The Good: Powerful engine, fuel efficiency, elegant interior
The Bad: Toyota-like styling; tight rear seat
The Bottom Line: An exemplary, entry-level luxury car
The Lexus ES 350 is one of those rare vehicles I can recommend almost without reservation. It's billed as an entry-level luxury car, and if that's what you're looking for, it's a nearly flawless example. Just keep in mind that you're not going to get the road feel and handling of a driver's car like a BMW or an Audi.
The ES 350 is deliberately tilted more toward the luxury side of the equation. For a performance-oriented midsize, you're supposed to go for the Lexus IS 350 (see BusinessWeek.com, 9/6/06, "2006 Lexus IS 350"), which is squarely aimed at competing with BMW's 3 Series. Having driven the new BMWs (see BusinessWeek.com, 10/17/06, "BMW's Super Coupe"), I don't think the IS 350 can match them.
But the ES 350 is a different breed of car that raises different expectations. And, taken on its own terms, it's a great car. For starters, it's a big improvement over the ES 330, the model it replaced this spring. The ES 350 has a bigger power plant, a 3.5-liter, 272-horsepower, aluminum-block V6 that generates 272 horsepower—54 more horses than the ES 330's 3.3-liter V6. The ES 350 also has a smooth, new, electronically controlled, six-speed automatic transmission, as well as a more refined interior than its predecessor.
Yet the price is about the same as for the previous model. The '07 ES 350 comes in a single trim level (there's no manual transmission, alternative engine choice, or hybrid version) that starts at $33,885. That's only marginally more than the $33,000 starting price of its predecessor. Despite its more powerful engine, the ES 350 gets slightly better mileage than the previous model, too. It's rated at 21 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway, vs. 21/29 for the ES 330. In 608 miles of mainly highway driving I got 24.1 mpg in my test ES 350.
The ES also comes well-loaded. Antilock brakes and stability and traction control are standard. So are front, knee, and side-curtain airbags, as well as side airbags up front. Standard comfort features include 10-way power seats up front, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel with audio controls, a moon roof, a six-CD changer, keyless entry with a push-button starter, heated outside mirrors, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, fog lamps, and 17-in. alloy wheels.
You can, of course, make the ES 350 a lot fancier. The most expensive of the available options is the $5,380 Ultra Luxury Package, which includes a huge sun roof, wood- and leather-trimmed shift knob and steering wheel, power rear sunshade, 17-in. chrome graphite wheels, and adaptive headlights. A navigation system with an upgraded audio package costs $2,650, or $4,050 if you go for the super-fancy Mark Levinson sound system.
Among safety extras, rear side airbags cost $250, while another $2,250 will get you an adaptive cruise control that can lock onto the car ahead coupled with a pre-collision system that snugs the seatbelts and increases braking force when a radar sensor senses that a frontal collision is about to occur.
Exterior fit and finish, as in other Lexuses, is impeccable. The metallic paint jobs on the Toyotas (TM) and Lexuses I've been driving lately have been exceptionally nice. My test ES 350 came in a gorgeous black sapphire, a sort of metallic black with nuances that made it a little like looking into the depths of the ocean. One of my few complaints about the car is that its exterior seems bland. It looks a little too Toyota-like for my taste.
This ES 350 also isn't particularly youth-oriented. The average age of buyers is 56, a year more than for the Cadillac CTS. By contrast, the average buyer's age is 42 for the BMW 228i, 43 for Nissan's Infiniti G35, and 45 for Honda's (HMC) Acura TL.
In a hot segment, however, the ES 350 is one of the most in-demand models.
On average, the car spends a mere 12 days on a dealer's lot before selling, same as the Infiniti G35, according to the Power Information Network. That's two days less than the BMW 328i and five days less than the Acura TL. (Both BusinessWeek.com and the Power Information Network are units of The McGraw-Hill Cos. (MHP))
ES 350 sales are up 10.6% to 67,251 in the first 11 months of the year, but that doesn't tell the whole story. Demand has soared this fall, as word has gotten around about what a good car it is. Sales were up 46.7% to 6,357 in October, and 44% to 6,678 in November.
