HAWI, Hawaii -- The high road to Hawaii, tucked on the misty northern tip of the Big Island, climbs volcanic slopes spiked with pine, koa and mahogany trees overlooking a vast blue ocean.
We're taking this route to feel the nuances of a sophisticated ride quality and wallow in so many luxurious appointments bound into a bigger and better rendition of the elegant ES mid-size sedan from Lexus, elite upshot line from Toyota of Japan.
As the only Lexus sedan oriented with front-wheel-drive (FWD) traction and one historically bearing mid-level price points, the ES has been a staple vehicle for Lexus.
Origins trace to the debut of Lexus for the American market in 1990 with the ES 250, followed two years later with the upgraded ES 300 replacement. A second generational version emerged in 1997 which was larger and more powerful than the original with some subtle yet strategic enhancements applied to the previous generation Lexus'.
A third treatment in 2002 expanded the package again and in 2004 Lexus increased the engine size to 3.3 liters and marked the powertrain boost with a change on the nameplate to ES 330.
Now, though, the ES series grows again with the fourth generational treatment of 2007 that's badged as the ES 350 to reflect a new 3.5-liter V6 engine aboard.
It rides on a new platform with the wheelbase drawn two inches longer than the predecessor and the wheel track width expanded by another inch.
These structural changes become most apparent in the increased size of the passenger compartment, which contains about as much elbow room as the original large-scale Lexus sedan, the LS 400 of 1990.
Along with the expanded structure and upgraded powertrain, the ES 350 for 2007 shows a new exterior design drawn with taut lines in a dramatic bowed posture.
The sleek aerodynamic shape features a low-sloping hood crowned by oversized projector-beam headlamp clusters and a severely raked windshield leading to an arching canopy over the cabin with low-slung windows and side pillars muted to create the impression of a sleek coupe.
Side panels are chiseled almost sheer for slab doors, although there are crisp high-shouldered cutlines and a graceful inward tilt to side windows.
Swoopy back pillars of the roofline slide into the blunted rump, which looks clean with wrap-around low fascia.
Overall impression: The ES 350 appears streamlined and stylish -- and downright expensive.
The ride quality feels like an expensive vehicle too.
A four-wheel independent suspension with MacPherson struts fore and aft seems firm yet forgiving even on irregular pavement like the blacktop ribbon we follow into Hawi. Net effect is the silky ride of a luxury car.
And Lexus has reached deep into its bag of NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) tricks to insulate and isolate the passenger compartment from external discord and mechanical chatter.
It's incredibly quiet inside, as Lexus is without peer in fostering such a serene and rattle-free environment.
Despite such tranquility in the cabin, ES 350 is quite capable of scooting down the road. It produces strong muscle for the passing lane and climbs quickly to the realm of illicit speed.
The new 3.5-liter V6 -- Toyota's impressive 2GR-FE aluminum-block plant -- has dual camshafts with dual VVT-i (variable valve timing with intelligence) to optimize cam timing and maximize power production at all engine speeds.
As a result, it romps with 272 hp at 6200 rpm and the torque rising to 254 lb-ft at 4700 rpm.
Lexus track tests indicate the ES 350 is capable of quick times -- zero to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds and across the quarter-mile mark in 15 flat, with the top speed electronically limited to 137 mph.
The exclusive transmission is a new six-speed automatic with intelligent shift control and sequential shifting -- pull the console-mounted shift lever to the left, then tip it forward to move up the gear ladder one step at a time, or click it backward to shift down the ladder.
Elaborate safety systems, either passive or active, show up in this latest Lexus.
Passive safety measures include a reinforced structure with crumple zones to absorb and diffuse energy from a sudden impact along predictable paths but also deflect the force away from the passenger compartment.
The cabin is surrounded by hidden air bags -- up-front inflators for front seats plus seat-mounted side air bags and two more to shield the knees of front riders, then curtain-style air bags concealed in the headliner above side windows in front and back.
Side air bags for both outboard seats on the rear bench are also available for the first time.
On tap to help stop the vehicle are four disc brakes tied to the anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD).
Additional electronic vehicle controls include vehicle stability control (VSC), which corrects lateral skidding, plus traction control (TRAC) to check wheel spin and a brake assist (BA) system to add maximum braking pressure during an emergency stop.
ES 350 also stocks a tire pressure monitor system (TPMS).
Climb inside and find a luxurious five-place compartment trimmed in fine fabrics or soft leather hides, glossy walnut hardwoods and gleaming metals.
Two bucket seats up front flank a center console where the automatic shifter gate stands. The driver's seat moves ten ways under power, as does the front passenger's seat. In the rear, a three-person bench has sculptured sections for two and a center fold-down armrest with cupholders.
Round Optitron gauges in the hooded instrument panel are highly legible in a vivid display.
The list of standard equipment includes a moonroof, SmartAccess with push-button start/stop and door unlock setting, wood trim on console and doors, puddle lamps on bottoms of exterior mirrors and a multi-information display.
Options extend to a DVD-based navigation system, dynamic radar cruise control, heated and ventilated front buckets, three packages of premium appointments, a panorama glass roof and several audio kits which culminate with a Mark Levinson premium surround sound system with 14 speakers and DVD-Audio/Video.