Are you clean?" one owner confesses on the Internet.

It's all the more impressive when you consider the premium Toyota brand was conjured up a scant decade ago, almost as a kind of reward program for all those people who had saved their money driving Tercels and Corollas over the years.

Lexus debuted a stunning Mercedes-Benz S-Class competitor, the LS 400, in 1990 to unanimous acclaim. To help fill out the model range with an entry model, the ES250 was unveiled, too. The cheers gave way to the sound of crickets chirping.

CONFIGURATION This upright Camry derivative was similar – too similar – to the run-of-the-mill sedan, despite the styling tweaks and real wood splinters in the dashboard. For the 1992 model year, the ES 300 (denoting the V6's displacement increase to 3.0 litres) was given a more distinctive treatment, distancing it from the equally new Camry.

Where the Camry was blunt, the ES 300 was raked back, sleek.

The new four-door was noticeably longer and wider than the previous generation. The cabin was finished with a handsome, clean instrument panel and well-located controls.

Like the Camry, the ES 300 rode on rubber-mounted subframes front and rear to isolate noise better.

The standard DOHC V6 made 185 very smooth horsepower. A five-speed manual transmission was offered up until 1993; after that, the four-speed automatic was the lone transmission.

Following in lockstep with the development of the Camry, the next generation arrived in 1997. It was an evolutionary advance, for the car looked largely the same, although it had grown larger. The now familiar V6 made 200 hp, slightly more than in the Camry. The power-assisted steering worked in concert with the engine, providing, critics noted, a little too much assistance.

And the optional adaptive, variable suspension allowed the driver to choose between comfort and sport. The system, unlike some, provided remarkably discernible differences in ride quality and control. The ES 300 had finally shed its reputation as a tarted-up Camry.

ON THE ROAD A 1992 ES 300 automatic could reach highway velocity in nine seconds; eight with the manual transmission. While out of the hunt in terms of chasing 5 Series BMWs, Lexus made up for it by bestowing the car with a smooth and quiet demeanour which, let's face it, a lot of luxury-car buyers crave.

"This is not a 'fun' car to drive, but it does a wonderful job of shutting out the rest of the world and taking care of business," read one Internet note. The chassis setup was sophisticated enough to channel the V6's torque through the front wheels without stumbling; handling was stable and secure right up to the limit of tire adhesion.

The third-generation (1997-2001) sedan was even more refined and fleet-footed. The automatic-equipped car could reach 96 km/h in 7.8 seconds and come to a full stop in only 55 metres (from 112 km/h). Unfortunately, Toyota's bias toward comfort was all too evident on the skidpad, where the car generated only 0.76 g of lateral acceleration. Bodyroll was characterized as excessive.

Still, the ES 300 ranked first in a major magazine test of nine executive-class sedans, beating the likes of the Volvo 850 and Infiniti I30 (notably, the snug interior dimensions of BMW's 3 Series and Audi's A4 excluded them from the comparo).

"The Lexus is an excellent car, except that its handling is boring. (My) next car will be German, with tighter handling," posted an owner of a '94.

WHAT OWNERS REPORTED There was a time when people scoffed at the prospect of the Japanese auto makers ever building a desirable luxury car.

Comments posted on the Internet today reveal the skeptics have likely eaten a lot of hats by now.

This car exemplifies class, and is not at all as ostentatious as a Lincoln or Cadillac.

"I don't know how I will be able to drive anything else," wrote one owner. Similar sentiments abound. But here's a notion.

Has Toyota raised the bar so high hat it might be difficult for the company to manage expectations? "So far, it's been trouble-free, which is to be expected," one owner commented, before going on to gripe about niggling rattles and wind noise "a car of this calibre should not have." Owners of first-generation (ES 250) cars, of which few were sold in Canada, actually had a surprising list of complaints, including failed transmissions, air conditioners and entire engines (in small numbers).

Owners of the subsequent ES 300 generations are a happy bunch, save for the noted water pump failures, brake caliper and battery replacements, and the puzzling tendency of the cars to wear out tires quickly.

And while the trips to the Lexus dealership are few and far between, some protested the high fees charged for routine maintenance. It's hard, say owners, to have even an oil change done for less than $200, by the time the inspections are complete.

Someone called the ES 300 a "silk rocket" – a truth, as long as it's travelling in a straight line.

We would like to know about your ownership experience with the following models. Please note the deadlines: Ford Thunderbird, by Nov. 28; Mazda 323/Protege, by Dec. 12. Send your comments to Mark Toljagic, 2060 Queen St. E., P.O. Box 51541, Toronto, ON M4E 1C0. E-mail: toljagic @ idirect.com

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