VMR Canada
Lexus ES300 1992-1996

Moving Out of the Shadows 

When Lexus first burst upon these shores in 1989 (1990 for Canada) with their all-new and all-fabulous LS400, hardly anyone noticed that there was another car in the Lexus lineup.

The ES250 was the entry-level Lexus. While a good car, it simply didn't measure to up the standard the LS400 had set for the marque. Based on the Camry of the day, Toyota really didn't go all-out to give it it's own identity. It was simply a smoother, quieter and more luxurious Camry.  And back then the Camry was just a mid-pack family sedan.  It looked the part, too. But it captured a few dollars for the fledgling marque from people who couldn't afford the big Lexus, so on that basis it can be considered a success.

Strengths:
Design
Performance
Reliability
Quietness
Resale
Weaknesses:
Parts/service costs
Initial Cost
Headroom

Toyota certainly realized this. For the new "baby" Lexus, they made sure that it would be well distanced from the all-new -- and greatly improved -- Camry due for the 1992 model year.

The new ES debuted to rave reviews. Although there was still some resemblance to the Camry, the ES had clearly staked out its own, upscale territory.

What's Available

A 4-door was the only body style produced. The ES300 came in one trim level – well equipped. Initially, a leather package, power moonroof, CD player and heated front seats were the only options.

One engine, a 3.0 liter DOHC V6 rested in the engine bay. A smooth, 4-speed automatic did the shifting for the vast majority of ES300's, but a 5-speed could be had as well. They are not easy to find. There were some engine upgrades in 1994 that boosted power a bit and supposedly quieted the already silent engine even further. Unfortunately, the 5-speed was dropped that year, too.

As new model years came and went, Lexus added items such as traction control and a CD changer to the option list.

Exterior Design

Clearly recognizing the need to give the ES300 a distinct identity from its sister the Camry, Toyota must have devoted a lot of design time to the ES300. They succeeded brilliantly.

Sure, if you look really hard you can pick up hints of the Camry here and there, but the ES300 has a much sharper, cleaner and sportier look than the everyday Camry. In fact, the Camry looks downright dowdy next to an ES300. The ES300 has that expensive, crafted, jewel-like look that is difficult for automotive designers to capture.

Bold, dual beam projector headlights adorn the sharp front end. The beltline elegantly flows down the body to a slightly upturned C-pillar, finishing up with a slightly flared decklid.  The rear end houses two massive red and orange tallights. How did they make such large taillights look so delicate? Stare at the rear of an ES300 for awhile and you'll see subtle design characteristics unfold before you. Neat stuff.

Like all Lexus models, the ES300 sports a deep and lustrous paint job - among the best in the business. Wheels were initially attractive 15-inch alloys, increasing to 16-inches in 1994.

Running Changes

1992 New model, replaces ES250
1993 No major changes 
1994 Engine revisions gain 3hp, cut noise; dual airbags now standard; 
1995 double-piston front brake calipers added; wheels and tires increase from 15" to 16"; A/C goes CFC-free
1995 Headlights and taillights mildly revised; revised lower front bumper and air intake; chrome wheels available
1996 Last model year for this design, no major changes

Interior Design

If the exterior of the ES300 is satisfyingly distinct from the Camry, the interior look is even more so.
Using the same electroluminescent technology, premium materials, and harmonious colors and textures as the LS400, the ES300 presents a warm, inviting and luxurious cabin that would never be mistaken for a Camry.

The dash is wonderful at night, but at certain angles in bright sunlight it can be difficult to read. Everything is easy to reach and all controls are intuitive to operate. A tachometer, speedometer, gas and temp gauges reside in the instrument bin.

All are equipped with comfortable bucket seats, adorned in premium cloth or soft leather. A console sports the transmission lever and cup holders.

You can't help but notice how well everything fits together. It is quite obvious that a lot of thought and deliberation went into the interior.

