Kia has big plans for America. The Korean brand that was written off in the 1990s, and is best known for making inexpensive cars with long warranties, isn’t planning an assault on the mass market. Kia has bigger plans: compete head on with Lexus, BMW and Mercedes. Say what? Yep. By 2017 Kia promises they will be ready. Rather than leaping right into the market, Kia is dipping their toes into the murky waters of the near-luxury pool. In many ways the near-luxury segment is a harder place to compete. This segment is full of aspiring brands trying to move up (Buick and Cadillac), brands that are floundering (Acura), brands that are treading water (Volvo and Lexus’s FWD models ), brands trying to expand down (Mercedes with the CLA) and brands that have no idea what their mission is (Lincoln). Into this smorgasbord lands a sedan that managed to be the most exciting car I have driven this year and the most awkwardly named. Now that I have that spoiler out of the way, let’s dive into the Credenza. I mean Cadenza.
The ES has been Lexus’ best-selling sedan for 15 years yet the front-driver started life as something of a side-show. In 1989 the ES was a thinly veiled Camry, supposedly rushed to market because Lexus dealers couldn’t envision launching a brand with one vehicle (the LS 400) and were unwilling to wait for the SC and GS. This explanation makes sense to me and explains why the ES was the only FWD car in a brand created to compete with the Germans. Of course, this odd fit within a full-range RWD luxury brand is exactly why the ES sells. Wonder why Acura’s wares never had the sales success of the ES? It’s all about the brand baby.
BMW’s 3-Series is always the benchmark, always the target, and always on a pedestal. So when GM announced Cadillac would once again “complete head-on” with BMW’s money-maker, the world yawned. Then an interesting thing happened, publications started fawning over the ATS, proclaiming the 3-Series has met its match. Could such a thing be true? Even our own Michael Karesh was smitten by the ATS at a launch event. To find out how the ATS matches up with its German rival, Cadillac tossed us the keys to a loaded ATS 3.6 AWD. Can Cadillac beat BMW at their own game? Let’s find out.
The Lexus ES has been the best-selling Lexus sedan for decades, outselling every Lexus model except for the RX. While the ES was originally designed as the Japanese luxury brand’s entry-level vehicle in America, it is slowly becoming one of Lexus’ flagship products. To prove to us that Lexus has what it takes to reign supreme in the FWD luxury class they created in 1989, they flew us up to Oregon to sample the all-new, sixth generation ES 350 and 300h hybrid.
2013 will bring a new version of the Lexus ES, and we’ve already seen its new mug from photographers in China. Yet even with the new ES in the wings, Lexus is on track to sell 40,000 “lame duck” models, making it the most popular Lexus car and the second most popular Lexus vehicle after the RX350. As a goodbye to the “Lexus Camry,” we took one for a road trip from Northern California to Southern California – a sort of farewell to an important but sometimes misunderstood luxury car.
TTAC commentator DougD writes:
I put the snowtires on Dad’s 2007 Kia Rondo yesterday, and right on cue we’ve got snow today. While we worked we talked about cars, of course. My parents are in their mid 70’s, Dad bought the Rondo new and there’s a lot to like about it. Upright seating, good ingress for seniors, easy to park in the condo parking spot. It’s been reliable and still looks good, so the Rondo’s held up well. (Read More…)
As a nameplate, Lexus is now old enough to consume alcohol in all fifty states. Make no mistake, though: the brand Lexus has become is not the brand it was perhaps originally intended to be. Toyota and Nissan each launched with a (mostly) clean-sheet big V8 sedan and a warmed-over home-market showroom filler. For Nissan, the lineup was a short-wheelbase version of the all-new “President”, badged Q45, and a long-in-the-tooth Leopard coupe, yclept M30. Toyota introduced its “F1″ global flagship as the Lexus LS400. To keep the new LS from being lonely in the showrooms, a quick nose job was done on a JDM faux-hardtop midsizer, and the ES250 was born.
Perhaps the Japanese thought they could win the “D-class” battle against BMW and Mercedes-Benz as easily as they’d destroyed the British motorcycle industry or humiliated the American attempts to build subcompact cars. It didn’t quite work out that way. The Q45 badge moved to the rather dismal Nissan Cima before completely fading away. The M30 was a sales catastrophe, to put it mildly. While the current LS460 does about the same annual volume in the United States as the Mercedes-Benz S550, it does so with a base price that is almost $23,000 below that of the Benz.
It was the humblest of the original four offerings from Lexus and Infiniti that would go on to conquer, if not the world, then at least the continent of North America. Today, Lexus is one of the top-volume luxury brands in the market. Its killer Camry-derived duo of ES 350 and RX350 perennially occupy the top of their segments’ sales charts, generating over 100,000 sales per year. Lexus is one of the most famous success stories in the industry, but it began with a straight badge-engineering job of a nearly obsolete car.
It’s hard to fault the 2010 Lexus ES 350. There is no hint of rattle. The suspension feels as though it would take the worst New England washboard roads with aplomb. The steering is responsive and precise, and the handling crisp at modestly extra-legal speeds on Clifton VA’s marvelously twisty, hilly byways, despite 3,600 lbs of mass–almost parsimonious in this age of bloat–although you get the feeling you might begin to push the limits of crisp if you go much faster around here.