Review: 2010 Lexus ES 350

The entry-level luxury sedan segment doesn't command the enthusiast attention of, say, the ultra-premium luxury sports sedan. But if you ask automakers to choose between the two, we'd wager that most would rather have a best-in-class $35,000 sedan than a world-beating $70,000 sports tourer.

The reason? Very few fortunes are made selling a few thousand highfalutin' rocket launchers, but bottom lines can easily be bolstered or crippled based on the success or failure of a plush, high-volume cruiser. Luxury marques from Acura to Volvo have experienced varied levels of success at the low end of the luxury market, but few have enjoyed the consistent sales dominance of the Lexus ES. In the past decade, Toyota has cranked out over 600,000 copies in the U.S. alone, with another 650,000 units shipped around the world. And those sales have traditionally been overwhelmingly of the retail variety with little or no incentives. Not bad for what many consider a glorified Toyota Camry.

Enthusiasts take note: Lexus didn't reach such lofty sales levels with a rear-wheel-drive architecture or pavement-punishing quantities of horsepower. The road map to success for the ES has been simple: a soft, compliant ride; a pampering interior; and unmatched quality. The fifth-generation ES350 has built nicely on those attributes with smoother power, a quieter cabin and more technology. But the competition is still striving to overtake the ES in sales, so Lexus has gone and given its top-selling sedan a mid-cycle refresh for 2010. We spent a week in a Starfire Pearl ES350 to see if it still had the goods to remain a top option in the entry-level luxury segment.

For 2010, Lexus has given the ES a bit of a rework, with a redesigned grille and lower bumper, new taillights and chrome-trimmed side moldings. On the inside, the ES received a raft of fresh standard features ranging from rain-sensing windshield wipers to rear seat-mounted side-impact airbags. On the technology front, the ES benefits from the same navigation system that resides in the dash of the new Lexus RX with upgraded VoiceBox speech recognition and Bluetooth streaming audio. These obviously aren't game-changing updates, but they're necessary to keep pace in one of the industry's most hotly contested segments.

The ES' mild exterior refresh has done little to alter our tester's overall cosmetics, but the new front fascia and taillights further differentiate the ES from the meat-and-potatoes Toyota Camry. And while the design of the ES doesn't often mingle with the words "groundbreaking," "stunning" or even "sleek," we'd counter with the claim that this sedan has somewhat successfully captured the understated elegance that many Americans look for in a entry-level premium vehicle.

The real barometer for success resides on the inside, where the ES has earned a solid reputation for its high-end luxury look and feel. Leather seating surfaces are buttery smooth and the touch points on the doors, center armrest and steering wheel are among the best you'll find in the $35,000 to $45,000 price range. The best materials were reserved for the door handles, as the supple, cushy pieces would be right at home in a Bentley or Maybach. Seats are supportive as well, and our tester arrived with heated and cooled throne to counter harsh weather during any of the four seasons, along with extended thigh support for the long-legged among us. The ES is whisper-quiet, too; a staple trait of nearly all Lexus products. That's good news unless you've got screaming children in the back seat – perhaps unlikely if you're an ES buyer. If that's the case, however, we recommend opening a window or cranking up the stereo.

Our tester rang in at $42,187 and came equipped with plenty of top-level amenities. Among the option boxes checked were navigation with backup camera ($2,465) and an ultra luxury package ($3,535), which includes a panoramic glass roof, 10-spoke 17-inch Liquid Graphite Finish alloy wheels, upgraded leather with double stitching and High Intensity Discharge headlamps. Those extras made the ES far more enjoyable on a daily basis without breaking the bank like some luxury add-on packages you'd find from the Lexus' competitors. On the down side, Lexus' new navigation system still doesn't match up to the best the market has to offer, though it is relatively easy to find one's way around its menus.

But while the ES still has a very nice interior, it's one area where this Lexus is beginning to show its age. For example, while the matte black dash still looks nice, its rubbery texture and limited give doesn't measure up to up-and-comers like the Buick LaCrosse or established competitors like the Acura TL.

The ES interior is under attack by an increasing number of competitors, but when it comes to driving, few can duplicate this sedan's supple ride. That's partly because most automakers wouldn't dare to tune their ride to "smooth as glass" mode, instead angling for more agile handling. Those marques are hoping to appeal to the under 60 crowd, but Lexus is smartly sticking to the formula that has made the ES a top seller. Don't get us wrong, though, we're not saying that this sedan has no skills. In fact, the ES has little issue dropping the accelerator to pass a portly crossover or SUV in the left lane, and not all luxury sedan buyers are looking for a BMW 3 Series beater. Unlike many well-mannered European sports sedans, the Lexus' steering is on the whipped cream side of light and doesn't have a ton of feel. On the other hand, braking is solid with adequate pedal feel. What the ES excels at is getting you to your destination in optimal comfort and with few disruptions from lousy roads. In other words, the ES is a cruiser with enough luxury and style to transport and pamper at the same time.

Any good cruiser needs a strong powertrain to provide effortless acceleration, and our tester's 3.5-liter V6 with 272-horsepower and 252 pound-feet of torque definitely fits the bill. Lexus claims a trip from zero to 60 mph takes all of 6.8 seconds, which is more than enough pull for the typical ES buyer. We have no doubt that this number is authentic, but it just never feels like you're hitting 60 that quickly. That's a good thing, though, considering the type of car buyer who tends to opt for an ES. The EPA tells us that driving the ES around town will net you about 18 miles per gallon, while highway driving will bring you up to 27 mpg. We actually scored on the high side here, with a combined 24 mpg, putting ES efficiency toward the top of the premium mid-size fuel-sipping spectrum.

Though performance-oriented luxury sleds usually get the most press, we can see why scads of upmarket sedan shoppers like the ES. Our tester proved to be a competent 'fix it and forget it' daily commuter with enough of the technology and luxury amenities that customers want. But while the ES is a very good vehicle, there are some blemishes in its armor. For starters, perusing Edmunds' sales data suggests that on average, customers pay about $4,000 under MSRP. That's not very Lexus-like, and it's perhaps indicative of the car's advancing age, refresh or no. Further, the Buick LaCrosse, the vehicle most often compared to the ES thanks to some pointed marketing by General Motors, has outsold its L-badged adversary every month in 2010 while accomplishing this feat with an average transaction price that's within $1,000 of a comparably equipped ES. The ES also failed to score a top-three slot in the 2010 J.D. Power Initial Quality Study, losing some of its once-unassailable quality luster by finishing behind the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Acura TL and Cadillac CTS.

We still see the ES as a competent competitor in the lazy lux segment, but it's also clear that this Lexus is no longer the cream of the crop. Its cabin isn't a class leader, its exterior styling is getting stale and perceived quality has ebbed. Lucky for Lexus, though, there are still plenty of loyal ES fans that love their squishy sedans and coddling dealers. But with a recent high-profile shift in public perception, Lexus can't afford to let the ES rest on its laurels for much longer.

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