Updated 10/13/2006 9:42 AM ET
By James Healey, USA TODAY
Once in awhile, a car hits the sweet spot. The vehicle seems so well-designed and drives so nicely that it's as easy to get excited about it as it would be to cheer about a breathtaking high-performance machine.
The 2007 Lexus ES 350 is one of those sweet-spot sedans.
A complete redo of the brand's entry-level four-door sedan, it is, Lexus says, quieter, more sophisticated and more powerful than the 1990 LS 400 flagship sedan — the high-end signature model when Lexus was born in 1989. Maybe that's not surprising, auto technology having advanced as fast as it has, but it's an interesting benchmark.
Part of what makes the '07 ES 350 so impressive is a bundle of nothing:
Nothing stupid about it. Nothing spoils the elegance of the interior. Nothing seems out of place or thoughtless. Nothing caused the test car to misbehave in routine and spirited driving. Nothing was complicated to operate, despite layers of advanced technology.
But the ES isn't notable just because it doesn't goof. It has:
•A remarkable powertrain. The engine is a version of corporate parent Toyota's new-design 3.5-liter V-6, also found in the Camry and Avalon sedans, RAV4 SUV and '07 Sienna minivan (starting in December), as well as Lexus models IS 350, RX 350, GS 350 and GS 450h.
It delivers significantly more power than the 3.3-liter V-6, which it replaces. It gets a slightly better fuel economy rating, too. Lexus recommends premium for best performance, and the engine's power rating assumes it's burning premium. Even if it isn't, though, it could kick the 3.3 engine's tail.
The 3.5 is a honey: sweet, smooth, swift, with a gentle growl when spurred. It flings the ES from 0 to 60 mph in a brisk 6.8 seconds, by Lexus' stopwatch. The '06, powered by the 3.3-liter V-6, took 7.2 seconds.
The six-speed automatic transmission snicks off upshifts with the best of 'em, though it could be a bit smoother on full-throttle downshifts. A manual mode is at hand for days you feel frisky, or need more control, such as in hilly country.
Traction control allows some wheel spin before it begins to cut back power. That's a good thing, because you often need some spin to make way, such as in heavy snow. It worked great in heavy rain (too early in the season to try it in snow).
•A gorgeous, thoughtful interior. It puts you at ease as it strokes your senses. The comfort level seems beyond physical. Big square buttons on the center stack of controls invite your touch and operate everything important. No tiny buttons you can't push, no navigation-system-embedded layers of electronic debris to get to the function you want. It's as beautifully simple as it gets in luxury models nowadays.
•Expressive styling. It's an aesthetic stretch, at least for Lexus, without being too odd.
It picks up a hint of the dreadful BMW rump. But just a hint, and that's OK.
•Nifty features. A huge glass panel over the rear seats — Panorama Roof, Lexus calls it — is available and brightens the interior. Heated and cooled, leather seats are optional and improve comfort. The optional power rear-window sunshade seems silly, until you use it. Then it's one of those features you or your back-seat passengers can't do without.
The proximity key is standard, allowing you to start or stop the engine by pushing a big button in the car if the key is in your pocket or purse or otherwise nearby. It's another foolish feature until you live with it a few days, after which sticking a key into a slot and turning it seems crude and inconvenient.
The optional Pre-Collision System can decide if you're about to slam into the rear of somebody. If so, it will cinch up the safety belts and begin braking to minimize injury and damage.
Here's what you might not like:
•Space. The '07 ES rides on a longer wheelbase than the '06, yet provides no more passenger room — 1% less, in fact, according to Lexus (but 1% more trunk space). Stacked against the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, a logical rival of similar exterior footprint, the new Lexus has about 2% less passenger space and nearly 8% less trunk space. The E-Class has quite a big more hip room, the main place it outscores the ES 350.
Those differences might be small enough to be overlooked. But they illustrate that Lexus could have packaged the interior more efficiently.
Yeah, but it wouldn't have looked as good, Lexus says. The sweeping roofline trims headroom, reducing the overall interior space number. But other interior measurements are fractionally up from '06, it says.
The Lexus ES, in fact, feels roomy inside for its exterior dimensions. But could it have felt even roomier?
•Brakes. They're too soft when you first apply the pedal. You think nothing's happening and push harder, resulting in more dramatic stops than you intended. Familiarity helps you modulate the pedal more evenly, but nonetheless, the first tap of the wide pedal still should bring vigorous results rather than leaving you wondering if the brakes are working right.
Go buy a Lexus IS sedan if you want right-now response, Lexus says. ES is a softer-feeling luxury model.
•Handling. Not razor sharp, though hardly flabby. It might disappoint the sporty types, who'd probably be happier in an Infiniti, Acura or the Lexus IS. It should satisfy most drivers, though.
•Price. It starts at a tantalizing $34,000, but add $10,000 for options you really want. The test car stickered at about $44,000, and it was hard to find anything a luxury car buyer readily would do without.
Assuming it matches Lexus' long-standing high quality, the 2007 ES 350 seems like a "happily ever after" car — one you could live with, satisfied, for a long time.
2007 LEXUS ES 350
What is it? Remake of the brand's best-selling car, second-best-selling vehicle of any type behind the RX SUV; four-door, five-passenger, midsize, front-wheel-drive luxury sedan, made at Kyushu, Japan.
How soon? On sale since April.
How much? Starts at $33,865 including $695 destination charge.
Who'll buy? About evenly split between men, women; typically in their 50s, almost certainly married. Median annual household income is $125,000.
How many? 70,000 annually, up about 25% from the lame-duck model's final year.
What's the drivetrain? 3.5-liter V-6 rated 272 horsepower at 6,200 rpm, (plus 54 hp vs. '06 3.3-liter), 254 pounds-feet of torque at 4,700 rpm (plus 18 lbs-ft.); six-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift mode; traction control.
What's the safety gear? Expected bags and belts, plus anti-lock brakes, driver and front passenger knee air bags, head-curtain bags, front-seat-mounted side-impact air bags, stability control. Optional: rear-seat side-impact bags.
What's the rest? Standard features include AM/FM/six-CD stereo with MP3 jack; automatic climate control; power steering, brakes, windows, seats, mirrors, locks; adjustable steering column; cruise control; remote-control locks; sunroof; rear window defroster; fog lights.
How big? Similar to Mercedes-Benz E-Class. ES 350 is 191.1 inches long, 71.7 inches wide, 57.3 inches tall on a 109.3-inch wheelbase. Weight is listed as 3,580 pounds. Passenger space is listed as 95.4 cubic feet, trunk space as 14.7 cubic feet.
Rated to carry 1,099 pounds of people, cargo and accessories. Rated to tow 1,000 pounds. Turning circle diameter is 36.7 feet, curb-to-curb.
How thirsty? Rated 21 miles per gallon in town, 30 on the highway, 25 in mixed driving. Tank holds 18.5 gallons. Premium fuel required to get advertised power. Regular is OK but causes slight power loss.
Test car's trip computer showed 22.3 mpg in 227 miles of suburban driving.