Why do luxury-car companies offer entry-level models? It's in part to give new buyers a good first impression of their brand. Lexus' new ES 350 entry-level luxury sedan is remarkably successful in this way because it has all the things buyers in this segment expect: capable performance, a serene ride, advanced safety features and a nicely appointed cabin. It's the sheet-metal equivalent of a firm handshake.
Exterior & Styling
The front-wheel-drive ES 350 has sharper angles and more defined body panel creases than the 2006 ES 330. With its rear-set cabin and short decklid, the new ES looks a lot like the company's GS sport sedan; it's a classy, conservative design.
Standard alloy wheels measure 17 inches in diameter. The rear doors are especially long and might prove difficult to open if you're in a tight parking space.
Ride & Handling
The ES 350 is one of those cars that can play tricks with your senses; it's incredibly easy to find yourself driving much faster than you think you are. As is common of Lexus passenger cars, it's very quiet on the highway, with just a whisper of wind noise.
The four-wheel independent suspension delivers a comfortable cruising experience. The ride is reminiscent of Lexus' flagship LS 430 sedan, which has also been redesigned for 2007 and is now dubbed the LS 460. Though manhole covers can deliver a hard hit, the suspension filters most road imperfections before they can disturb the cabin. With the smooth ride comes moderate body roll, and the car also tends to bob up and down a few times after traveling over a big dip in the road.
Steering the ES 350 is a low-effort affair. There's not a hint of friction in the wheel — it's as if every component is made of Teflon. Though the system is engine-speed sensitive, steering effort isn't measurably greater at highway speeds. Perhaps this is because the V-6 is only turning at around 2,100 rpm when cruising on the highway. At any rate, greater effort would be appreciated at higher speeds.
Going & Stopping
The ES 350 has a 272-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 54 hp more than the 3.3-liter V-6 in the outgoing ES 330. The former five-speed automatic transmission has been replaced with a six-speed automatic that has a clutchless-manual mode. With EPA estimates of 21/30 mpg (city/highway), the ES 350 gets slightly better gas mileage than its predecessor.
Though some competitors, like the Buick Lucerne and Chrysler 300, offer an optional V-8, ES 350 buyers aren't likely to find the V-6 wanting for power. It provides strong acceleration and teams with a smooth-shifting automatic; during my test, the transmission never made a harsh shift. I averaged 30 mpg during a stretch of highway driving, the same as the EPA's figure.
Like the steering system, brake pedal effort is light. The pedal has a soft feel, and it's difficult at times to modulate the touchy brakes in order to stop smoothly.
The five-person cabin has a flowing dashboard design that's also found in other newer Lexus cars. The cabin looks a bit plain when finished in black, but the controls — especially the intuitive touch-screen display that manages the navigation, audio and climate systems — are easy to learn. (When not equipped with the optional navigation system, conventional buttons for the climate and audio systems occupy the space where the display would go.) I wish Lexus would ditch the digital clock for a more luxurious timepiece — it's too similar to a Corolla's.
Standard luxury features include real wood trim on the doors and center console, a power tilt/telescoping steering wheel, keyless access and start, and chic LED lighting. The dashboard features some interesting angles, but in certain light the material has a noticeable shine to it. Direct sunlight through the rear window can also wash out the image on the touch-screen display. Other than a larger than normal gap near the bottom of the center stack, trim pieces fit together tightly.
Cloth seat upholstery is standard; my test car had the optional leather. The front seats have 10-way power adjustment, and the driver's backrest is soft and comfy, but I was sore after driving for a few hours because the bottom cushion doesn't provide enough support. A power-extendable driver's seat cushion is optional.
Rear headroom, legroom and shoulder room are similar to the previous-generation ES 330, but rear hip room has been reduced by a few inches. The outer spots of the rear bench seat are comfortable enough for adults, but don't expect any extra legroom or headroom. As might be expected, the center spot has less usable headroom and legroom and the seat isn't as comfortable, but at least there's not a bump in the floor taking up foot space.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the ES 350 its highest rating, Good, in its frontal-offset and side-impact crash tests.
An electronic stability system, tire pressure monitoring system and all-disc antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist are standard. Side-impact airbags for the front seats, front and rear side curtain airbags, and driver and front passenger knee airbags are standard. Rear-seat side-impact airbags are included with the optional Ultra-Luxury Package.
Other optional safety features include radar-based adaptive cruise control and adaptive headlights that turn left or right with the steering wheel to better illuminate curves in the road. The adaptive cruise control system is included with Lexus' Pre-Collision System, which will tighten the front seat belts and ready brake assist if the system determines a collision is likely. PCS can also brake the car without driver intervention if needed.
Cargo & Towing
Measuring 14.7 cubic feet, the ES 350's trunk is about 1 cubic foot smaller than the Lincoln MKZ's trunk, and its rear seats don't fold to expand the cargo area; there is a trunk pass-thru that's suitable for skis or other long, skinny items. The trunk has four tie-down rings, and a standard temporary spare tire or optional full-size spare on an alloy wheel resides under the trunk floor. Maximum towing capacity is 1,000 pounds when properly equipped.
Noteworthy options include a panorama glass roof, heated and ventilated front seats, a power rear sunshade, and front and rear parking sensors. Models with the voice-activated navigation system have a rearview camera that makes judging the distance between the ES 350's back bumper and another car or object a breeze. A Mark Levinson surround sound system can be bundled with the navigation system; when the car is in Park, DVDs can be viewed on the navigation system's 7-inch screen.
ES 350 in the Market
After spending a week with the ES 350, there's no reason to suspect it won't retain its title as Lexus' best-selling passenger car and remain a popular choice in the entry-level luxury segment. For a modest premium over the outgoing model, the ES 350 adds more standard features, more power and a more distinctive appearance. Though there are sportier alternatives, like the Acura TL or Infiniti G35, the ES 350 should keep current ES owners coming back while also appealing to shoppers who might not have considered the previous ES. And that's not an easily accomplished feat.
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