Sunday, March 6, 2016

Review: Lexus ES 350

All photos courtesy of Lexus USA.

By Ben Aghajanian, UpShift Contributing Editor

The Lexus brand was officially launched at the 1989 Detroit Auto Show, with the world premier of the LS 400, a full-size luxury sedan designed to go head-to-head with the Germans. The ES 250, a smaller, front-wheel-drive, near-luxury sedan based on the Camry, was launched alongside the LS 400. 

Over the years, the ES remained on the Camry wheelbase, until the 2013 model year, when it was moved to the Avalon's. Along with the RX crossover SUV, the ES has traditionally been one of Lexus' top sellers, as one of the brand's most affordable models.

As I wrote several months ago, Lexus has been trying to shed a degree of their “predictable luxury” image. The F Sport and F Performance line are the results of those efforts, and with models like the IS 350 F Sport, tested here, I would argue they've done quite well. Where does the ES fit in?

The ES 350 is absolutely your father's Lexus. Moving to the longer wheelbase Avalon as a base has helped the ES' mission of carrying 4 or 5 passengers in comfort, providing a larger back seat.

*Since the ES was traditionally based on the Camry, and I have only sat in, and not tested an Avalon, I will draw a number of comparisons to the Camry I drove.

One of the things about the Camry that disappointed me was the general quality of the interior materials and the seats. It was a nearly 36K car that felt less than that. Our ES 350 tester stickered for 42K, and felt every bit worth the premium. Of course, there will be some differentiation in material quality and choices from Toyota to Lexus, but this gap feels wider than it has been in the past, where older Camrys felt better in comparison.

The ES 350 is powered by Toyota/Lexus' volume V6, a 3.5L unit with dual overhead cams and VVT, but no direct injection. With 268hp and 248lb-ft of torque, it's coupled to a 6-speed automatic, with a manual gate and three drive modes, Eco, Normal, and Sport. Sport raises the shift points without being crass—you can continue to drive the car sedately in Sport mode without hanging onto the lower gears. 

Again, this fits well with the mission of the car—smooth and comfortable. However, should you choose to hustle the Lexus, it has plenty of power for highway merging and passing, and the automatic shifts well. It's the sort of car you wouldn't mind hopping in for a 9 hour drive. Wind noise is distant.

As I alluded to above, material quality in the ES is impressive. The leather seats, both heated and cooled, are soft yet reasonably supportive. The door trim is finished with soft leather, as is the steering wheel. Fit and finish is quite good. Controls are immediately familiar to a Toyota driver, although the ES features the same haptic-mouse for the infotainment as the IS did. I became more comfortable using it with time, and it's more intuitive than the touchscreens of some competitors. Bluetooth integration works well.

Like the IS 350, the ES's ride/handling balance impresses, though for different reasons here. In the IS 350, I thought the car rode well in spite of its low-profile tires, very good body control, and handling prowess. In the ES, the ride was smooth without feeling sloppy while cornering. Steering is light and there isn't much feel, but it fits the mission of the car.

The ES 350 is a good example of a car that fulfills its intended purpose—delivering a smooth, roomy and powerful sedan at a price point above the volume market, but undercutting the mainline luxury sedan market. Given Lexus' track record of quality and durability, we aren't surprised at its sustained sales success.

Lexus provided the vehicle, insurance, and one tank of gas for this review. Paul Lombardo at Metro Lexus provided a vehicle for a follow-up test drive. Metro Lexus can be reached at 216-916-6000.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Review: 2015 Toyota Camry XSE V6

By Ben Aghajanian, UpShift Contributing Editor

For 2015, Toyota did a heavy refresh on the Camry, focusing mainly on the exterior, but also making some interior and suspension tweaks. I recently spent a week driving a 2015 Camry XSE, one of the top trims offered.

One of the first things I did was look at the Monroney (vehicle price/options sheet) provided with the vehicle. Perhaps a mistake, as I immediately had sticker shock. Our Camry's as-tested price with options was $35,768. A lot of money for a volume, mid-size sedan.

