Lexus ES350 - Full luxury with near luxury price tag

Lexus didn't tinker with its ES 350 for 2011. If you liked the 2010 version, you will be happy that the Camry-sized Lexus returns unchanged, well, mostly unchanged. Marketing types at Lexus are touting a lower ownership cost for 2011 because the ES 350's V6 can now operate on regular, 87-octane fuel. Saving a buck or two on every fill up, the change does, however, scrub a few ponies off the horsepower -- four to be exact. That anyone will notice the tiny decrease in power is unlikely; besides, of all the reasons for buying the ES 350, performance has never topped the list.

In the world of near-luxury sedans, the ES 350 probably competes most directly with the Hyundai Genesis V6 and the Lincoln MKZ in both price and performance. The Hyundai packs a little more punch under the hood, but the Lincoln and ES 350 are very close.
ES 350 shoppers have but one trim level on which to focus. Listed at $36,400, it can be upgraded with a couple of option packages, as well as a handful of stand-alone options. My test Lexus had both packages, pushing the price up to $44,000.

A six-speed, driver-shiftable automatic transmission delivers output from the 268-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 to the front wheels. Although it doesn't explode off the line, the ES 350 accelerates smoothly, calmly gathering speed. Likewise the shifts are well-placed and subtly executed. Enthusiast drivers might find the ES 350 experience too removed and disconnected; but for the luxury owner demanding comfort over acceleration and sporty performance, this Lexus delivers.

Also in the ballpark with the Genesis and MKZ, this sedan's fuel economy is about what you should expect from a V6-powered, midsize car. The EPA estimates its fuel efficiency at 19 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway. This is 1 mpg better than the city number for both close competitors, and the identical estimate for the highway numbers.
Defining "boulevard" ride, the ES 350's four-wheel independent suspension soaks up nearly anything a paved surface can throw at it without disturbing passengers. MacPherson struts front and rear with stabilizer bars tying the opposite sides together comprise the suspension's core elements. With the suspension tuned for passenger comfort rather than taut handling, the ES 350 doesn't tackle twisties with the crispness of, say, the IS 250. Most drivers of this sedan, though, aren't looking for sports car dynamics in the first place, and probably won't push it in the corners all that hard anyway. If they do, it will list a mite.

As a function of the four-wheel antilock disc brakes, traction control and stability control are standard. Braking is enhanced with electronic brakeforce distribution and emergency braking assist. Eight airbags, including side-impact airbags for front- and rear-seat occupants alike, help protect passengers in the event of an accident. A $1,500 option, the Pre-Collision System increases safety by cinching the front seatbelts and priming the brake assist when it senses a collision is unavoidable. It is able to make such decisions based on the upgraded , radar-based cruise control that is also included in the package.

Eerily quiet, the cabin successfully insulates passengers from whatever racket occurs outside its confines. The smell of leather notwithstanding, the first thing you notice about the cabin is its generous passenger space. Furnished for five, the interior provides scads of head, hip and legroom. The trunk can swallow up to 14.8 cubic feet of cargo -- generous, but somewhat less than either the Genesis or MKZ.
Beyond its spaciousness, the interior is a benchmark for refinement and craftsmanship. Finely stitched leather covers the seats, door panels and front-seat center armrest. Wood and brightwork accents tastefully interrupt the leather. Both the power tilt-telescoping steering wheel with its redundant audio controls, and the shift knob feature leather. Contemporary in its styling, the interior is highly functional as well as handsome.

Also reflecting its brand's position among luxury marques, the ES 350 has a rich array of standard features that include dual-zone automatic climate control, full power accessories, self-dimming rearview mirror, keyless entry and start, 10-way power-adjustable front seats, power moonroof, Bluetooth connectivity, and an eight-speaker audio system with an in-dash eight-disc CD player, XM satellite radio, and a USB port.
Of the two available option packages, the more pricey is the $4,065 Navigation/Mark Levinson Premium Audio Package. In addition to a GPS touch-screen navigation unit, it ups the speaker count to 14, and adds a hard-disk drive and back-up camera,
Boosting the bottom line by $3,535, the Ultra Luxury Package ups the content with such features as perforated-leather seats, wood and leather-trimmed steering wheel and shift knob, panorama glass roof, a power rear sunshade, heated-and-ventilated front seats, special 10-spoke wheels, and HID headlights.

When automobile luxury is defined as an uber-comfortable passenger experience, the ES 350 should be highly prized. It simply oozes luxury. If you want sporty performance, Lexus offers its IS; but if unabashed luxury is your primary concern, the ES is tough to beat. Quiet, comfortable and plush, the ES 350 doesn't skimp on creature comforts. It is full luxury with a near-luxury price tag.

by Russ Heaps - MyCarData