If being noticed is your thing, the 2007 Lexus ES 350 isn't the car for you. It disappears into Southern California's mass of suburbia like a Caprice in Detroit. It's not an image car. So Newport Ned, all blue chips, high horsepower and big ego, won't want one. But his mother, Newport Nancy, probably will. She's more concerned with comfort than visibility, more worried about the way the journey feels than being noticed at the destination. She's practical, enjoys a smooth ride, an agreeable seat, the perfect temperature and easy listening.
If you're anything like Newport Nancy, then Lexus' ES 350 is your car. This Camry-based sedan traditionally combines the practical attributes of its less-expensive sibling with luxury features that make a Lexus a Lexus. The new car continues that convention.
From the outside, the ES 350 is completely updated. Its body has a slicker shape with a longer hood and shorter rear deck. It's a mild departure from the relatively conservative lines we've become used to in the Lexus lineup. Dimensional changes designed to increase usability and performance accompany the new body. There's also a new engine, transmission and multiple safety features designed to keep Nancy as secure as she is comfortable.
Changes for the better
Lexus was smart about increasing the ES's usability without making the car unwieldy. The new car hasn't grown in overall length, but its wheelbase is up 2.2 inches (to 109.3 inches) over the previous ES.
The platform, which is tweaked in size rather than fully redesigned, has reduced overhangs and more space for the doors, which eases ingress and egress. Overall width is up only 0.39 inch while the track width increases by 1.2 inches, producing a proportionally larger footprint. These new dimensions put the ES securely in the realm of other midsize players like the Nissan Maxima, Saab 9-5 and Volvo S80.
Despite the longer wheelbase, Lexus wasn't able to defy physics with the ES. It might be easier to get in and out, but interior space is almost identical to that of the old car. In fact, front legroom is the same as the previous ES and rear legroom is increased only 0.3 inch. It's also heavy. At 3,580 pounds the ES bears no small burden on its powertrain.
New powertrain, better performance
Under the hood there's an updated 3.5-liter V6 good for 272 hp and 254 lb-ft of torque. The dual-overhead-cam design utilizes four valves per cylinder controlled by variable valve timing hardware. This latest version of VVT-i adjusts timing on both the intake and exhaust cams, which increases power and fuel economy while reducing emissions.
There's also a new six-speed automatic transmission which delivers the power to the front wheels and is smaller, using 20 percent fewer parts than the previous five-speed. Shifts can be manually controlled using the sequential-style sport shifter. The tranny also adjusts shifts to account for engine conditions, driving habits and component wear.
In measured testing, the ES's newfound power paid off. Mash the throttle and there's no denying that it has significant thrust for a luxury sedan. Despite its rather hefty curb weight, the ES hit 60 mph in 7.1 seconds and went on to record a quarter-mile time of 15.2 seconds at 94.6 mph. That's only 0.2 second slower than the Acura TL, a decidedly sportier car.
Even during maximum acceleration with the throttle pinned and the tranny fluidly linking gears, you're reminded this is a luxury car. It's exceptionally quiet, engine noise is barely perceptible and there's virtually no road discord. Drive like a normal human being, and you'll be in one of the quietest environments we've tested during a 70-mph cruise (67.5 decibels).
Little has changed about the fundamental suspension design of the 350 — it still uses struts front and rear. The previous car's Adaptive Variable Suspension option is replaced by conventional dampers tuned to meet a specific comfort/performance trade-off.
It works. On the road, the ES has noticeably better ride control than we expected. Even over small rises at triple-digit speeds it maintains composure. There's a subtle but controlled frequency to its chassis pitch which strikes the precise balance a car in this class should have. It is exactly what it claims to be: a perfect compromise between the couchlike driving experience of an American luxury car and the well-damped ride of a Japanese sport sedan.
Seven-spoke 17-inch wheels come standard with the ES, but our test car was fitted with the optional graphite-finish 10-spokers which come with the ultraluxury package. Each wheel on our test car wore a 215/55-R17 Michelin Energy MXV4 S8 all-season tire. Summer tires are available on the standard wheels.
Through the slalom, the ES's weight was obvious, and body roll was abundant on its way to a 60.9-mph pass. That's slower than most cars its size, but faster than the last Toyota Avalon and Buick Lacrosse we tested.
The ES 350 is fitted with four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution. Featuring 11.7-inch front rotors and aluminum rear calipers, the ES brakes hauled the sedan down from 60 mph in 123 feet — a respectable number for a car in this class.
The Lexus cocoon
Inside the ES is a combination of indulgent shapes and textures that are as functional as they are pampering. There's real walnut trim in the center console and door panels, and optionally, on the steering wheel. Leather, which is added with the premium package, is available in three colors: Cashmere, Light Gray or Black.
The ES has perhaps the most functional ventilated seats we've experienced. If you're buying this car for its luxury features, go all the way and get these seats. Their leather is the most flowing, ductile material we've ever experienced in a car seat. Its perforations allow cooling air a direct shot at the target, making them as functional as they sound. Seat heaters were also great at quickly and evenly warming the goods on cool mornings.
Ten-way adjustability makes finding the right driving position easy. But in a car like the ES, it's the details that matter. Our test car was fitted with the power cushion extender which increases or decreases the length of the seat bottom cushion underneath the thighs, allowing support for both long- and short-legged drivers. As if that wasn't enough, the ES can link seat position to two different key fobs. Using this feature, position is automatically adjusted according to which key fob is used to access the car — another example of custom tailoring.