Behind the Wheel
Like BMW's new 3 Series coupes, the ES 350 is faster than it's billed to be. It's rated to do zero-to-60 in 6.8 seconds, but in manual shifting mode I was getting zero-to-60 times of 6.4 and 6.5 seconds. That's half a second slower than the times I got in the BMW 328i (and nowhere near the under-five-seconds times I got in the BMW 335i). But it's plenty fast for all but very hardcore drivers.
This is no sports car, however. The front/rear weight distribution is 61/39, far from the ideal of as close as possible to 50/50. At 3,580 lbs., the ES 350 also is a bit heavier than the ES 330.
Steering is a little soft—not nearly as precise as in a Bimmer, or even the Lexus IS 350. The new transmission in the ES 350 shifts very quickly and smoothly. It's intelligent, meaning that a computer changes the gear ratios according to how fast you're accelerating and other variables. In theory, in manual-shifting mode the transmission adapts to the driver's style of driving. If it was doing that while I was driving, though, the differences in the shifting pattern were too subtle for me to discern.
This car's ride is marvelous, exactly what you want from a luxury car. On rough back roads, the suspension swallows bumps and even potholes. The cabin is very quiet at highway speed. There's plenty of extra power when you move into the passing lane. Top speed is electronically limited to 137 mph, and you have the feeling the car could go faster than that if it were allowed to.
The ES 350's interior is very clean, with attractive beveled and contoured surfaces on the dash and doors, and wood highlights on the dash, doors, and steering wheel. The cabin is exceptionally quiet at highway speed. The controls are easy and intuitive to use. For instance, you turn on the parking assist by pushing a button on the dash. The center console, which is shaped like a big exclamation point that curves down into the space between the seats, is particularly attractive. With the premium package, leather on seating surfaces is perforated to accommodate seat cooling, as well as heating.
I've tried dozens of navigation systems and this is one of the most accurate. At one point, I deliberately got off the interstate at night in a part of Connecticut where I had never been before and drove around until I was thoroughly lost in a maze of neighborhood roads. The ES 350's nav system guided me back to the interstate with no glitches. Last year, I tried the same thing with an Acura RL (see BusinessWeek.com, 9/23/05, "Acura's Introduction to Luxury") and ended up in "nav system hell," with the car directing me to do a U-turn and then do a U-turn again when I did.
There's plenty of room in the front seats, but the ES 350's curved roofline makes rear headroom tight, and rear legroom is listed at just 35.9 in., only a quarter-inch more than the Toyota Yaris (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/14/06, "The Judgment of Yaris"). The trunk is relatively large—ne arly 15 cubic feet—and there's a pass-through to the rear seats for skis.
One nice touch for those living in the snowbelt is a heavy-duty rear window defogger that clears the window very rapidly. For those of us prone to backing into things, another feature worth noting is the back-up camera in the ES 350. The resolution is so high that you can actually see exactly what's behind the car when you reverse. No squinting and double-checking in the rear-view mirrors is required.
Buy It or Bag It?
Compared with its main competitors, the Lexus isn't expensive. The ES 350's average selling price is $37,518, according to the Power Information Network, slightly less than the BMW 328i ($38,446) and only a tad more than the Infiniti G35 ($36,806) and the Acura TL ($36,026).
It's hard to go wrong in this segment. If you're looking for a more performance-oriented car, I'd go with the BMW 328i. And if you want a domestic nameplate, test-drive the Cadillac CTS, on which General Motors (GM) was offering $2,145 cash rebates through New Year's Day, lowering the average recent selling price to just $32,869.
Otherwise, you can test-drive the ES 350 against the Infiniti G35, which is a wonderful car, and the Acura TL, too, if you want to be thorough. Or, you can simply go out and buy the Lexus. You won't be disappointed.
Click here to see more of the 2007 Lexus ES 350.