Motor Corp.'s Lexus division has decided one car is not enough to serve the needs of the fiercely competitive entry-luxury sedan market.
Last fall, the auto maker introduced the all-new IS 250/350 sport sedan. It has been well received, selling 15,789 units by the end of the year, far surpassing total deliveries for 2004 of the prior model, according to Ward's data.
In the first two months of 2006, Lexus sold 7,955 IS models, leaving in its dust segment mainstays such as the Audi A4, Volvo S60 and Mercedes C-Class. The IS places a solid fourth, edging out the Cadillac CTS.
Lexus may be less pleased to see the new IS also is outselling its stablemate, the outdated ES 330, which lacks style, yet fills real-estate office parking lots across the U.S.
A new fifth-generation ES has arrived, however. Although its styling and performance are not as crisp as the IS, the new ES is significantly more engaging than its predecessor, with more than enough creature comforts and a price likely in the low $30,000 range that should lure intenders in the segment.
Despite its dowdy looks, the outgoing ES sold well, placing fourth in the U.S. among 18 vehicles in its segment in 2005, with 67,577 units.
The new ES abandons its whitebread demeanor and introduces an element of styling passion that, until now, has been sorely lacking. And for that reason, Lexus is bound to sell more than the 70,000 units it says it will deliver each year.
Lexus is planning on the front-wheel-drive ES and rear-wheel-drive IS to tag-team the lower-luxury segment — the IS muscling the “sports/performance” end of the market and the ES finessing the “comfort/luxury” niche.
From this yin-yang relationship springs a new approach to the segment — one so savvy that Bavarian product planners may fear a legitimate threat to the segment-leading3-Series.
Lexus says it should sell 110,000 vehicles in the sector between the IS and ES. In 2005,sold 106,549 3-Series cars, according to Ward's data.
Critics will say this is little more than statistical gamesmanship on the part of Lexus. With the same logic,Motor Co. Ltd.'s Acura luxury division could claim segment leadership with combined sales of the TL and TSX.
Despite the sales-crown intrigue, the ES has a compelling story, one less associated with performance than with comfort and styling. The ES 350 makes a visual impression as Lexus moves forward with its spicy new L-Finesse design language, characterized by the long hood, short rear deck and more dramatic sheet metal.
The interior is wholly competitive for the sector, with soft-touch surfaces throughout, except for the authentic brown walnut wood trim and a plastic bezel surrounding the cupholder and center stack.
The only part of the interior that disappoints is the cheap-looking cupholder. Even a lesser competitor to the ES, the Lincoln Zephyr, distinguishes itself with a stylish, functional, well-integrated cupholder module.
Other than that, fit and finish appears to be top notch on the pre-production models driven. The ES 350 has eight standard airbags, including knee airbags for the driver and front passenger, plus two optional rear side airbags.
The horse-collar shaped center stack is appealing and familiar. Much of the instrumentation shares design cues with other/Lexus vehicles.
Despite the high-resolution touch screen for climate control, audio and navigation functions, the center stack remains cluttered with too many buttons. Perhaps because of backlash to BMW's controversial iDrive controller, the ES has no such device.
The back seat is extremely spacious and comfortable. The center seat is more comfortable, thanks to reduced height of the exhaust “tunnel” running along the floor.
While in the back seat, reach up and grip what must be the most over-engineered grab handle in a production car. The complex apparatus swivels three different ways and is spring-loaded for smooth, fluid movements.
Smooth and fluid also describe the general comportment of the ES 350. The new sedan may handle better than the one it replaces, but it is far from segment leadership, suffering from too much body roll and a bit of understeer.
Lexus may not want to hear this, but the ES 350 behaves much like the Buick Lucerne and LaCrosse, now thatCorp. has attempted to moderately tighten the suspensions of its latest Buicks.
The steering wheel transmits a fair amount of vibration, which might have more to do with the coarseness of the Hawaiian roads we traversed than suspension damping. At idle, however, the ES 350 is like a vault, thanks, in part, to the computer-controlled engine mounts designed to quell idle shake.
The powertrain is adequate. The DOHC 3.5L V-6 (internal designation 2GR-FE) produces 272 hp, a mere 4 hp more than the mill generates for the all-new (and much less expensive) Toyota Camry, but a 47-hp boost over the 3.3L V-6 in the outgoing ES.
Torque is up from 240 lb.-ft. (325 Nm) for the 3.3L V-6 to 254 lb.-ft. (344 Nm) at 4,700 rpm for the 3.5L.
In contrast, the IS 350 gets a superior powerplant, based on the same architecture. The technically more advanced 3.5L V-6 (internal designation 2GR-FSE) churns out a thumping 306 hp and earned a Ward's 10 Best Engines award in January.
The ES 350 has interesting technology as well, such as dual variable valve timing and electronic throttle control with intelligence. Its output is competitive with other 3.5L engines.
But this V-6 lacks character and punch, partly because the only available transmission is a 6-speed automatic (replacing a 5-speed auto).
This engine is ideal for business people who want to travel in style but prefer to avoid throaty exhaust noise disrupting their cell-phone conversations. There is nothing exhilarating about this powerplant, and it requires premium fuel, to boot.
Ultimately, it probably does not matter. No one will buy the ES 350 for its power or handling, so most customers will be more than happy with their purchase. In its marketing pitch here, Lexus makes it clear the model to buy for sporty performance is the IS, not the ES.
Fuel economy, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, is rated at 21 mpg (11.1 L/100 km) in city driving and 30 mpg (7.8 L/100 km) on the highway.
Expect a hybrid-electric version of the ES in the future. Toyota officials have not confirmed such a vehicle but have said repeatedly they eventually expect hybrid versions across the product range.
The vehicle arrives in U.S. showrooms in late April from Toyota's Kyushu plant in Fukuoka, Japan. Pricing will be announced April 7; the outgoing model starts at $32,300.
With the new ES 350, Lexus is out to prove two cars are better than one.