For your $35,000, Toyota thankfully delivers a lot of substance. The Camry had Toyota's venerable 3.5-liter fuel-injected V6, rated at 268hp and 248lb-ft of torque, coupled to a 6-speed automatic with paddle shifters. It also had several advanced safety features, including blind-spot warning, radar-assisted cruise control, a pre-collision system, and lane departure alert. The seats had suede cloth inserts covering most of the surfaces, with leather on the bolsters. Both seats were power operated and heated, with driver's lumbar adjustment. The Camry also had navigation, full Bluetooth integration, and a moonroof. One of the surprises for me was a wireless charger, located in a slightly oddly shaped storage bin under the HVAC controls, in front of the shifter. A nice touch.

Most midsize sedans do just fine with an inline 4. The 2014 Camry SE we tested awhile back was no exception. However, the new Camry XSE's 3.5 made a strong case for itself. It had more than enough power, especially in the mid-range and even more toward the top of the rev range. At the same time, it was surprisingly efficient. Although still fuel-injected, the Camry achieved over 28MPG on an afternoon drive on country roads, including over a dozen stops and rapid acceleration to 65mph or so. Rated at 31MPG highway, the Camry came reasonably close to this number in mixed driving with hard acceleration. Impressive. Over the course of the week, which included lots of city driving, the Camry was still getting around 23MPG. For a sensible family sedan, the Camry provides very solid straight-line performance.

The steering was more responsive than I expected. After test driving a Kia K900 the week before, this shouldn't have been a big surprise, but the Toyota's steering had better weighting than anticipated, and even some feedback. The wheel itself was a leather-wrapped three-spoke design, and the paddle shifters enhanced engagement during spirited driving. They worked in both Drive and Sport modes, the latter engaged by tapping the shifter to the left into a manumatic gate. In this application, Sport mode doesn't seem to change shift points or throttle response at all, it only allows control over gear selection. It defaults to D4 (4th gear), which means it will shift 1st through 4th, but not to 5th. You can then select lower gears on your own. As a downside to the controls on the wheel, there were a lot of buttons, as there are on many new cars, and they weren't particularly intuitive or labeled. Nearly all of my questions about them related to the radio and infotainment system.

Though I loved the Entune system in the 4Runner we tested last winter, it befuddled me a bit in this application. Large, readable buttons flanked the center stack, so those were good. But the radio preset controls were less clear. The only way to “seek” or browse through stations, in the traditional sense, is to use the knob on the right side of the screen. Using the steering wheel controls or the up/down seek/track buttons, I was limited to 4 or 5 stations in sequence...then it would jump back to the first station in the sequence. Fortunately, Toyota uses a touchscreen, which is easier to navigate than the “mouse” that Lexus offers. The JBL GreenEdge-branded stereo had decent sound, once I adjusted the bass, treble, and midrange, though I expected slightly better clarity and more oomph for the money. I also experienced middling Bluetooth sound quality on several occasions, but only with a connection to one particular phone, as other calls were clear.

The Camry's interior had mostly good fits with some average finishes. The center console armrest was large and padded, as were the door armrests, with the upper panels trimmed in suede with red stitching. The front half of the console had cheaper-feeling plastic around the shifter and cupholders. I remember older Camrys featuring more-premium materials. There was plenty of legroom front and rear, which isn't always the case in mid-size sedans, though the seats themselves could've used a bit more contouring and support.

The Camry's best attributes lie with the restyled exterior, especially on the XSE model. The front end is attractively sculpted with smooth, flowing lines, a blacked-out grille that appears to have some Lexus shape to it, curving DRLs on the lower fascia, and bright projector-style HIDs that provide excellent illumination. The side profile is less angular than the 2014 model, and the 18-inch black and dark chrome alloys provide more curb appeal than the segment standard. Similarly, the rear end has been smoothed out, with less angular taillights and a chrome strip between them, and dual-exhaust outlets down below at the corners. It's an attractive car.

The Camry is a good example of refining existing technology to work smoothly and remain competitive with newer, more-advanced designs—especially when it comes to the powertrain of this XSE V6 model. However at a sticker price of nearly 36K, it comes awfully close to some very good vehicles that are just a class above with regards to refinement, design, or performance, such as Hyundai's Genesis, or the Chrysler 300. For a few thousand dollars less, the Camry would be much more intriguing. It's a solid car that has outpriced its class a bit.

