Mountain Wheels: Revamped Lexus ES 350 aims for younger audience |

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Mountain Wheels: Revamped Lexus ES 350 aims for younger audience

Special to the Daily

Of the multiplicity of increasingly sophisticated products that Lexus has produced over the years, the grand old ES always seemed to be just a bit behind the curve – and the ES’s dedicated audience seemed pretty happy with that.

Staid, solid, predictable and purchased en masse by a decidedly Buick-styled demographic, the ES has always been a good seller for Lexus’ parent company Toyota since its debut in 1989.

But with a new and wide-sweeping agenda to kick-start the entire Lexus line (nine all-new or at least significantly retooled products in 2012 are promised), the ES, too, has gotten a pretty major makeover, inside and out.

We got to sample the sixth-generation ES in both its standard and first-for-this-model hybrid versions a few weeks back on the streets and expressways of a very muggy and smoggy Dallas, and found it to be a well-evolved and even – dare we say it – sporty rendition of the old, yawny ES.

But fear not, ultra-traditionalists: ES still provides an aspirational target for those not completely sold on the new and more thoroughly chiseled GS and LX models.

Granted, it’s got Lexus’ own fully Japanese litany of design oddities, such as hand-stitching work on the new two-layer dash that’s done at the factory by master craftsmen who have to qualify for the job by doing one-handed origami, for whatever that’s worth.

If the new ES looks just a little bit like the newest generation LS, that’s because the ES designer apprenticed on the LS project. Those deeply contoured body lines, a flat trunk lid and modern, aerodynamic exhaust surrounds all considerably push the envelope: the nose is similar but nowhere as confrontational as the new GS, which still makes this a very different machine than the older ESes. Aerodynamics are also markedly improved.

Power comes, in the regular version, from a 3.5-liter V6 producing 268 horsepower and rated at 21 mgp city and 31 highway. That’s enough oomph to get the 3,549-pound car going without any problems (0 to 60 takes just 7.1 seconds), pushed through a non-troublesome six-speed automatic transmission.

A good contingent of buyers may also be interested in the brand-new ES hybrid, which combines a 2.5-liter four-cylinder with a generator and more compact battery system topping out at a combined 200 horsepower. That system will generate an estimated 40 mpg city and 39 highway, adding plenty of extra perceived value to a quite decent platform; Lexus figures it might make up more than a quarter of total ES sales, as well. The hybrid’s drive system can be switched between an austere, low-acceleration mode and a full-power boosted Sport mode to make it a little less hybrid-like, should you want to do that.

As has been the case with Lexus’ other luxury hybrids, there’s also a bamboo trim package for the interior highlights to make you feel, I guess, like you’re driving around in the classiest Whole Foods-approved mid-size machine on the market.

The driving experience in both versions was pleasantly middle-of-the-road, with lots of power to spare and a ride that’s comfortably grounded between too sedate and too sporty (a set of opposite-wound springs help with that feel).

There’s also Buick levels of quiet in the drive with improved acoustic glass; you can completely obliterate that silence with an optional 835-watt Mark Levinson stereo. The whole, reconfigurable package of very wide navigation display and mouse-styled controller also appears in the ES models, as does Lexus’ OnStar-inspired Enform system and loads of streaming radio and apps.

Safety technology is also slathered on in the form of rear sensors with cross-traffic notification, improved blind spot and lane departure warnings and even automatic high-beam sensors.

Who is the new ES aimed at? Folks who’d normally shop for a Mercedes-Benz E or C Class, Infiniti’s G series or the regular version of the Cadillac CTS. And yes, Lexus recognizes that ES buyers have traditionally been older and less affluent than those who go for the Lexus GS; the hybrid seems to be a well-executed gambit to bring younger buyers into the equation.

ES will be for sale in August; prices will be announced in the coming weeks.