LAS VEGAS, Nev. (SNS) – Just like the
model-designation numbers, Toyota just keeps on coming up with new
and better models throughout its lineup, and the 2007 Lexus ES350
and the Lexus GS450h are the latest niche-fillers in Toyota’s
upscale Lexus line.
There are differences, make no mistake.
Toyota models are basically for normal folks, who
want trouble-free driving from the time they sign their installment
contract until, three or four years down the road, they buy a new one;
Lexus buyers are decidedly upscale, desiring or demanding more luxury,
more features and more power, and willing to pay for it.
Together, Toyota and Lexus are like an enormous
city, with diverse neighborhoods and cultures all coming together in a
prosperous society. Toyota has the Camry, the nation’s No. 1 selling
single automobile, and Lexus has the ES level, which starts out based
on the Camry platform but with upgrades everywhere.
Interestingly, Toyota further crowds its own
"entry-luxury" line with the Toyota Avalon, a stretched version of the
Camry and/or the ES350, and the first car from the corporation to ride
on the new platform.
Meanwhile, Toyota also has the Prius hybrid, and has
just introduced the Camry hybrid, but it doesn’t have a
performance-oriented sedan, while Lexus gets two of them – the IS and
the larger GS.
While renovating its whole line, Toyota and Lexus
are set to take on the world – literally – and are inexorably moving
up to overtake General Motors as the largest auto-builder in the
world. The ES and GS lines in Lexus are merely the most recent
The ES350 is the newest entry-level sedan from
Lexus, introducing that model would be a trip by itself.
Lexus chose to also introduce the GS450h – a hybrid
version of the performance GS line – in a dual intro that sent waves
of automotive journalists driving from the Ritz Carlton Hotel on the
outskirts of Las Vegas out to Hoover Dam and Lake Mead and back.
They were informative driving courses, and both
vehicles performed admirably.
If the proliferation
of models is a gamble, Las Vegas was a good place to launch the
two latest Lexus cars. Bob Carter, the vice president and general
manager of Lexus, described the Lexus strategy, and it all made
"The single largest segment in the luxury-car
market is what is called ‘entry luxury,’ and there are two
different parts to it – sporty-performance, and luxury-comfort,"
"Most companies try to stretch a model out to try to
do both, and we at Lexus have separate cars for both. In the
sports-performance category we have the IS, and the larger GS; and
covering the luxury-comfort part, we have the ES and the upscale LS."
Further evidence of Lexus market research is that ES
customers tend to move up to the LS luxury brand, rather than to the
GS performance side.
So instead of having a car for each niche, Toyota
divides and conquers each niche within a niche.
The LS is the biggest Lexus, loaded with luxury and
all sorts of high-tech features. The ES350, however, now emerges as a
slightly more compact luxury version, but with the clearcut wintertime
advantage of front-wheel drive.
The IS sedans are hot little numbers, with two
engines in very sporty, if more compact, bodies, so the GS has stepped
in as the big brother, V8-powered high-performance sedan.
So, offering a hybrid technique to the GS may seem
curious, but it isn’t, because the electric power supplied to
complement the gasoline engine makes the GS450h an even higher
When the ES350 was first unveiled at the Chicago
Auto Show, the crowd of media was such that I couldn’t get a clear
photo, so I waited a couple of hours and double-backed to the Toyota
display, then proceeded to photo about 25 photos of different angles
of the new ES350.
When I got around to the rear, however, I was
surprised to notice that the emblem said "LS" not "ES" – I had
mistaken the big papa luxury LS for the so-called entry-level Lexus
That startled me, and maybe it should concern Lexus
luxury sellers, but it also should thrill those who can buy the ES350,
save a chunk of thousands, and drive a front-drive sedan that closely
resembles the high-priced spread.
Estimates are for the ES350 to be priced at about
$35,000, which is right in there in a segment that is hotly contested
among the Acura TL, BMW 5-Series, Mercedes E-Class, and Cadillac STS.
Carter didn’t want to say that the
ES might draw customers from the new LS, but he did say: "We
believe that the new ES is better in virtually every way than the
original 1990 LS flagship."
