CHICAGO – When Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus luxury division unveils its fifth-generation ES 350 here at the Chicago auto show, journalists and visitors will find the company is dead serious about crafting a new, spicy brand image with its L-Finesse design language.

L-Finesse is characterized by the long hood, short rear deck and more dramatic sheet metal that appeared first on the GS and IS sedans last year.

The GS and IS already were relatively attractive, edgy cars before they were redesigned. The same cannot be said for the outgoing ES 330, which was void of emotion.

Its dowdy look gives way to the confident, angular, more evocative stance of the ES 350 and a palette of enticing new colors selected to arouse buyers.

All-new Lexus ES 350 goes on sale in April.

So long, whitebread. Hello foccacia.

Lexus is tilting toward the dramatic, becoming more expressive in an attempt to woo buyers to product that is more than merely functional, reliable, comfortable and suffused with Toyota brand DNA.

It is easy to cast the outgoing fourth-generation ES 330 as a design laggard, but the luxury linemate of the Toyota Camry placed fourth in sales among 18 vehicles in the lower-luxury segment for 2005, according to Ward's data.

Sales reached 67,577 units in 2005, topping the Cadillac CTS, Mercedes C-Class, Audi A4, Volvo S60 and Acura TSX.. The top three, in order, were the BMW 3-Series, Acura TL and Infiniti G35.

But Lexus realizes the ES was growing long in the tooth. A year earlier, it sold 75,916 units, placing it ahead of the G35 and barely behind the No.2 TL.

The new ES 350 certainly is easier on the eyes, but Lexus is projecting only slight growth in sales. Its target is 70,000 deliveries per year (barely more than the previous model sold in 2005), perhaps reflecting the fierce competition in the segment.

Lexus considers the ES to be half of its product lineup for the entry-luxury market, working in tandem with the IS 250/350 sedan. While the ES is meant to court buyers interested in luxury and comfort, the IS is designed for sporty, performance-oriented younger customers.

Lexus expects to sell 40,000 IS sedans annually. Paired with the ES, Lexus says it should sell 110,000 vehicles in the segment, rivaling the perennial heavyweight 3-Series.

Despite the dubious accounting gamesmanship, the ES 350 should sell better than the outgoing ES 330 based on looks alone.

The sheet metal on the new model is more masculine and visually engaging than the model it replaces.

Although the headlamps look roughly the same, the units on the new model are less bulbous, more angular and sleek. The new headlamps also swivel based on steering inputs, to provide better illumination in turns.

The overall length and height are unchanged, at 191.1 ins. (485 cm) and 57.3 ins. (145 cm), respectively.

But the new model has a wheelbase that is more than 2 ins. (5 cm) longer, as well as a wider track.

Curb weight goes up from 3,472 lbs. (1,574 kg) to 3,580 lbs. (1,623 kg).

The new model also gets a considerable performance boost. The 3.5L DOHC V-6 produces 272 hp at 6,200 rpm, up from 225 hp at 5,600 rpm. Likewise, torque is up from 240 lb.-ft. (325 Nm) at 3,600 rpm to 254 lb.-ft. (344 Nm) at 4,700 rpm.

An electronically controlled 6-speed automatic transmission replaces the 5-speed in the old ES 330.

A unique feature for the new car is dynamic radar cruise control system, which automatically can brake a vehicle down to 20 mph (32 km/h) based on the distance to the vehicle ahead.

The system also predicts potential frontal collisions and helps mitigate the severity by pre-tensioning seatbelts and increasing hydraulic pressure in the master cylinder even before the pedal has been depressed.

Media test drives already have been held, but driving impressions of the new ES 350 are embargoed until March 20. Pricing will be announced in March; the outgoing model starts at $32,300.

The vehicle arrives in U.S. showrooms in late April and will be assembled at the Toyota's Kyushu plant in Fukuoka, Japan.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com