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Chief engineer Kosaku Yamada and the 2002 Lexus ES 300

Engaging the ES 300

Although some people think that this is the Age of the Truck, with vehicles like the all-new ES 300, the people at Lexus don’t see car sales going anywhere... but up.

“The bread-and-butter car for Lexus.”

That’s Denny Clements, group vice president and general manager of the Lexus Division, describing the ES 300 sedan, a car that has reached the top of the J.D. Power & Associates Entry Luxury Car rankings for four years out of six. It is a car whose owners return to the Lexus brand 69% of the time.

A car that is built in the Toyota Kyushu Plant, which has taken the J.D. Power Platinum Plant award for two years in a row.

Let’s face it: “The bread-and-butter car for Lexus” would be the “toast tips and caviar” for other carmakers.

And as Lexus launches the 2002 ES 300, things get even better.

One thing before we go on. Lest you think that the “bread-and-butter” metaphor is too plebian for the ES 300, or that Clements is in some ways minimizing the significance of the car, know that he also says that when they were developing it, “we put our eggs into the most luxurious basket we could build.” And given the aforementioned accolades, that’s quite a basket.

Everyone knows about the Toyota Production System (TPS). That’s because one of the tenets at Toyota City and its satellites is that if every manufacturer becomes more efficient, then it is better for all concerned. This explains why the company is so open when it comes to TPS. But let’s face it: The likelihood that any other manufacturing company will pursue TPS with the same persistence and vigor as Toyota is practically in the “snowball in hell” category. (Consider: General Motors has been a partner with Toyota at NUMMI, which was incorporated in December, 1983, and I’d argue that GM hasn’t really embraced its version of TPS since... 2000.)

Kosaku Yamada, ES 300 chief engineer, tells me that the real differential between Toyota and other vehicle manufacturers is not the TPS. It’s the Toyota Product Development System.

So I ask him to tell me more about it.

He smiles.

This one stays in house.

Here’s one thing to consider about product development at Toyota. Yamada has been with the ES 300 since there has been an ES 300 (it first appeared in the fall of 1991 as a model year 1992 vehicle). He knows the car thoroughly. (Yes, he is also in charge of the platform-mate, the Camry.)

This leads to a series of questions that people at other vehicle manufacturing companies ought to ponder:

  • How many engineers at other automakers stay with a given platform for more than one iteration?
  • How many other engineers take a continuous improvement approach to a given platform for such a length of time?
  • How many cars are as successful, year in, year out, as the ES 300?

Maybe this is part of the secret of the Toyota Product Development System: People stay with the program for a long time.

And there is another thing that becomes clear. Yamada’s vision is that which is realized in the vehicle. Although he says, “To be sure we would exceed expectations with this new model, we went straight to the source—our customers.” That’s the sort of consumer surveying that is part and parcel of any vehicle development program. But he also talks about how he once had time to pursue a hobby, which was to design and build things ranging from furniture to an entire house (“I don’t have time for hobbies like that anymore.” Which isn’t too surprising, given the ES 300 and the Camry.). Clearly, he is someone who is hands-on and attentive to all aspects of what he creates (“Because we wanted every detail to be perfect we even engineered the ashtray, cup holder, glove box, and sunglass holder to open at the same, consistent speed.”).

Yamada says: “By putting my heart and soul into this design, just as I do all of the things I make, I hope this ES 300 will inspire owners to love their cars and keep customers in the Lexus family for years to come.”

So here’s another aspect of the Toyota Product Development System: The chief engineer is the person in charge. You may think there is a whole lot of consensus-building that goes on during development, but I’m willing to bet that when it gets right down to it, the chief engineer is the chief.

There were five objectives that Yamada and his colleagues pursued in the 30-month development of the 2002 ES 300 (24 months from design freeze). In Yamada’s words they are:

  • Exciting exterior and interior styling
  • A luxurious, comfortable and quiet cabin
  • Excellent power and performance
  • Outstanding driving stability and ride comfort
  • Global best-in-class safety performance.

Although some of these aspects are certainly subjective, most of them are the result of solid engineering. It is worth noting that as the ES 300 follows the LS 430; the flagship sedan had carryover effects on the ES 300. Clements quips, “We could have called it the ‘LS 300’.”

When speaking of the 2002 ES 300 as compared to the previous vehicle, Yamada says that they “pulled out a clean sheet of paper.”

Overall, this is a new platform. It is dimensionally different. Whereas the wheelbase of the 2001 model is 105.1 in., it is 107.1 in. for ’02. The length is up to 191.1 in. from 190.2 in. The new vehicle is even higher: 57.3 in. versus 54.9 in. Yet although it is bigger, it is more aerodynamic: The ’02 model has a coefficient of drag of 0.28, as compared with 0.29 in the previous model.

The aerodynamics are the result of some serious computational fluid dynamics (CFD) work that was performed largely to help reduce wind noise (as part of an overall effort to minimize NVH). A consequence of this is that there are flush surfaces around the leading edge of the hood, headlights, and side windows (testifying to Toyota’s excellence in stamping). What’s more, the underbody has been engineered so that it is essentially flat.

As for the inside of the vehicle, there are several touches, such as California walnut trim (the real thing, not a polymer substitute), electrochromic auto-dimming rear-view mirror (the side-views do the same), and the availability of the same seat leather as found in the LS 430. Architecturally, the layout of the instrument panel and the center console form a T-shape; the overall sense (and reality) is that there is plenty of room for people.

As for the “excellent power and performance,” it comes from a carryover engine—an all-aluminum, 24-valve, 3.0-liter, V6 with continuously Variable Valve Timing with Intelligence (VVT-I) and a new five-speed electronically controlled transmission. The engine was tweaked with such things as a redesigned cast-resin intake manifold, redesigned exhaust system, and upgraded computer software. Even though the horsepower (210 hp @ 5,800 rpm) and torque (220-lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm) are the same as in the previous generation, the new model is quicker: 0 to 60 mph in 8.1 seconds rather than 8.3 seconds; the quarter mile in 16.1 seconds versus 16.3 seconds. That said, the new powertrain (which features throttle-by-wire) is not only ULEV rated, but it is more fuel-efficient than its predecessor: 20/29 mpg as compared with 19/26 mpg. (The fuel efficiency numbers are said to be best-in-class.)

The stability and handling are enhanced by the optional Adaptive Variable Suspension system, which independently controls the damping characteristics of each MacPherson strut. There are ventilated front and solid rear disk brakes, ABS, and electronic brake distribution. Twin-piston brake calipers and rotors are designed so that they minimize squeaks and squeals; Toyota tested the brakes in Los Angeles (where the braking performance is probably more important than acceleration.)

The safety performance goes well beyond the airbags (front, side, and side curtain) and the whiplash-injury-lessening seat design. Just as CFD was used to design the skin, extensive computer-aided engineering (CAE) was used to develop the structure, especially as it pertains to safety. There is a new subframe to reduce cabin deformation in a collision. There is extensive use of tailored blanks, such as three-pieces (thick, thicker, thickest) forming the front side members and dual thickness B-pillars. The A-pillars go up further into the roof for crash energy management.

The marketing plans call for 50,000 ES 300s to be sold on an annual basis. Given (a) how well Lexus is doing in a market that has been trying for other brands and (b) the overall performance and amenities of the ES 300, 50,000 seems like too small a number.