Even with the pamper factor in overdrive, Lexus hasn't lost sight of Camry-like usability and safety. There are eight standard airbags hidden in the cabin plus two optional side airbags for the rear seats. The shifter is a familiar Toyota job that's housed in walnut trim. Gauges are straightforward and easy to read, with an 8,000-rpm tachometer on the left and a 160-mph speedometer on the right. Still, the ES doesn't share a single dash panel or material with its less expensive Toyota sibling.
A new standard
If you ask Newport Ned he'll tell you that Lexus isn't the world's most exciting carmaker. He's right, because the new ES isn't going to blow you away with insane speed or outrageous curves. What it will do, however, is up the ante for other manufacturers competing in the segment. It offers more power, more convenience and more luxury than the car it replaces, and it should have an almost identical base price.
As of this writing Lexus hasn't announced official pricing for the ES 350 although the outgoing ES 330 starts at $32,300. "Expect little change in the base price," said John Hanson, Toyota's national manager of product communications. "There will be higher-priced option packages, however."
An ES 330 equipped similarly to our 2007 Lexus ES 350 test car will set you back $37,925. When the cars arrive in April, we predict you'll be able to get a car like our tester for less than $40,000. And that's about what Nancy wants to spend.
System Score: 9.0
Components: Our ES 350 came with the optional Mark Levinson audio system which delivers discreet 5.1 surround-sound playback in a 7.1 channel Surround Sound speaker arrangement. This is the newest-generation Levinson stereo and is very similar to that found in both the IS and GS sedans. It uses 14 speakers that consist of four 25mm tweeters, five 65mm midrange speakers including the dash-mounted center channel, two 16cm woofers mounted in the rear doors and one 20cm subwoofer mounted in the trunk. With all channels driven the amplifier produces 300 watts.
The stereo features an integrated dash-mounted controller that controls climate and navigation functions. The system is DVD-A compatible and can play DVD-video discs in addition to MP3/WMA files and CD-Rs. It also has the ability to connect to a handheld MP3 player like an iPod.
Performance: We've always liked the Mark Levinson systems but the new generation found in the IS, GS and now the ES is clearly a step up in terms of technology. The discreet 5.1 system sounds excellent, although we think the slightly more powerful Mark Levinson system in the GS sounds a little better. In the past we've noticed that when vehicles like the larger LS 430 are equipped with a Mark Levinson system they sound a little better, perhaps due to the much larger interior which may present a better sound stage.
Still, the ES 350's system sounds better than most factory-installed systems, including those in some more expensive cars. Its strong point is its ability to deliver clean, sharp and uncluttered bass. The midrange is excellent as well. The midrange and tweeters use metal cones to reproduce the sound more efficiently and they are mounted in the doors for optimum sound reproduction. In fact, this Mark Levinson system is specifically designed so that 5.1 playback is optimized for each seating position — in short, everyone in the car has a good seat as far as sound quality is concerned. Even at higher volumes the sound remains clear.
The interface for the stereo is simple and easy to use. A large "audio" button next to the dash-mounted screen allows access to the system's basic functions. Bass, midrange and treble as well as the fader control all live on the same screen. You can also turn the surround-sound feature on or off.
If we have a complaint about this stereo it's that there aren't that many customizable and flexible features. We'd like to see a progressive surround feature and/or an equalizer like on the Harman Kardon Logic 7 systems. The flipside of that complaint is that the Levinson system delivers stellar sound quality without any effort on the part of the driver. Just slide in a CD and it will sound great even if you never touch any of the sound controls. Our guess is that's exactly what the average Lexus buyer is looking for.
Best Feature: Clean, sharp bass and excellent sound quality overall.
Worst Feature: Lacks customizable settings.
Conclusion: An excellent stereo overall that delivers plenty of thumping bass and clean, clear sound. Listening to this stereo is an experience that truly enhances the joy of music. — Brian Moody
Edmunds.com Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
When the first Lexus IS was introduced in 2001 it was supposed to remove any and all pressure from the ES line to deliver a "sporty" entry-luxury sedan. A good thing considering the ES was always just a gussied-up Camry (note: a bunch of Lexus PR people just winced). The ES was not a suitable A4/3 Series/TL competitor, but ironically, the new ES 350 (and Camry) makes a noteworthy step toward the sporty side of the spectrum. No, it still won't deter 3 Series intenders, but the bump in power, suspension tuning, and even steering feel make it an awfully fun car to drive for a chrome-plated Camry.
One thing I can say without hesitation — at half the price of Lexus' own LS this sedan is not half the luxury car. More like about 74 percent. Using those numbers, the ES is a great value.
Chief Road Test Editor Chris Walton says:
It's easy to understand why the ES 350 is overlooked. With headline-grabbing Lexus sport sedans, sport/utilities and hybrid versions of both of those, the relatively lowly ES is often overshadowed — but it shouldn't be. Back in 1989, the ES 250, a Toyota Camry-based front-driver, was introduced alongside the brand's top-tier LS 400 V8 sedan. Since then, the stealth Lexus has been quietly winning the hearts of those who prefer quiet to quick, soft-spoken to brash, and saving a few dollars, to having the "it" car. What's not to like with the ES 350's whisper-quiet cabin, plush accommodations and now deceptively powerful V6? I can't think of anything.