The ES 350 is quick and responsive, benefitting from a newly developed 272-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 engine. Lexus says it can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds, a solid performance. Yet the ES 350 is also certified to the Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle II (ULEV II) standard.
Changes for 2009 are minor, including a new exterior color and some slight pricing alterations. The ES was redesigned for the 2007 model year.
The Lexus ES series has come a long way. When Toyota launched its premium Lexus brand in late 1989, its entry-level model was the ES 250, with a thinly disguised Camry chassis and powertrain under a mildly upgraded body and interior. With each succeeding generation, the ES has better met the needs of the entry-luxury segment, with more room, more space, more power, and more standard equipment. And more safety features.
Lexus presents the ES and IS as a one-two challenge to the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, BMW 3 Series, Infiniti G35 and M35, Audi A6, Saab 9-3, Volvo S60, and a host of domestics in this popular class. The ES is designed to emphasize ride quality and smoothness, while the IS is oriented around sharp handling and is designed to be a driver's car. The ES uses front-wheel drive, while the IS is rear-wheel drive. We like both, depending on the mood and the task at hand.
The 2009 Lexus ES comes as one model, the ES 350.
The Premium Package ($1,280) adds leather seating, rear-seat side-impact airbags, Bluetooth wireless technology, auto-dimming exterior mirrors with automatic tilt-down, and a memory function for the driver's seat, steering wheel and exterior mirrors controlled through the SmartAccess system. The Premium Plus package ($1,280) adds a power driver's seat cushion extender, rain-sensing windshield wipers, heated and ventilated front seats, and front passenger seat memory. The Ultra-Luxury Package ($3,880) combines the contents of the Premium and Premium Plus packages, and adds a panorama glass roof, perforated leather seating, power rear sunshade, adaptive front lighting system (AFS) with HID headlamps, navigation with rear backup camera, wood and leather-trimmed steering wheel and shift knob, and 10-spoke graphite-finish alloy wheels.
Options include park assist ($500), a power rear sunshade ($210), heated and ventilated front seats ($640), full-size spare tire ($205), wood and leather-trimmed steering wheel ($330), rear side-impact airbags ($250), Bluetooth audio ($300), and HID/AFS lighting ($815). Buyers may also choose navigation by itself ($2,650), or with a 14-speaker Mark Levinson stereo system with six-CD changer ($4,250); both include Bluetooth connectivity and a rearview camera.
The Pebble Beach Edition is a package ($2,970) featuring a semi-aniline leather interior, a wood and leather steering wheel, and Liquid Graphite-finish wheels. Exclusive badging and floor mats display The Lone Cypress logo of California's Pebble Beach Resorts. Other standard equipment will be roughly equivalent to the Premium Plus package. Additionally, three Personalization Program accessory packages exclusive to the Pebble Beach edition will allow owners to add a set of matched luggage, Callaway golf equipment, or Viking cooking gear. Exterior colors will be limited to an exclusive Truffle Mica, or the standard-issue Tungsten Pearl or Obsidian.
Safety features that come standard on the ES 350 include dual front airbags, dual front knee airbags, front side-impact airbags (for torso protection), curtain airbags (for head protection), electronic stability control, traction control, antilock brakes (ABS), electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), brake assist, and a tire-pressure monitor. A two-chamber passenger airbag is designed to stop the passenger's upper body and torso with minimal facial contact and neck stress on deployment.
The optional Pre-Collision System ($2,600) includes a radar-based cruise control that automatically maintains a preset distance between the ES 350 and the car ahead. If the system senses an imminent collision, it retracts all the outboard seatbelts and initializes the brake system for full panic-braking power. (But it doesn't close the windows and the sunroof like the similar system from Mercedes-Benz).
The grille is subdued, the headlamp units are smaller and less obtrusive, and the accent line along the side is raised to suggest more musculature under the skin. The ES 350 looks like it belongs in a Lexus showroom.
In fact, the ES 350 has been consciously upsized to roughly the same dimensions as the original 1990 LS 400. The wheelbase, at 109.2 inches, is more than two inches longer than that of the 2006 ES 330; the body is wider by 0.4 inches, the track is wider by 1.2 inches, and the body has crisper, shorter overhangs along with a new front, side and rear appearance that's much more upscale than any previous ES. The ES 350 is also about 110 pounds heavier than the ES 330 due to the addition of more safety features and standard equipment.
About the only exterior customizing you can do other than paint and wheels is a choice of forward lighting, from standard projector beam to optional high-intensity discharge (HID) headlamps with an adaptive lighting function, which swings the headlamps through an arc of up to 15 degrees when turning. There are 10 exterior colors to choose from, plus the Pebble Beach Edition's exclusive Truffle Mica.
The interior of the Lexus ES represents a quantum leap over pre-2007 models. The driving ambience is superb, with good sightlines, hooded instruments and crisp graphics, a 10-way power seat and standard tilt/telescope steering wheel. Fit and finish inside are exemplary.
The real wood trim is from a matched set that is serial-numbered for future replacement, if necessary. The thick, fat steering wheel is a pleasure to use. There are three interior colors to choose from, in cloth or two grades of leather.
The instrument panel and center stack are more driver-centered, engaging and involving than on previous generations. The instruments are deeply tunneled, using white LED lighting and the Optitron electroluminescent displays that are part of all Lexus models, with their eye-pleasing startup routine. The trip computer monitors a dozen functions. The ES features push-button engine starting and the SmartAccess key fob.
With 14.7 cubic feet of cargo space, the ES nearly matches the trunk size of the original LS 400 flagship.
The ES is insulated well. At cruising speeds, it's extremely quiet, in part due to its acoustic-control laminated windshield.
The ES 350 is quick to respond, the engine is as smooth and quiet as you would expect, and the transmission operation is flawless, automatic or manual mode, downshift or upshift. Engine and transmission are linked by several electronic modules and the electronic throttle, and there were no glitches we could find. The engine and transmission are isolation-mounted with an electro-hydraulic system to cancel vibration at idle. Lexus quotes a 0-60 mph time of 6.8 seconds, which is competitive in the segment.
Traction control and electronic stability control adds to the driver's confidence. The front struts and multi-link rear suspension are both very well isolated from the rest of the car, making for a quiet, smooth ride, with greater control of pitch and body roll than in pre-2007 models. We'd like a little more steering feel in corners and on the highway, but otherwise the speed-related power steering is good and solid.
The brakes are average in size for this class, but we saw no sign of brake fade after a hard workout. The ABS, traction control, and electronic stability control are programmed to intervene early to keep the car going in the intended direction.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Jim McCraw filed this report from Hawaii.