Once upon a time, trading in your reliable foreign car for an entry-level luxury ride was an obvious process. You drove a Toyota Camry? A Lexus ES was in your future. Die-hard Honda Civic types stepped up to an Acura.
Yet the entry point to luxury has changed, as many inexpensive cars now offer scads of gadgets once only found on pricier vehicles. South Korea’s Hyundai and Kia have muscled onto the scene, using the same techniques the Japanese once did -- over-delivering good cars at even better prices.
Which might leave one wondering: What constitutes an entry-level luxury car these days, and where do Lexus and Acura fit in?
To get a sense of that question, I tested both the latest Lexus ES and a brand-new Acura model, the ILX.
The all-new, sixth-generation Lexus ES350 starts at $37,000, and is also available as a hybrid. The Acura ILX, meanwhile, is $32,000 with an optional technology package. It too can be had as a hybrid.
The 2013 Lexus ES has traveled a long road since its 1989 inception as a slightly upgraded Toyota Camry. The big luxury back then was real wood in the interior. The ES would eventually become Lexus’s best seller in the U.S., a result of reliability, subdued looks and an undemanding ride.
Values shift. The new ES gets a significant restyling, a firmer suspension and more engaging drive. Being boring, it turns out, isn’t so luxurious after all.
My test car, an ES350 prototype with black exterior and interior, had real wood and leather, and the quality was nice indeed. The leather that wraps around complex contours is hand-stitched by Japanese craftsmen.
The 300h hybrid model is offered with a synthetic material Lexus calls “NuLuxe.”
The ES has never been a young person’s car, despite ranking as one of the entry-level sedans in the Lexus lineup. One is reminded of this by the slightly uncomfortable pairing of a round, analog clock hovering under the sharp, eight-inch navigation screen.
Nonetheless, Lexus is clearly banking on customers finding luxury in the digital world. Its navigation screen is controlled by a mouse-like device mounted on the center console, and you can hook up a smart phone to the system and access applications like Pandora radio, OpenTable and Yelp.
Safety options include a system that alerts drivers about to back out of a parking lot to cars passing behind, as well as lane departure and dynamic cruise control.
More interesting is the better-tuned suspension. The ES350 is front-wheel drive, so you can forget about it being a hot sports sedan. Yet the 3.5-liter V-6 is sufficiently sprightly, with 268 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque. Gas mileage is 21 city, 31 highway, while the hybrid (which has a four-cylinder) gets 40 and 39.
Compared to previous generations, the new ES350 is simply more entertaining to drive. And it even looks pretty good with the new, rather funky Lexus grill and front end.
While the ES now rides on the slightly larger Toyota Avalon platform, the brand-new Acura ILX is on the same foundation as its cousin the Honda Civic.
The new generation Civic, which went on sale last year, has fallen far short of expectations, with a lackluster ride and two recalls because of defects. The company is rushing out an early fix with a redesign for 2013.
Here’s a suggestion for Honda: Take some cues from the ILX. A handsome sedan with a conventionally-raked windshield and a longer hood, it fixes the snub-nosed oddities of the current Civic. There’s a nice interplay of creases and folds along the body and rear.
Though the ILX name is new, there are hints at former Acura models that I was fond of, like the Integra. The ILX Premium model I tested, which starts under $30,000, has a 2.4-liter engine with 201 hp and a sweet six-speed manual. Oddly, you cannot get an automatic transmission with the 2.4-liter engine. That will disappoint many a buyer.
The Premium model is a car for people who like to drive. The engine revs high (over 7,000 rpm), the stick is fun to use and the car is engagingly responsive.
Sadly, the standard ILX comes with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder with only 150 hp, and a decidedly less-than-luxurious five-speed automatic. Even the BMW 5 Series is now offered with a four-cylinder engine, but the lackluster power on the 2.0-liter ILX is disappointing.
The ILX’s top-of-the-line technology package brings navigation with traffic, Bluetooth and access to Pandora. It’s an upmarket car, but not really a premium-level one. Cross-shoppers might take a look at the $28,000-plus Hyundai Sonata Limited, which has a 274-hp turbo four cylinder and heated front and rear seats.
As an aside, Hyundai’s $35,000 Genesis sedan is a credible entry to the luxury field, making a likely competitor to the Lexus ES. It can be had with either a V-6 or a V-8.
Still, Corolla drivers will appreciate the trade-up to the ES, while Lexus can credibly hang onto its entry-luxury mantle. Honda drivers who like to shift using a stick have a nice new option. Others might want to keep on looking.
The 2013 Lexus ES350 and 2013 Acura ILX Premium at a Glance
Engines: 3.5-liter V-6 with 268 horsepower and 248 pound-
feet of torque; 2.4-liter four-cylinder with 201 hp and 170
lb.-ft. of torque.
Transmissions: Six-speed automatic; six-speed manual.
Speeds: 0 to 60 mph in 7.1 seconds; 7 seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 21 city, 31 highway; 22, 31.
Prices as tested: $44,765; $30,095.
Best features: Nice blend of style, technology and
drivability; great manual transmission makes for an
Worst features: Overall performance doesn’t compare to
European competitors; lack of automatic transmission on
Target buyers: Those looking to step into luxury.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater and Rich Jaroslovsky on gadgets.