He noted the new ES350 is quicker, more
powerful, quieter and almost as roomy as that first LS400.
Overall length of the ES350 is unchanged, but there
are a couple more inches in wheelbase, which expands the interior
room, and a bit more width and track further enhance interior room.
The company’s new 3.5-liter V6 has 272 horsepower at
6,200 RPMs, and 254 foot-pounds of torque at 4,700 RPMs, thanks to the
chain-driven dual overhead camshafts Toyota has been perfecting for
two decades, and variable valve timing.
The slightly expanded car is only 108 pounds heavier
than its predecessor, and the new engine shoots it from 0-60 in 6.8
seconds – swifter than the original LS400, with its 4-liter V8. The
power is dispersed via a six-speed automatic transmission, with a
sports-shift gate for manual control. The transmission is shared with
Improved suspension and a whole raft of LS-like
features include electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist
to augment the antilock four-wheel disc brakes, and both stability
control and traction control are standard.
Cruise control uses radar to maintain intervals, and
the back-up camera has guidelines to help park. That, and all the
safety elements of surrounding airbags make the ES350 safer than ever.
Carter explained that most of the dozen or so Lexus
competitors have focused in on the sports/performance end of the
luxury segment, leaving a large opening for the ES’s comfort/luxury
So, the ES350 will be trying to coax conquest buyers
from Acura, BMW and others, while also attracting buyers looking to
move up from compact sedans.
The GS carries out several Lexus philosophies, while
crossing some boundaries toward Toyota, yet keeping its distance. "It
will be the industry’s first truly high-performance hybrid," Carter
said, and he explained how it also is the first rear-drive hybrid
sedan, and, the quickest Lexus.
The 3.5-liter V6 (sound familiar?) has 292
horsepower and 267 foot-pounds of torque in the GS form, tuned to
coincide with the two electric motors for a total output of 339
Carter said: The GS450h will go 0-60 in 5.2 seconds
and 30-50 mph passing bursts of 2.7 seconds, with a top speed of 131
mph. Estimated fuel economy is 25 city, 28 highway.
Carter says that will make the GS450h quicker than
the BMW 550, the Infiniti M45, the Audi A6, the Mercedes E500, or the
Lexus GS430 – the same car with a V8 engine.
The only Lexus with a hybrid so far is the RX
crossover SUV, a slick vehicle called the 400h. Carter said that the
RX models account for 109,000 sales a year, and 25 percent of those RX
buyers are buying the 400h hybrid.
"When one-fourth of the buyers of you single
highest-volume vehicle choose an option packagte [hybrid] that costs
about $5,000 more than the base model, you know you’ve made an
So Lexus officials think the GS hybrid will be
similarly attractive, because it earns its power without larger
displacement of a V8, or a turbocharger or supercharger, yet gets the
fuel economy more likely to be obtained by a four-cylinder.
The system has the strong V6 and two electric motors
– one called MG1, which controls engine output to the rear wheels, and
the other MG2, which strictly powers the wheels.
The RX400h has the front wheels driven by
gas-electric combined, and a separate electric motor for the rear
There are no plans for an all-wheel-drive GS450h,
which essentially uses the gas engine for power and to replenish the
juice for the electric motors.
Driving the GS450h is smooth, with seamless
interaction of the gas and electric sources. While powerful, it also
produces 17 metric tons less CO2 over 150,000 miles of driving, and is
eight times cleaner in emissions than "one highly-touted diesel luxury
car." Toyota claims, in an unsubtle swipe toward Mercedes.
The GS450h will not be aimed at mass sales, the way
the RX400h is, but will be a rare high-performance selection, with
only 2,000 produced, and base priced at $54,900.
At that price, all sorts of features, including
adaptive headlamps, electronic sonar for avoiding items in the way,
and electronically controlled brakes will be standard.
If it seems a lot to do about only a few vehicles,
it seems unwise to question Toyota or Lexus these days.
Besides, when someone asked Carter if Lexus would
produce more GS450h cars than 2,000 if demand warranted it.
He said, "Yes."
Editor's note: John Gilbert writes weekly auto reviews. He can be
reached at email@example.com.