HALF MOON BAY, CA There's only one explanation for ES 300's transformation: the “Jenny Jones Show” has begun airing in Japan.
One glimpse of the '02 and it's clear someone at Lexus saw television's makeover matriarch and was inspired by the episode entitled, “The girl next door was a frump now she's a fox.”
The car's familiar business suit, the one that made even ardent admirers wince, is hanging in the closet. In its place is finery that accentuates the curves ES 300 has always had, but Lexus was too timid to show.
's premium brand has induced ES 300 to remove its horn-rimmed glasses and shake loose its hair like the lithe but stodgy young librarian with pouty red lips who finally succumbs to her animal urges.
I digress but these are the emotions Lexus seeks to evoke. And it succeeds.
“Far more aggressive” is how Dennis E. Clements, Lexus group vice president and general manager, describes the automaker's approach to the new ES 300, due to hit showrooms in October with a sticker in the low $30,000 range.
“We've always done very well with the rational reasons people buy luxury cars,” Mr. Clements says. “But we don't get a lot of emotional hits.”
In a bid to turn up the heat, Lexus already is showing flair, albeit restrained, with its upscale GS and ES 300's sportyish segment-mate, IS 300. But at the other end of the scale is SC 430, with just the right ration of radicalism.
“You're going to see that from us,” Mr. Clements promises. “It's part of the evolution of the brand. So when people think about Lexus, we want them to think of more than a great, reliable car.”
Again, one glimpse of the '02 ES 300 gets the message across. Accented by chrome extensions, its taillights now turn the corner, hugging the rear quarter panels like a fanny wrap.
The front gets similar treatment, as its halogen headlamps, with their “three-pod” configuration (daytime running lights, low beams and high beams), creep up the fenders like a slit on a skirt, suggesting a windswept look.
Longer and wider than the '01 by 2 ins. and 3.6 ins. (5 cm and 9 cm), respectively the new ES 300 offers more interior room, especially for rear passengers.
And its low drag coefficient (0.28) is the product of refinements such as a flat underbody and reshaped mirrors. But the most significant benefit of the latter is viewed best from the inside.
The '01 might as well have been equipped with a periscope. But the new model's enlarged mirrors offer ease of use that only enhances the superior ride.
Mercifully, Lexus has abandoned the pleated leather featured on the new model's precursor. In its place are smooth clean lines consistent with the car's sleek exterior. Less is definitely more here.
Speaking of quantity, how long will it be before walnut trees go on the endangered species list? Just asking, because their wood is available on every Lexus line. The '02 ES 300 features California Walnut, but in tasteful measure.
Further enriching the interior is an optional Mark Levinson audio system so sophisticated it could make Björk sound pleasant in the right hands. And when integrated with the optional DVD-based nav system, it features a flip-up face.
While pricing won't be set until next month at the earliest, sound and navigation packages on current Lexus models include amenities such as heated seats. And they list for about $5,800. Worth it? Put it this way, you won't be disappointed.
The same can't be said, however, of the adaptive variable suspension (AVS) Lexus is pushing. (Cost on the current model: $692, but available only when ordered with feature packages ranging from $1,900 to $2,500).
How do you improve on the ride of the base '01? Why try? On the winding hillside roads above Palo Alto, switching AVS settings from sport to comfort and back to sport produced negligible thrills.
Like its predecessor, the new ES 300 is equipped with a 210-hp, 3L V-6. It's as comfortable as an easy chair but always ready to rock, thanks to a silken 5-speed electronically controlled transmission (ECT) that's new for '02.
The good news: Success hasn't spoiled the ES 300.
The bad news: Jenny Jones is expanding her audience.
2002 Lexus ES 300
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive lower luxury sedan
Engine: 3L 24V Four-cam V-6
Power: 210 @ 5,800 rpm
Torque: 220 @ 4,400 rpm
Compression ratio: 10.5:1
Bore & stroke: 87.5 mm × 83 mm
Transmission: 5-speed ECT with overdrive
Wheelbase: 107.1 ins. (272 cm)
Overall length: 191.1 ins. (485 cm)
Overall width: 71.3 ins. (181 cm)
Overall height: 57.3 ins. (146 cm)
Curb weight (convertible): 3,439 lbs. (1,563 kg)
Market competition: Acura TL, Audi A4, 3-Series, 300 M, Mercedes C-Class, Saab 9-3