Kona, Hawaii - As Lexus sees it, most of the cars in the burgeoning entry-luxury field are trying to be sport sedans. Lexus covers that market with the IS250/350, so it's free to position its other entry-luxury sedan, the new ES350, as exactly the kind of car Lexus does best: a plush, comfortable conveyance for people who don't care a whit about sportiness.
With that as the goal, the first order of business was to make the new car smoother and quieter-hardly weaknesses in the old car. Redesigned engine mounts make the ES350 either as smooth as an eel swimming through an oil slick or a lobbyist slipping a sweetheart provision into an appropriations bill-it's hard to say. Likewise, laminated glass composed of three layers instead of two helps bring interior noise levels to somewhere between a whisper in church and a TV on mute.
Building on yet another strength of the outgoing car, the ES now offers optional upgraded leather upholstery that is even softer than the standard stuff. Other new temptations include an improved Mark Levinson audio system that should impress even the geekiest audiophiles, a glass roof that extends over the back seat as well as the fronts, and a backup camera and sonar proximity sensors that take all the tiresome judgment out of parking. The standard equipment list now includes keyless ignition, seventeen-inch wheels, stability control, and eight air bags. (Available rear-seat side bags bring the total to ten.)
Adaptive damping with driver-selectable firmness is gone due to lack of buyer interest or, seen another way, purity of mission. After all, if the ES350 doesn't try to be a sport sedan, why pander to drivers who want a firmer suspension? A single setup now suffices for everyone, and it's one that prizes isolation over body control. It goes perfectly with the steering, which is creamy smooth but not the most precise.
The old car packed only 218 hp, so the ES350's new, more potent engine addresses a genuine weakness. Now displacing 3.5 liters, the V-6 dispatches 272 hp to the front wheels via a new six-speed manu-matic. The 0-to-60-mph time drops from a claimed 7.2 to 6.8 seconds, yet torque steer remains effectively muffled. Fuel economy also increases by 1 mpg (highway), to 21/30. The recent introduction of a hybrid powertrain in the Toyota Camry-the ES350's sibling under the skin-begs the question of whether Lexus will offer a hybrid ES. Not now, Lexus says, but maybe later; if so, it would use a V-6 rather than a four-cylinder as in the Camry.
The ES350's all-new suit of sheetmetal is considerably more flattering than the ES330's bathtublike shape. Although the car casts the same shadow as before, there's an additional 2.2 inches between the axles, which not only helps the looks but also opens up interior space a bit. Unlike those of many cars in this class, the ES350's rear seats should elicit no complaints from passengers.
Lexus has taken to comparing the ES350 with the original LS400. That car established what Lexus would be, and the new ES hews to the formula. It delivers precisely what people expect of a Lexus, and, for that reason, we expect it will remain the division's most popular sedan.