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2010 Lexus ES 350 - Click above for high-res image gallery

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.

Photos by Chris Shunk / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

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.

Photos by Chris Shunk / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 4 Years Ago
      when my father-in-law passed away we inherited a new Caddy DTS and an ES350. I thought we would keep the Lexus & get rid of the Caddy. After driving both cars for a few weeks it was a no-brainer. Maybe I'm used to more performance oriented cars, so that probably played a part. I've had a Maserati & still have a Mercedes SL. The Caddy drives great. I expected to like the Lexus, as I know how good the top of the line model is. This Lexus was without a doubt the most boring car I have ever driven. Competent, but still, it's an appliance. Maybe it's just me, but I don't like driving a toaster.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Miketim1: "Does Buick have a 400+ hp v8 super sedan (ISF)"--Honestly, barely anyone cares about the ISF. It has been found lacking against its target competition (German Luxo-Sport Sedans). And where were you some 23 years ago with the Grand Nationals? Probably bashing them for not being as cool as the 7M series Supras and Cressidas.

      "Did Buick build a 550 hp Rare supercar ? (LFA)"- -Should anyone really build a car thats over $300,000.00 dollars and will have production numbers around three hundred and still get beat down by more common cars at a third of the price (ie. Corvette ZR-1, higher end Porsche 911's, Ferrari's?) The LFA is an arrogant attempt at a publicity stunt by Toyota, theyre playing a popularity contest with whom thier going to sell them to as well.

      "Does Buick have a Hybrid sport sedan ? (GSH)"- -And what sports enthusiast is going to shell out money for this? the GS is a let down, putting a Hybrid powertrain behind it just adds more unusable weight to it.

      "Has Buick built a finely crafted Ultra Luxury Suv ? (LX570)" --How is that (overpriced) Land Cruiser working out for you?

      "Did Buick build the worlds first hybrid ultra Luxury sedan that uses a 8 speed V8 paired with a hybrid system ? (LS600h)" - -Is this the same eight speed that has been picked on about having problems figuring out what gear it should be in? And why would anyone really want a $120,000.00 Hybrid? Yeah no matter where you go, you get around 20 mpg, is that worth another $40,000.00? Nope.

      Toyota has been falling behind in all of its brands by resorting to gimmicry and pricing themselves out of thier markets. They have concluded if they stuck a "T" or an "L" on a brick , that it will sell, and its product line has shown(and suffered for) it. Toyota and Lexus used to be an excellent product, but now it has grown arrorant in its "supremacy" and has gotten a hair bit lazy in regards to thier build quality and product design. Toyota/Lexus is not what it used to be.

      BTW: I worked for Toyota and Lexus Dealers for Twenty years, saw them every day, and drove thier competitors as well in thier "Ride and Drives".

        • 4 Years Ago
        Regarding the LS600h L AWD, this is not just a hybrid version of the LS460 L AWD but a premium luxury sedan with better-than-Corvette horsepower (438hp) that happens to be a hybrid with half-decent mpg given the hp, size and weight of the car. Obviously, the 21 mpg is not meant to be the main attraction for customers though. It's more about things like the 23% higher hp and maybe telling your "go green" friends that you drive a hybrid.

        Is it "worth" $110k? Perhaps not but financial "logic" largely goes out the window when you talk about six-figure priced cars or even hybrids for that matter. Some people are willing to pay a premium for what they consider the "best" of the line e.g. top model, highest hp, etc. That's how MB has been able to sell their S600, various AMG, etc. models at such a premium.
        • 4 Years Ago

        " It's more about things like the 23% higher hp and maybe telling your "go green" friends that you drive a hybrid"' As far as the more horsepowerthan the Corvette statement, you are aware that you are reffering to a $50k vehicle thatweighsin theneighborhood of 3,200 poundsright? And with one step up , it ups the power thatmatches the Lexus and two steps up goes to 505 and a few dollars shy of theLS460H goes to 638? There are several 'premium' vehicles that outpower this model , and for much less to boot and have a much more prestigeous heraldry. As far as telling thier friends that they are going green? Most of the people who would be impressed by that statement would not be impressed, even appalled at the car.

        The LS460H AWD is still a gimmic, still overpriced and still marginalizes itself to its competitors.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Yes, and I am also comparing a car (Corvette) which main selling point is performance against a car that is meant to be a luxury people mover sedan. 438hp is quite good in the LS's market and the fuel economy is icing. For being just a "gimmick", it compares extremely well against the competition.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Seems like a nice car but boring. Seeing one of these on the highway I would never guess that it cost $42,000+. I'd rather save some $$$ and get something a bit more interesting.
      • 4 Years Ago
      You're really stretching, Lexusboy. The ES was never a 4-door coupe any more than the old Legacy was, assuming youre trying by equating frameless windows with "coupe". Not gonna work. The ES has always been a mid-size sedan (the ES250 was a compact like the Gen 2 Camry).
      • 4 Years Ago
      • 4 Years Ago
      As much as this luxury appliance goes against everything I love about cars it has its place and market. I just can never get past the idea of paying 35k for something you didn't love but I guess some people love unoffensive, predictable and comfortable. To each their own.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Wasn't aware the Lexus ever even saw the crown, let alone held it.
      • 4 Years Ago
      My 2005 Lexus 430 is a dream car. Before that I had a 1994 Lexus. These cars are in a class by themselves when it comes to looks, comfort and drivability. Had NO expensive repairs in all the years I have driven them. Matter of fact the only repairs resulted from me warring with my garage.

      BBBAAADD weather in Milwaukee does not faze the Lexus. Bad roads, not a problem. Excellent service when I go in for routine maintenance.

      Before the Lexus, I had a lot of repair bills, mysterious problems - unfortunately with American cars - before the manufacturers got the message that single woman hate being stranded in cars that don't work properly.
      • 4 Years Ago
      The Infinity M series makes both the Buick and the Lexus seem like they were designed and built by amateurs. That is because in Japan the workers take pride in what they do not like the GM robberbarons that sit and read the paper while being paid to work. Any wonder we are in trouble in the auto industry and had to bail them out by 65 billion which will never be repaid?
      • 4 Years Ago
      My parents drive Lexus and they have never complained .I reckon its all about supporting the American Economy which is deplorable.Quite frankly we all know without bailouts from the government where would GM be? .WINK WINK ;) @gm supporters..
      • 4 Years Ago
      My parents drive Lexus and they have never complained .I reckon its all about supporting the American Economy which is deplorable.Quite frankly we all know without bailouts from the government where would GM be? .WINK WINK ;) @gm supporters..

      • 4 Years Ago
      The posts here arguing about platforms are irrelevant. This an excellent review - except the line about "many consider it a glorified Camry". I'm not sure enough people do to care and the Camry is a great car anyhow. Would I buy this car if I had that type of money, no I would get a sportier car most likely. I doubt most here, myself included would turn this car down for a screaming deal though.

      This is the unofficial car of real estate agents. I haven't seen any reviews in which the Buick is a clear winner over the ES. Most reviews I've seen place the Lexus ahead modestly. I've seen Buick win one comparison slightly.
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