Toyota provided the vehicle, insurance, and one tank of gas for this review.
Photos courtesy Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Review: Lexus IS350 F Sport RWD

By Ben Aghajanian, UpShift Contributing Editor

In a paradigm shift within the industry, Lexus is changing their focus toward more sporting cars. Meanwhile, longtime stalwart of sporting virtues, BMW, is softening the majority of its lineup. The current BMW 3 Series, the F30, hasn't gone all Buick Century on us, yet the steering is indirect and distant. It will still handle a hairpin onramp without much protest, but there are whispers of softness in the suspension and the biting accuracy of older bimmers is missing. The standard run-flat tires don't help, but they don't tell the whole story, either.
All photos by Ben Aghajanian

Lexus' ads show they are marketing an edgier image, in addition to edgier products.

The IS, their 3 Series fighter, was redesigned last year. The F Sport line is their answer to BMW's M Sport (previously designated as just Sport, or with an 's' in the model name, i.e., 328is.) An eye-catching car, the IS features a gaping, hourglass-shaped spindle grille, while is now filtering through Lexus' lineup. Slashing cutlines flank the rear doors, quarter panels, and split the DRLs from the headlights. The taillights wrap around the back side of the car and terminate near the rear tires. The dark gray Lexus generated more questions from friends and passersby than anything I've driven in a long time.

When you step into the IS, you’ll find that even the interior is very different from competitors. The car features a dual-bulkhead cockpit, and you sit low and pretty far back from the base of the windshield, but not too far from the dash itself. The dashboard is an odd mix of shapes and controls, but well assembled with quality components. I recall reading or hearing someone compare the center stack to a 1990s Nakamichi tape deck at one point—I share their sentiment.

The IS350 is powered by Toyota's corporate V6, a 3.5L DOHC unit boasting 306hp and 277lb-ft of torque. From a cold start, the V6 sounds coarse—almost truck-like. Blame direct injection, perhaps. I was almost underwhelmed at first, not by a lack of power, but by the noise. The exhaust note during low-speed acceleration was uninspiring. It sounded like a Tacoma, not a sport sedan.

Once the engine warms up however, things change. The coarseness fades away. Give the IS some throttle, and as the revs build past 3,500 or 4,000 rpm, the V6 snarls and continues to pull, hard, past 6,000 rpm.

Even on the all-season rubber, the IS handled cornering with surprising accuracy, and minimal body roll. It felt more dialed-in than the late-model 3 Series that I've driven. It was rarely upset by bumps and road imperfections. In fact, the ride-handling balance may have been as impressive as the handling evaluated on its own. Despite the sharp cornering skills, the IS glides over bumps with much less harshness than expected. Steering is not ultra-communicative, but weighting is good, some road feel filters through, and I prefer it to BMW's EPS.

So the IS drives well. Really well. Better than a 3 Series. Yes, really. If that's all you care about, stop reading!

What's Inside
The IS has some very unusual interior features. First, the infotainment system differs from any other car I've driven. Lexus decided to use a haptic-touch, electronic “mouse” located to the right of the gearshift, for the primary multimedia controls. The radio/nav screen, set high up in the dash, is controlled with this mouse rather than by touch. The driver uses the mouse to make selections on the screen, with “stopping points,” accompanied by an audible chime, that change as the on-screen menus change. For example, if you have 6 preset radio stations along the left side of the screen, the mouse will have 6 “stopping points” vertically as it moves in its track. I'm guessing the philosophy was that it's less distracting to use while driving (a good thing) as opposed to looking at the screen, but I still found it odd and a little too different and challenging to use. In terms of sound quality, the Dolby 5.1 surround sound, 15-speaker Mark Levinson unit boasts 835 watts. It's certainly good, but I guess I was expecting more crispness from instrumentals like guitar and saxophone.

The rest of the interior is nicely finished. The heated and cooled front seats hold you in place while cornering, and are relatively comfortable and supportive. I was even able to sit in the backseat, impossible for 6+ footers in many small sport sedans—no doubt helped by the soft seatback surface. No hard plastic here. Taller drivers may wish for a bit more lower-back support, but overall the seats are good. (The best Toyota or Lexus seats I've experienced are in the 4Runner we tested last year. Several-hour drives caused minimal fatigue.)

The three-spoke leather steering wheel is thick and grippy, with power tilt and telescoping functions, and paddle shifters. The gauge cluster gives a nod to the Lexus LFA supercar, featuring a center-mounted, analog-style tachometer with inset digital speedometer that slides left or right to display vehicle information and media menus. I liked this approach more than the infotainment-mouse solution.

