ETLAN, Va. -- In the Blue Ridge ripples of Virginia, where Etlan Road skirts the border of Shenandoah National Park, a refined luxury sedan behaves itself on the asphalt surface with a silky engine applying muscle to twirl the two front five-spoke aluminum wheels ringed in all-season Michelins.
We're driving along the curvaceous Etlan Road to feel the nuances of a sophisticated ride quality and wallow in so many luxurious appointments bound into a 2011 rendition of the elegant ES 350 mid-size sedan from Lexus, elite upshot line from Toyota of Japan.
As the only Lexus sedan rigged with front-wheel-drive (FWD) traction, the ES has always been the middle-size staple in the Lexus line.
Origins for this car 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 to date due to a new platform with the wheelbase drawn several inches longer than the predecessor and the wheel track width expanded by another inch.
It wore the badge of ES 350 to reflect a powerful 3.5-liter aluminum V6 engine aboard.
That's essentially the version which makes up the ES 350 of 2011, following some front-end styling enhancements in 2010 and new fuel recommendations in 2011 -- down now from 91-octane to 87-octane regular unleaded gasoline.
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 illusion 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, plus chrome-coated molding underscoring the doors.
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 obviously 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 erose pavement like the rumpled Etlan Road.
Net effect is the velvety ride of a fine 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 consistently leads the way in fostering a serene and rattle-free environment.
Despite the tranquility in the ES cabin, this car is quite capable of scooting down the road. It produces strong thrust 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 268 hp at 6200 rpm and the torque rising to 228 lb-ft at 4700 rpm.
Lexus track tests indicate the ES 350 is capable of quick times -- zero to 60 mph in 7.0 seconds and across the quarter-mile mark in 15.2 seconds, 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.
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 2011 ES 350 also scores a brake override system which automatically pares engine power when the brake pedal and accelerator are actuated simultaneously.
Climb inside and discover a luxurious five-place compartment trimmed in soft leather hides, glossy hardwoods (walnut or bird's-eye maple) 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 electroluminescent gauges in the hooded instrument panel are highly legible in a vivid display.
Concealed air bags surround the ES cabin -- 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 above all side windows plus side air bags for both outboard seats on the rear bench.
The list of standard gear for the ES 350 includes a moonroof, SmartAccess with push-button start/stop and door unlock setting, the wood trim on console and doors, puddle lamps on bottoms of exterior mirrors, a multi-information display and a Lexus premium audio system with AM/FM/6xCD/MP3/WMA, DSP (digital sound processor), ASL (automatic sound levelizer) and eight speakers.
Options extend to the Ultra Luxury Package, a DVD-based navigation system and rear back-up camera, dynamic radar cruise control, a pre-collision system, high intensity discharge headlamps and adaptive front lighting system, intuitive parking assist, heated and ventilated front buckets, a panorama glass roof and audio kits which culminate with a 300-watt Mark Levinson premium surround sound system with 14 speakers and DVD-Audio/Video.
Lexus sets the MSRP for a 2011 ES 350 at $35,525.