Room & Comfort

Perhaps the ultimate tribute one could pay to the ES300 is that it gives up very little to the much more expensive LS400 in the comfort department. It's tighter and less opulent, but it costs a whole lot less, too.

One place that the ES300 comes up short is in the headroom department.  There just isn't a lot of it in this car, especially when equipped with a moonroof. Even sub-six-footers can brush the roof in front. In the back, forget it. It strikes us rather odd that this is the case. We suppose it's the price paid for that sleek roofline, it even drops total interior volume into the compact class.

For a relatively short wheelbase, there is plenty of legroom front and rear. Four adults will have no problem getting comfortable in the leg and knee room department. The seats are pleasantly firm and stay comfortable for long stretches. Carrying five adults is best left to short cross-town hops.

Visibility is good, and the pillarless glass on the doors lends to an airy open feeling.

As you would expect, everything is power-assisted. Cruise control, tilt and remote illuminated entry and are all standard. Every ES300 is equipped with a factory alarm system. Trunk space is good, but unfortunately the rear seat does not fold forward for increased cargo hauling versatility. It does offer a narrow pass-through in the center of the seat, which helps with long, narrow items. The trunk is well finished, so you probably will want to borrow your neighbor's pickup for any trips to the garden center! 

Ride, Handling and Performance

Smooth, quiet, refined. These are the characteristics most attributed to all Lexus', and with good reason. The ES300 is among the quietest cars we've ever driven. The ride, while not in the league of the LS400 or other super-luxury sedans, is smooth and controlled. Refinement oozes everywhere in the driving experience. 

Clearly, fling-me-about handling prowess was given second billing to the ride experience. Pushed hard you'll see typical understeer and a fair amount of body roll. It's a tad soft, but certainly not floaty or mushy. It all stays pointed where you want to go, and handles very predictably. Unless you're into racing up mountain canyon roads or attacking the back twisties, you'll never see the handling limits this car offers.

It does all this on industry standard McPherson struts front and rear. Apparently Lexus knows a little something about fine tuning these things. 

A 3.0-Liter 6-cylinder engine generating 185hp (188hp in '94 & '95) provides the motive power. This is an exceptionally smooth and quiet motor. It delivers pleasing sounds when pushed and never looses composure. It moves the car briskly, but the ES300 is not the class-leader in the acceleration department. Premium fuel is required on pre-'94 models. 

The automatic transmission is smooth and unobtrusive. You'll hardly know it's there. We could not find a manual transmission ES300 to test, but contemporary accounts reported nice feel and smooth operation, but not outstandingly so. If that's sounds wishy washy, that because it is -- we just can't give you a first-hand opinion on it.  Camrys field a good stick, but it's not in the Honda league.

Despite big discs all-around, braking distances are a bit long for this type of automobile, but still good. Brake feel and modulation are excellent, and stops are always straight and true. ABS is standard on all ES300s.

As we indicated earlier, this is among the quietest cars we've ever driven -- right up there with its big brother LS400, which is almost tomb-like in it's quietness. The engine is almost completely muted and wind noise doesn't enter until you reach high speeds. 

Safety

For such a premium technologically driven and up-market car, it is amazing to us that 1992 and '93 models made do with only a river-side airbag. Dual airbags didn't make the equipment list until the 1994 model year--when automakers were forced to adopt them for all cars. All model years possessed front and rear shoulder belts and ABS brakes as standard equipment. 

Government crash tests on a 1996 model resulted in a 5-star (excellent) rating for the driver and a 3-star (good) rating for the front passenger. 

Service

Simply being in the luxury category makes routine service and maintenance a bit more expensive than average. We're not entirely sure why this is always true. Apparently they figure that you must have some coin if you're buying these kinds of cars, so you won't mind if you're charged more for parts and service. This is a universal practice; just as the ES300 is a Camry underneath, most other luxury cars share parts with their less-expensive siblings, too. 