The center console is well-padded on the driver’s side and has cup holder cutouts at armrest level on the passenger side. This means the passenger either slides their seat further back or lays their arm in some drinks. Interior space can be limited in compact sport sedans, so it works, but it's not the best solution. There are water bottle cutouts, though, on the front doors, which are also nicely trimmed.

I had trouble falling in love with the Aisin-designed 8-speed automatic. (I guess it's hard to fall in love with most automatics, but I digress). Shifts were prompt, but it almost seemed like there was too much going on. To be fair, I've noticed this about other many-ratio transmissions, too. This could be a matter of personal preference, but when I get paddle shifters, I like them to function regardless of mode—manual, automatic, sport, etc. When the shift gate is in manual, though, they work quite well. In automatic, the paddles seem more like suggestions than commands. In the Hyundai Genesis I drove recently, they were functional in all drive modes.

Speaking of drive modes, you get four of them in the Lexus. There are tangible differences between Eco, Normal, and Sport, controlled by a dial between the shifter and console. Steering effort and transmission shift points are raised and lowered accordingly. I didn't use Sport+, as Sport was quite sharp and more than sufficient for street driving. Most of my transmission gripes go away when the car is in Sport mode. Additionally, the IS offers a Snow mode, which dials throttle response back, a boon to winter driveability in a rear-wheel-drive car.

The IS rang in at $48,725 as tested ($40,065 before options), with the F Sport package and Mark Levinson surround sound/nav package. This is below some competitors such as the aforementioned BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C-Class. A comparably equipped Cadillac ATS V6 (rwd) starts at $48,610. Features like the moonroof, and bright, crisp HID headlights are standard on the Lexus. Overall, a solid and complete-feeling package, perhaps more truly sporting than earlier Lexus offerings, and competitively priced. I look forward to driving the GS350 F Sport, on a hunch that it may be even better.

Lexus provided the vehicle, insurance, and one tank of gas for this review.

Monday, March 9, 2015

World Premiere: Chevy Colorado Z71 Trail Boss Edition

By Ben Aghajanian, UpShift Contributing Editor

The Cleveland Auto Show is more important than many people believe. It is among the 5 highest-attended shows in the country, after Detroit, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. It's very important as a consumer show—one that is focused on car shoppers and enthusiasts, rather than splashy vehicle premieres.

This year, however, Chevrolet chose to unveil a new package at the Cleveland show: the Chevy Colorado Z71 Trail Boss edition. The Trail Boss is targeted at off-road and recreational sports enthusiasts, with a few upgrades over the standard Z71. It slots in well with the target market for the Colorado, introduced last year as a mid-size truck, a market segment neglected by a number of automakers over the last several years. Primarily, the Colorado competes with the Toyota Tacoma, a truck with a very loyal following. In part, this following can be attributed to the lack of alternative options Tacoma buyers have had since the late 2000s. Once Dodge dropped the Dakota and Ford nixed the Ranger, the Nissan Frontier was really the only other vehicle in the segment—and it is due for a redesign.

Chevy representatives explained that the Trail Boss is a package that allows buyers to take options available as OEM accessories and combine them to realize a discount. It comes with skid plates, rugged-looking alloy wheels (described by a Chevy rep as “punch-you-in-the-face aggressive”), unique Goodyear Wrangler DuraTrac 265/65R17 all-terrain tires, black tubular side step bars, and components from the GearOn package (cargo tie-down rings, load bar, and cargo divider). It also adds a G80 automatic locking rear differential, front recovery hooks, and fog lights. The front air dam (part of which is shown below) is removable for better clearance, by the way.

Think of the Trail Boss as a pickup truck competitor to the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon—a vehicle with off-road credibility straight from the factory. Toyota offered something comparable with the outgoing, 2015 Tacoma (the TRD Pro edition), but there has not been word that the new Tacoma will offer a similar package.

I dig that GM is offering smaller trucks to customers again. A recent trip to my local Chevrolet dealer showed that they can barely keep them in stock—only 3 were on the lot. The Trail Boss adds $3,320 to the $28,505 price of the Colorado Z71—this is a lot of content for the money. In comparison, the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon starts at $35,495 and the Tacoma TRD Pro at $35,525. I'm looking forward to driving one.