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NEW CAR REVIEW
Lexus divides to conquer with ES350, GS450h
By John Gilbert, special to SNS Interactive

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 examples.

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 sense.

"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," said Carter.

"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 high-performance sedan.

ES350

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 ES350.

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 Camry.

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 aim.

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.

GS450h

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 horsepower.

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 impact."

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 wheels.

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 cars@jwgilbert.com.