Still, the Lexus ES is a luxury sedan that celebrates smoothness, quietude and sophistication. It doesn't suffer the hard ride of a sports sedan. You can safely sip a cappuccino on the way to work. The ride is smooth, the engine is smooth, the transmission operation is flawless, and everything is quiet.
The Lexus ES has come a long way. When Toyota launched its Lexus brand of luxury cars in 1989, its entry-level car was the ES 250, a thinly disguised Camry chassis and powertrain with an upgraded body and interior. This car's role was to give the new dealers some sales volume to help support the big LS 400. With each of the succeeding four generations of ES, the car has better met the needs of the upper end of the entry-luxury segment, with more room, more space, more power and more standard equipment. And more safety features. The all-new 2007 ES 350 makes the greatest single leap in ES history.
The ES uses front-wheel drive, while the Lexus IS models are rear-wheel drive. In short, the ES is designed more for luxury and a smooth, comfortable ride, while the IS models are designed more for performance and handling.
The ES 350 will compete with the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, BMW 3 Series, Infiniti G35 and M35, Audi A6, Saab 9-3, Volvo S60 and a host of domestics in this popular class. Pricing for the 2007 ES 350 was not available at press time.
Lexus ES 350
The first thing that impressed us was the new look and more generous physical size of the car. The grille has been subdued, the headlamp units have been made smaller and less obtrusive, and the accent line along the side has been raised to yield more musculature under the skin. Now this car looks like it belongs in a Lexus showroom.
The new ES 350 was consciously upsized, to about where the original LS 400 flagship car was when it was introduced. The wheelbase is more than two inches longer at 109.25 inches, the body is wider by 0.4 inches, the track is wider by 1.2 inches, and the body has crisper, shorter overhangs along with a new front, side and rear appearance that's much more luxurious looking than any previous ES.
About the only exterior customizing you can do other than paint and wheels is a choice of lighting, from standard projector beam to optional high-intensity discharge headlamps to optional adaptive lighting, the latter of which swings the headlamps through an arc of up to 15 degrees when turning. There are 10 colors to choose from.
The ES 350 is about 110 pounds heavier than the ES 330 due to the addition of more safety features and standard equipment built into the price.
It starts with the standard SmartAccess key fob and push-button engine starting, a first for the ES, and goes from there. The instrument panel and center stack are completely new and much more driver-centered, engaging and involving that previous panels. The main instruments are deeply tunneled, using white LED lighting and the Optitron electroluminescent displays that are part of all Lexus models, with their eye-pleasing startup routine. The standard trip computer monitors a dozen functions. All of the real wood trim is from a matched set that is serial-numbered for future replacement, if necessary. The thick, fat steering wheel is a pleasure to use.
There's more space overall, within a few cubic feet of the original LS 400 V8 rear-drive sedan at 95.4 cubic feet, with more shoulder and leg room built in, and the rear floor is flat and can accommodate large American feet under the seats. There are three interiors to choose from in leather, perforated leather, or cloth, plus optional semi-aniline leather.
The new ES is insulated well. At cruising speeds, it's extremely quiet, in part due to a new acoustic-control laminated windshield.
The driving ambience is superb, with good sightlines, the hooded instruments and crisp graphics, a 10-way power seat and standard tilt/telescope steering wheel. Fit and finish inside are exemplary.
For the first time, performance is part of the equation in an ES. It's quick to respond, the engine is as smooth and quiet as you would expect, and the transmission operation is flawless, automatic or manual mode, downshift or upshift. Engine and transmission are linked by several electronic modules and the electronic throttle, and there were no glitches we could find. The engine and transmission are isolation-mounted with an electro-hydraulic mounting system to cancel vibration at idle. Lexus quotes a 0-60 mph time of 6.8 seconds, which is certainly competitive in the segment.
Two important additions of standard equipment on the ES for 2007 are traction control and stability control which, when combined with this new chassis, allow sporting drivers to do maneuvers that no previous ES would do, and quickly. The front struts and multi-link rear suspension are both very well isolated from the rest of the car, making for a quiet, smooth ride, with greater control of pitch and body roll than the outgoing car.
We think the ES could use more tire on the ground than the standard 215/55R17s it comes with (there is an optional 10-spoke wheel package, but it uses the same size tires). We'd like a little more steering feel in the corners and on the highway, but otherwise the speed-related power steering is good and solid.
Although the brakes themselves are average in size for this class, the electronic control package that comes with them makes them very powerful and very repeatable, with no sign of brake fade after a hard workout. Because this is an entry-luxury sedan and not a sports car, the ABS, traction control and stability systems intervene early and often to keep the car going in the intended direction, so you can't really hang it out, and that's okay with us.
The all-new 2007 Lexus ES 350 is a prime example of what Toyota and Lexus and can do when properly motivated to take a car upmarket. Unlike its predecessors, the 2007 ES 350 is quick and quiet at the same time, screwed together better than a Swiss watch, and actually has some sex appeal for the first time in its life. In light of the new design and all the new standard equipment, there is every reason to believe that the ES 350 will be among the fiercest competitors in the entry-luxury segment in 2007. We think it's an excellent choice among luxury sedans.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Jim McCraw filed this report from Hawaii.