PISMO BEACH, Calif. -- With blue waters of the Santa Barbara Channel spreading off California's Pacific Coast on the left and sandy brown ramparts of the Santa Inez Range stacking high on the right, the Pacific Coast Highway runs westward out of Santa Barbara before hooking a right at Gaviota and climbing over the mountains.
Big trucks and commuter cars usually clot this artery and fog off the ocean often obscures the view, but on a recent cruise up the PCH the traffic seemed sparse and a blue sky clearly revealed the islands of San Miguel, Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz.
This Technicolor seascape fills all windows on one side of the sumptuous luxury car we're steering, with jagged peaks crowned by the vivid blue ceiling covering opposing windows as symphonic sounds channeling through 14 speakers of the deluxe Mark Levinson surround sound audio system float through an expansive passenger compartment lined in perforated leathers and planks of glossy hardwood.
With superior power of a strong engine on tap and sophisticated electronic vehicle control systems always engaged to keep the wheels tracking true along the roadbed, our vehicle appears well armed for an extended pavement excursion like this cruise up the coast, as the trappings of luxury in the cabin coddle the passengers and seem to diminish the mileage.
Our vehicle for this excursion happens to be a 2009 rendition of the ES 350, elegant mid-size sedan from Lexus, the elite upshot brand from Toyota of Japan.
As the only Lexus sedan oriented with front-wheel-drive (FWD) traction, the ES series sedan has always been the middle-size staple for the Lexus line.
Origins trace to the debut of Lexus for the North American market in 1990 with the ES 250 employing the platform and powertrain of Toyota's Camry, followed two years later with the upgraded ES 300 replacement. A third generational version emerged in 1997 which was larger and stronger, then some subtle yet strategic enhancements applied to the issues of 1999.
A fourth 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.
But the fifth generational design in 2007 produced the largest ES of all due to a new platform with the wheelbase drawn two inches longer than the predecessor and the wheel track width expanded by another inch.
It bore the badge of ES 350 to reflect a powerful 3.5-liter aluminum V6 engine aboard.
That's the version which makes up the ES 350 of 2009, with only minor modifications and additions like personal reading lamps installed for backseat passengers and some fresh paint shades on the palette such as Matador Red Mica, Moon Shell Mica and Blue Sapphire Pearl.
Body styling for the ES 350 is drawn with taut lines for a dramatic bowed posture.
The sleek aerodynamic shape features a long and low-sloping hood crowned by oversized projector-beam headlamp clusters on front corners and a severely raked windshield leading to an arching canopy over the cabin with narrow windows and the side pillars muted to create the impression of a sleek coupe.
Side panels are chiseled practically sheer to forge four slab doors, although there are crisp high-shouldered cutlines and a graceful inward tilt to the side windows.
Swoopy back pillars of the roofline slide down to the blunted tail, which looks clean with a wrap-around fascia containing the chrome tips of twin exhaust pipes.
Overall impression: This ES 350 seems streamlined and stylish -- and certainly 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 bumpy blacktop we encounter on the PCH climbing the grade to Gaviota Pass.
Net effect is the silky ride of a superior luxury car.
And Lexus has reached deep into its bag of NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) tricks to insulate and isolate the passenger compartment of the ES sedan from external discord and mechanical chatter.
It's incredibly quiet inside, but Lexus leads the way in fostering 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 can climb quickly to the realm of illicit speed.
The 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 its maximum speed electronically limited to 137 mph.
Sole transmission is a Lexus 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 that ladder.
The cabin is wrapped in concealed 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 in the headliner above side windows in front and back. And side air bags for both outboard seats on the rear bench are available.
On tap to help stop the ES are four big disc brakes tied to the anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), vehicle stability control (VSC) for correcting lateral skidding, plus traction control (TRAC) to check wheel spin and brake assist (BA) to apply maximum braking pressure during an emergency stop.
The list of stock equipment on ES 350 ranges from a moonroof and power controls for windows and mirrors to SmartAccess with push-button start/stop and door unlock settings, wood trim on console and doors, puddle lamps on exterior mirrors and a multi-information display.
Options extend to a DVD-based navigation system, dynamic radar cruise control, heated and ventilated front buckets, packages of premium appointments, a panorama glass roof and several audio kits which culminate at the Mark Levinson system with DVD-Audio/Video.
We expect pricing for the 2009 Lexus ES 350 to run from $34,500 to $42,000 or so.