Lexus waited until the last minute to make the ES300's air conditioning system CFC-free. If not already done, pre-1994 cars will need to have their systems converted at a cost of $300-plus. 

Normal maintenance charges are above average. Timing belt replacement comes up at 70,000 miles and should run you a rather pricey $650-$800 at a dealer. Brakes and other routine service items weigh in a bit more than a Camry, too. Part of this is due to the high labor rate that many Lexus dealers charge. Must be part of that "Lexus Experience"! 

Reliability

As with most Toyotas, if you properly maintain an ES300, you'll rarely be surprised by something that goes wrong. Lexus clearly raised the bar on luxury car reliability the first year they came here, and have maintained that reputation ever since. Compared to, say, a Mercedes, well, there's just no comparison. While a Benz may be well-engineered and put together like a bank vault -- and
will last forever if taken car of -- they tend to develop small annoying problems at a much higher rate than any Lexus.

There are really no major weak spots in the reliability record of this car. An excellent bumper-to-bumper factory warranty of 4-years/50,000 miles accompanied every ES300 when new, but all of these models are now out of the original bumper-to-bumper warranty period. The original powertrain warranty extended to 6-years/70,000 miles, so you may find a later year model with some factory coverage still in effect.

A benefit of Toyota's excellent reliability record is that you can purchase an extended warranty from many sources for the ES300 at relatively low rates. 

And there is also the alternative of going to a Lexus dealer and purchasing one of their "certified" vehicles. These are generally the best trade-ins and lease returns that come into the dealer. These vehicles offer the comfort of a very strong factory-backed warranty. There's no free lunch here, however, and you'll pay premium prices for these vehicles. Click here for more Lexus Certified information.

Summary

There are two ways to look at this. Many opt for the practical approach of dismissing the ES300 as nothing more than a dressed-up, expensive Camry. After all, you can purchase a used top-of-the-line Camry XLS for thousands less than an ES300. 

The other school of thought distances the ES300 from the Camry and values the ES300 for what it is -- a fine, and refined, luxury sedan. No Camry has the sharp exterior look or the sumptuous cabin of the ES300, or the status of the Lexus nameplate. 

What They Said When New

"Whereas the ES250 was but another conservative, boxy Japanese sedan, the ES300 is one of the sportier, more graceful-looking entries in its class."......Car & Driver 2/92

"....you'll find that the ES300's skidpad and slalom times are actually a tick better than the Ultimate Driving Machine's.".....Road & Track 1/92

"The few seeds of discontent include a fair degree of body roll and seats that could use deeper bolstering. A high sill makes loading this Lexus' spacious trunk a difficult maneuver is also a disappointment.".....Motor Trend 9/91 

"The ES300 behaves much like the Camry in routine driving--competent but not exciting.".......Consumer Reports 5/95

"It was a warm day, and the ES300's a/c huffed and puffed for quite some time before it cooled the
front-seat passengers....."....... Automobile 10/91

"Impressively quiet, even at speed, the ES300 is as luxurious as a $26,000 sedan can be.".........Road & Track 1/92

 

General Specifications

General

Trim Levels: None
Body Styles: 4dr Sedan

Dimensions & Capacities

Weight: 3500 lbs. 
Length: 4dr 187.8"
Wheelbase: 103.1"
Width: 70.0"
Height: 53.9"
EPA Class: Compact
Interior Vol: n/a 
Cargo Vol : 14.0 cu. ft.
Fuel: 18.5 gallons 

Mechanical

Layout: Front-engine, Front-wheel drive 
Engines: 3.0L (6cyl-185/188hp) 
Transmission: 4-speed automatic w/overdrive;
5sp manual 
Brakes: Front/rear disc w/ABS 

Performance (auto trans)

0-60mph: 8.6 seconds (a/t) 8.0 seconds (5spd) 
1/4 mile: 16.7 seconds 
Top Speed: 130mph 

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