I like to think I have a strong familiarity with Japanese cars. Growing up my entire family drove Hondas or Toyotas, and even an Acura was thrown into the mix (but more on that in a couple weeks). The Toyota Camry was certainly a popular option for families, Toyota's track record for safety and reliability was well known, and their products were affordable to the masses. It's no wonder that Lexus became the success it was in the 90s. Well, maybe that and the price cutting.
Either way, I get really excited when we get the opportunity to drive an OEM+ vehicle from this era, especially one I didn't have a lot of knowledge about. The third generation (XV20) Lexus ES 300 shares the same platform and chassis code as the 1996-2001 Toyota Camry, and the front ends are familiar, but that's about it. The Lexus ES sports some unique exterior characteristics like frameless windows and large LS 400-style tail lights. The silhouette is similar, but the car certainly stands on it's own and looks great with the two-tone paint scheme made popular during the 80s and 90s.
The Lexus ES is a strange example of Toyota's push into the luxury market. Traditionally the formula for luxury was big engine, rear-wheel drive, and cutting-edge features. The ES doesn't have any of these things. It's 3.0L V6 definitely packs a punch even by today's standards, but the limiting factor comes with the FWD layout. It was something I noticed right away when I took the car out for our test drive, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. FWD can prove to be more manageable in winters and snow, and if you're not worried about performance can still be good for a luxury car.
I personally put Lexus alongside Mercedes-Benz and BMW when it comes to luxury status, but many would put them in the same category as Infiniti and Acura. Aside from the Acura 1.6EL, I rarely see a pre-2005 Acura or Infiniti on the road, yet there are plenty of Lexus models like this still serving drivers 20 years on. In fact, this generation ES is still sought after by enthusiasts, first-time buyers, and commuters looking for the perfect balance between luxury and reliability. Lexus was able to produce a relatively affordable mid-size luxury car that sold by the boat load, and could easily drive 200,000km without any major problems.
During our research on the ES 300 we found plenty of owners driving past the 250,000km mark with the XV20s, however we did notice that these cars get driven less than their GS 400 brothers. While many GS owners take their vehicles beyond the half-a-million kilometre mark, the ES family don't seem to get driven as much.
So let's talk luxuries. This ES 300 came with heated seats, power moonroof, and an all-around original life over the past 217,000kms. The interior felt nice, and keeping with the GS 400, the interior felt like it was designed with purpose. Nothing felt out of place, and I didn't have to go searching for anything. The interior has also held up incredibly well over the past 19 years, with no damage to the seat leather, no broken trim pieces, and only 1 missing window switch. Everything worked as it should have.
From our photo above, the car doesn't look overly luxurious to be honest, and Lexus addressed that concern with the facelift in 2000 and with special edition, 3 in total from what we've been able to determine. The Coach Edition was offered in 1999 and 2001 and added additional trim, special badging, perforated leather seats, and special rims. A Platinum Series was offered in 2000 along with the LS 400 and GS 400/300 at the time which skipped the extra wood trim in lieu for a wood steering wheel and the option of perforated seating. A Canadian-only Millennium Edition was also made available in 2000 which had most of the Platinum features, but a regular steering wheel and special wood trim throughout. Self-levelling Xenon headlights were also standard on that trim.
With so many special editions, does anything really feel special? In my opinion, the added wood trim and steering wheel should have been offered on all facelift ES models to help sell the luxury price of the car. Lexus has certainly gone with a different approach for the most recent generation, and we'll be covering that in more depth over the next couple weeks.
Back to the appeal of these cars; reliability. It's not a myth. Overall these are some of the most reliable cars you can buy even 20 years on. We found that the front end can be costly to refresh, and the engines can suffer from sludge buildup if regular oil changes aren't performed on time. Toyota USA did offer repair/replacement for all US ES models after a class-action lawsuit, however it's still crucial to check service histories when buying any car. Another common problem is 99 and newer V6 models. Toyota started to introduce VVT-i, or variable valve timing on their engines. The fear with owners is developing a jump in the timing due to the interference nature of a VVT-i engine. While there's no danger if regular maintenance is performed, the stigma of jumped timing has caused many to search out 98 and older models.
It's recommended that VVT-i engines have their timing belts replaced before 190,000km, and non-interference engines can go 250,000km. Either way, preventative maintenance is key when keeping a car like this on the road.
Head on over to clublexus.com for more information about these cars, and to join their incredible community of Lexus enthusiasts. We've found plenty of information to write these reviews and videos from their years of posts and knowledge. Watch our full episode of TestDrive Spotlight on the 1999 Lexus ES 300 below: