LAKE LAS VEGAS, Nevada - Considered the "bread and butter" model from Toyota's luxury division, the ES is entering its fifth generation with an attractive and technically satisfying redesign. Just about every time Lexus reworks an existing model, it gets a new (higher) numerical designation. So it is with the ES 350, which gets a larger V-6 engine and replaces the previous ES 330.
Bob Carter, group vice-president and general manager of Lexus, believes that this fifth-generation ES beats the original full-size LS 400 sedan of 1990 in many areas, including acceleration. Carter promises a "new level of authentic luxury," led by the "tranquility of its passenger compartment." Ride quality, he insists, "is unmatched by any other vehicle in its segment.
Occupying what Carter calls the "comfort subset in the entry-luxury segment," the ES 350 rides on a wheelbase 2 inches longer than that of its predecessor. Width has grown by 3.9 inches, and front/rear track widths are greater. Weight, unfortunately, has increased by 108 pounds. Even so, the ES 350 gets an EPA gas-mileage estimate of 21-mpg in the city and 30-mpg on the highway - respectable figures for a sedan in this league.
Operating with roller rocker arms and dual variable valve timing with "intelligence," the new high-output 3.9-liter, 24-valve V-6 generates 272 horsepower at 6,200 rpm, and 250 pound-feet of torque at 4,700 rpm. That's sufficient to permit acceleration to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds, according to Lexus.
Keyless pushbutton start/stop means the driver gives the button one brief push to crank the engine, then lets it go. Lexus says the new six-speed automatic transmission is the first such installation in a front-drive automobile. Lexus also claims that it has 27 percent fewer parts than the previous five-speed unit, and 24 percent fewer hydraulic control devices (half as many as some rivals).
Seven-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels are mounted, and direct tire-pressure warning is standard. Curtain-type airbags are standard, along with side-impact airbags mounted in the front doors. Rear airbags are offered in an option package. A Premium Plus Package includes such extras as power-adjustable seat length. Lexus also offers an Ultra Luxury Package that includes a full panoramic roof.
Adaptive front lighting with steerable headlamps is available. Sonar-operated Park Assist is optional, too. Additional extra-cost items include Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, a Pre-Collision System, and Mark Levinson 14-speaker, 300-watt sound with 0.1 percent total harmonic distortion.
Overall, this is one smooth automobile - even better than before, and the prior ES was excellent. It's hard to beat as a sensible sedan with luxurious touches.
Expect strong acceleration all around, plus automatic-transmission shifts that are only moderately noticed. From a standstill, hitting the gas delivers close to exuberant energy. The automatic transmission causes engine rpm to drop when shifting at full throttle, but it delivers energizing performance.
Handling may not be sporty in nature, but it's confident, reliable and wholly predictable. Steering feel is satisfying, even if the wheel isn't guiding an especially taut suspension. Ride quality ranks as lovely, making the ES 350 close to faultless throughout.
At the left of the distinctive but unusually asymmetric horseshoe-shaped center dashboard, in the handsome two-toned interior, an odd binnacle protrudes above the instrument panel. Seat bottoms are long enough, and seats are invitingly comfortable as well as nicely supportive.
Excellent visibility is helped by good mirrors and abundant glass. Apart from minuscule engine snarl at high rpm, the ES 350 is enjoyably quiet.
You might not feel excited behind the wheel, but the ES provides a lot of car for the money if you're a more sensible sort. ES models have long been faulted by some for being too Camry-like. Even if that's true, this is one satisfying sedan with enough upscale touches to warrant extra dollars.
"The Lexus way is to move upmarket," Carter said during the media preview, and the ES's segment is moving toward sport-performance. That puts Lexus "in a position to take full advantage of a golden opportunity," as others have left the luxury end behind. Lexus expects to sell 70,000 Japanese-made ES 350 sedans per year, which would give them a 12 percent share of the segment.