Lexus ES 350 gains power — quietly

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Auto writers are fond of drooling over luxury sports sedans that offer performance combined with slot-car-like road-holding prowess.

While we think as a group that this combination of vast horsepower, tuned suspensions and highly bolstered seats is the epitome of the four-passenger-over-35-grand genre, there are many buyers who value a soft compliant ride, whisper-quiet interior and recliner-comfortable seats.

We know this because the Lexus ES sells in bigger quantities every year than nearly any other luxury make. Last year, for example, Lexus sold nearly 68,000 ES sedans. The ES is also the most affordable and arguably the softest side of the Lexus brand.

The 2007 ES350 has arrived in showrooms and we have very good news for entry-level luxury car fans who value ultimate comfort. The newest ES — based on the Toyota Camry platform as always — is the best ES since it was first introduced in 1989. The 2007 edition sets new standards in exterior styling, performance, solitude, compliant ride and interior appointments.

Smartly this package comes at a very small price premium over the 2006 model. It starts at $33,865. A few extras on our test car including leather-trimmed seating, power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, full-sized spare tire and a voice-activated wireless Bluetooth hands-free system brought the bottom line to $36,174 including destination charge.

There are other extras that might entice you into spending more cash including heated and cooled seats, DVD navigation, and an upgraded audio system. But you would be hard pressed to push the sticker price much past 40 grand.

Through the years the ES was not known for its performance, which, by the way, was always adequate. But it was never noteworthy. That has changed for 2007. In our horsepower crazy world – even in this age of $3-per gallon gasoline, Lexus has endowed the ES with performance usually reserved for its top-of-the-line LS sedan.

The newest generation ES350 gets an all-new 3.5-liter V-6 generating 272 horsepower and 254 pound-feet of torque directed through a silky smooth six-speed automatic transmission. That’s a 54 horsepower gain over the previous 3.3-liter V-6.

That new found power can be felt behind the wheel at all speeds. Put the pedal to the floor from a stopped position and the ES350 will leap to life, hitting 60 miles per hour in under 7 seconds. Torque steer from the front-driven wheels is virtually non-existent and would never be a concern anyway for 95 percent of the drivers of the ES.

The ride is luxuriously compliant. For drivers desiring a more sporting attitude for those occasional weekend afternoons when a curving road beckons, Lexus says it has the IS250 and IS350 sports sedans.

But this is not to say that the ES350 leans and rolls too much in the corners. It doesn’t. It is very composed with good on-center feel and nicely weighted steering. It’s simply not quite at true sports sedan standards, giving up that edge in favor of a soft ride.

The exterior takes on the new shape of Toyota meaning a longer hood and shorter rear deck. The ES has always had handsome but very conservative lines. This new model is just north of conservative, perhaps more modern looking while remaining a handsome addition to any driveway.

The interior may be the biggest selling point for the new sedan. It features more rear-seat legroom, having grown about two inches in wheelbase. There’s stretch-out room in back, a great place for two adult passengers to reside.

And conversation between front and rear passengers can be accomplished in mellow tones because of the almost unbelievably hushed interior. Lexus has set the standard for quiet cabins since it came on the market and this car more than lives up to the reputation.

The dashboard layout is about as neat and simple as possible in today’s high-tech world. Lexus still does it best. Real wood trim — walnut in our test car — adorns the center console and door panels. High-quality leather can be added with the $1,280 premium package along with a wood and leather steering wheel with power tilt and telescoping features.

We didn’t have it on our vehicle, but another available option is a power cushion extender which increases or decreases the length of the seat bottom cushion. Two different seat positions can be programmed into the key fob.

Front seats can also be outfitted with heaters and coolers.

Many people may yearn for the upgraded Mark Levinson audio system, which can be bundled with a navigation system, but we found the standard system with six-disc changer, eight speakers and MP3 player connectivity very satisfying.

One of the car’s highlights is pushbutton starting. All models get total keyless entry and pushbutton ignition. The driver never has to take the key-fob from his pocket. The car’s computer reads the fob and automatically unlocks the doors. Likewise, a simple push of a black button on the door locks everything up when leaving. We have found this keyless system, now available on several brands, extremely convenient.

Add in a high number of cutting-edge safety features — including side-curtain airbags, Vehicle Stability Control and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution — with economy-car gas mileage of 21 city and 30 highway, and you have another winner from Lexus.


Base price: $33,865; as driven: $36,174
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6
Horsepower: 272 @ 6,200 rpm
Torque: 254 pound-feet @ 4,700 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 109.3 inches
Length: 191.1 inches
Curb weight: 3,580 pounds
Turning circle: 36.7 feet
Fuel capacity: 18.5 gallons
EPA mileage: 30 mpg highway, 21 city
0-60: 6.8 seconds (Road and Track)
Also consider: Acura TL, Infiniti G35, Volvo S60

The Good:
• Stepped-up performance is rewarding.
• Quiet Lexus interiors are getting even quieter.

The Bad:
• The ES is still no sports sedan.
• No split-folding rear seat.

The Ugly:
• The ES350 can be purchased at a $5,000 savings — it's called a Toyota Camry XLE.