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2010 Lexus ES 350 (Bill Petro/Toyota)
2010 Lexus ES 350 (Bill Petro/Toyota)

2010 Lexus ES 350

Despite recall, Lexus has grace under pressure Add to ...

Yes, it's true. Lexus did recall its ES 350 mid-size premium sedan last year, as part of that massive recall involving accelerator pedals getting stuck under floor mats.

Yes, it's true. Lexus stumbled a bit in the latest J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study - to fourth place overall from No. 1 in 2009. Lexus slipped from 84 problems per 100 vehicles in 2009 to 88 in 2010. If Lexus had managed 83 this year, Toyota's luxury brand would have tied for first in 2010. Lexus also finished fourth overall in Power's three-year 2010 Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS).

Conclusion: Lexus still makes cars with excellent quality.

Indeed, in the VDS, the ES 350 was a top-three pick in its category. The ES 350, says the owner research from Consumer Reports, is very reliable, a recommended pick and ranks second-highest among premium sedans.

Yes, it's also true that Lexus sales in Canada are flat-lining this year, up just 1.4 per cent so far, while Audi is up 36.7 per cent, Mercedes-Benz is up 23.5 per cent and BMW is up 13.8 per cent. Everyone knows Toyota, and by extension its Lexus brand, has taken some serious hits in the last few months.

BrandIndex Service in New York, which surveys consumer brand perceptions, says Lexus's quality reputation has tumbled to its lowest rating, reports just-auto.com. "Lexus spent 2009 either neck and neck or slightly ahead of luxury rival BMW in quality scores," Drew Kerr, a BrandIndex spokesman, said. "The game changed in early February, when the Toyota news exploded and Lexus began descending significantly."

With that out of the way - and let's be honest, the recall issue is the gorilla in the room and it would be dishonest to ignore it - let's turn to the 2010 Lexus ES 350 ($41,950). This really is an excellent entry-level luxury sedan, one with a powerful and velvety-smooth V-6, a slick six-speed automatic transmission, a plush and wonderfully quiet ride, a sumptuous interior, great front seats and outstanding fit and finish. Safety? In government crash testing, the ES 350 earned the maximum five stars for frontal crash protection and front seat side crash protection.

Whew! There is much to like about this ride. That's why the ES has been Lexus's best-selling passenger car forever, and second best-selling vehicle overall behind the RX sport-ute. Better still, if you're interested, Lexus Canada has slapped on a very nice $3,000 incentive for cash buyers.

By any measure, all of that makes the ES a superb choice in a crowded field - one that includes the BMW 3-Series, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, the Audi A4, Acura's TL, Volvo S60, Buick LaCrosse, Hyundai Genesis and Infiniti's G37. The LaCrosse and Genesis represent particularly impressive value in this group.

True, the handling is unimpressive in the ES, and the braking, too. Headroom in back is tight and rearward visibility is not great, either. That said, the ES is one of those cars you'll own for a decade, never worrying about a breakdown, never apologizing or explaining why you made the move to own one. It's a safe choice. If you're looking for fireworks, you might want to shop something else.

But those who want delicious wood trim and an easy-to-drive experience, however, should shop here. The cabin is a cocoon of high-quality materials, all superbly tied together in a subtle but thoughtful way. At the end of a long day, this is a mobile, relaxing retreat from the office.

Lexus has not stood still with the ES 350, either. The design has received a mild exterior freshening with tweaks to the headlamps, grille, front bumper, rear combination lamps, wheels and chrome mouldings. The features list now includes rear side airbags, integrated XM satellite radio, rain sensing wipers and Bluetooth capability. So that's the value story.

The basic car is very nice, but if you want to spend more the options list is simple enough: $3,850 for the Navigation Package; $7,200 for the Premium Package with Navigation; and, $10,050 the Ultra Premium Package with Navigation. Content lists of each are too long for this space, but let me make one observation: if you want USB audio controls, you'll need to buy one of these packages.

Every ES, however, is powered by a silky 3.5-litre V-6 that quietly develops 272 horsepower and 254 lb-ft of torque. Power goes to the front wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission. Look for 0-100 km/h times in the seven-second range and pretty decent fuel economy using premium. Slow? No. But the isolated ride is soft and the handling leans - and I do mean leans - to wallow-y.

But the performance story here takes a back seat to comfort. Really, the ES's cabin is an integrated, homey and inviting place. The materials are top-shelf and the optional ventilated seats are first-class. The back seat is roomy, though headroom is tight. The trunk is more useful thanks to a cargo pass-through.

Sure, the ES shares its basic mechanical architecture with the Toyota Camry, but the two are utterly dissimilar in every way. Lexus takes the nuts and bolts, the building blocks, and raises the bar high, very high. Yes, that's true, too.

jcato@globeandmail.com

2010 Lexus ES 350

Type: Mid-size premium sedan

Base Price: $41,950; as tested, $43,900 (including freight)

Engine: 3.5-litre V-6, DOHC

Horsepower/torque: 272 hp/254 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.9 city/7.2 highway; premium gas

Alternatives: BMW 3-Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Audi A4, Acura TL, Volvo S60, Buick LaCrosse, Hyundai Genesis, Infiniti G37

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