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That is called the OVERDRIVE OFF and yes it will affect you transmission. The overdrive is your highest gear, used for highway cruising and will promote the best fuel economy. You have an Overdrive switch in the vehicle. It is either on the shifter knob or on the center console/dash. It allows you to disable the overdrive if you desire. It sounds like you turned it off unwittingly.
Is your O/D off? There should be a light under your speedometer, if it says "O/D OFF" than your car wont go to fourth gear. You can turn the overdrive back on on the knob that changes gears, theres a little button on the side. Press it and you should be good.
There isn't anything wrong with your car. This is perfectly normal. I have a 2000 ES300 as well as other people that I know and it operates in the same way. Overdrive doesn't mean the same thing for every car or transmission. In our case overdrive is simply a reference to the top gear which is 4th gear. When you switch overdrive off(which is depressing the button causing the O/D OFF dash light to illuminate,) the highest gear becomes 3rd because you turned 4th gear or overdrive off. The application scenario for this is usually mountainous terrain where a lot of uphill driving makes it more feasible not to up shift into 4th gear while ascending and descending. It will not switch back to overdrive or 4th gear until you re-engage it by turning the overdrive back on or repressing the button. Again, when the O/D OFF dash light is illuminated, overdrive which is 4th gear is off and the highest gear will then become 3rd. It will never shift into 4th gear while this light is illuminated or overdrive is off. When you press the button and the O/D OFF dash light is NOT illuminated overdrive is on and therefore it will shift into 4th gear as usual. This applies to all 97-2001 ES300's and probably any other car you drive tat exhibits this same type of change when overdrive is turned off.