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ROAD TEST — Competition Is Catching Up With Lexus ES300

The Lexus ES300 is and should be on most shopping lists for a mainstream entry-level luxury sedan. Yet despite a number of enhancements for the 2000 model year, the old reliable standard is beginning to slip in favor of a number of new models that recently have been introduced.

The Lexus ES300 has had quite a run in the luxury market. It has been the safe, reliable recommendation in the entry luxury market for a decade. The ES300 has been a consistent winner of quality awards from J.D. Power and Associates and has also been singled out as a strong value by the consumer automotive research firm, Intellichoice.

In many years of discussing cars with their buyers, ES300 owners seem to be unusually content. Many owners, particularly women, have come up to the Lexus ES300 from mid-market models and are delighted with the car’s styling and refinement.

But the 2000 model year has seen several new competitive sedans. The new Lincoln LS and the heavily revised Infiniti I30 are new players on the A list. Meanwhile, the ES300 continues to look and feel as it has for several years , and unlike fine wine, aging does not enhance automotive products.

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Value has been a strong component of the ES300 story and with a base price of about $32,000, it’s a story that plays well with budget-minded owners who want to upgrade their personal transportation.

To the base price, our test car added the $1,885 Leather Trim Package, which includes a memory function for driver’s seat and outside mirrors. A $1,080 CD changer, adaptive variable suspension and skid control added $1,170.

The skid control option now includes an important feature called Brake Assist. Skid control optimizes traction under slippery conditions, while the Brake Assist technology enables maximum effectiveness of the anti-lock braking system under panic-stop conditions. This technology enhances vehicle safety and represents the latest generation of computer-controlled processes that are quietly revolutionizing the automotive industry, although most drivers are blissfully unaware of their presence.

To improve driver comfort and safety during nighttime driving, the ES300 now features a standard auto-dimming system to reduce the glare of reflected headlights for the inside and internal rear-view mirrors. Owners who operate in heavy traffic at night will particularly appreciate this feature.

Styling, both exterior and interior, remains a long suit for the ES300. For the 2000 model year, the ES300 receives some subtle exterior modifications.

A new grill design features a bolder grill treatment with a more distinctive chrome frame and two broad cross bars. High-intensity headlights are available, although our test car was not so equipped.

The ES300’s interior receives some aesthetic upgrades as well, including new stainless steel scuff plates with the Lexus logo. Additional California walnut wood trim has been added to the center console surrounding the climate control and audio systems. The ES300’s interior remains the benchmark for its segment.

On the road the ES300 is all about quiet operation and has few equals in its price category. The body structure keeps wind, road and mechanical noise to a minimum.

The ES300’s 210-horsepower, V-6 engine pulls smoothly. Although the engine doesn’t provide inspired performance, it should satisfy most buyers.

The engine is mated to an electronically controlled four-speed transmission. I found, however, there was some slack in the transmission, which under the right conditions of slowing down and speeding up could result in a major jerk forward when one applied the accelerator.

Our test car was equipped with the new optional Adaptive Variable Suspension system, and I found its operation less than satisfying. In fact, if my memory serves me well, I think the car handles better without the new technology which continuously changes each wheel’s shock absorber’s damping rate in response to road conditions.

Overall, the handling of the ES300 lacks the control and precision I would expect in this class of automobile. Driving on mountain roads is an almost daily occurrence in my life and under these conditions the ES300 feels excessively soft and unresponsive and does not supply adequate feedback to the driver.

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