Thursday, May 13, 2004

It’s always interesting to get a new Lexus to test, especially when it’s been a couple of years since being in the same model. With most cars it’s easy to feel the differences that time and development create, but with Lexus those differences are extremely subtle. The cars are so well made that improvements generally go unnoticed.

So it is with the ES 330. For example the previous engine was a 3.0-liter V-6 (hence the ES 300 designation) that produced 210 horsepower and 220 foot-pounds of torque. The new 3.3 liter engine (ES 330, get it?) packs 225 horsepower and 240 foot-pounds of torque into the driveline, making nearly a second quicker in the 0-to-60 race than its predecessor.

It’s still smooth and quiet, just as the ES 300 was,.

The same is true of the transmission. The new automatic has been revised, with wider gear ratios between its five speeds. This allows for greater efficiencies, especially in the fuel mileage category (20 miles per gallon city/29 highway). To most drivers, all this improvement is seamless and passes without notice.

Safety improvements abound in the new ES 330. The front passenger seat has sensors that help determine if a child is sitting there. If so, an indicator light will come on, saying “airbag off.” The front and side air bags and the seatbelt pretensioners will be deactivated in this case. Conversely, if the system senses an adult it will activate the safety features.

The side air bags themselves extend from the A pillar to the C pillar, giving maximum protection in side impacts. The driver’s front air bag features an extra low-deployment stage that is based on how far forward the seat is positioned. All that, plus whiplash injury-reducing front seats and the usual electronic stability systems, make driving the ES 330 a pretty safe proposition.

I found the new navigation system to be much improved over previous ones. Those, in my opinion, were not particularly intuitive. It took a substantial amount of time to enter destination information and the screen was a bit too busy. The new system has cleaned-up graphics and more freeway information that shows upcoming exits and a compass. It’s a DVD system that Lexus claims contains more than 5 million points of interest (compared to the old system’s 2 million) and features 3D building footprint graphics for major cities such as Chicago, Detroit, L.A. and New York. The navigation screen has a button that, when pushed, tilts it out of the way to reveal a six-disc CD changer.

Two features I found useful were the power-adjustable accelerator and brake pedals that now have a memory, and the automatic sound level in the audio system. The former allows for less annoyance when multiple drivers (read: women with shorter legs) change positions and the latter makes things far more comfortable as ambient noises varies.

Lexus considers its ES 330 an “entry luxury” vehicle, although its price of $37,911 is a few thousand bucks higher than what I’d call “entry.” Even at that price you have to pay extra for heated seats ($440). However, the ride qualities of the car are exceptional. Much of this is due to the AVS (adaptive variable suspension) system that continuously changes each wheel’s shock-absorber damping to compensate for road-surface variations. The system also compensates for vehicle speed, steering and braking input and vertical movement. Drivers can choose one of four settings from Comfort to Sport. I found the extreme settings to be quite noticeable but there was little difference with the intermediate settings.

I really enjoyed the rain-sensing wipers. Weather conditions were such that, for two days, rain varied minute-by-minute among mist, sprinkle and downpour. Setting the wipers to “automatic” let them do their thing, and there was never a moment when I found myself wanting the wiper to sweep the windshield. The system was always way ahead of need. It does cost $640, and it’s part of the High Intensity Discharge lighting package.Overall, it’s fair to say that Toyota (Lexus) makes superb vehicles. Lexus is without doubt the best value of the luxury brands, so much so that it’s a wonderment that some people still consider Mercedes-Benz (currently in 27th place in the reliability ratings) a higher status vehicle. Lexus is clearly superior but still lacks the snob appeal. Knowledgeable buyers are increasingly becoming aware, however.

Perhaps the reason buyers don’t universally choose Lexus is that the cars are so reliable and functionally seamless that they don’t exhibit any “personality.” Granted, driving one is less than thrilling, but if you want luxurious transportation you simply can’t do better.

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