There are sportier sedans, to be sure. There are sedans with European bloodlines. And there are more stylish-looking four-door cars.

But if you hanker for a sedate and tranquil ride in an entry-level, 5-passenger sedan, it's tough to beat the 2004 Lexus ES.

A new, more powerful V6 and an updated 5-speed automatic transmission provide a welcome boost in horsepower and torque in this top-selling Lexus auto.

Now called the ES 330—to reflect the larger displacement, 3.3-liter V6 under the hood—this five-passenger car also receives modest updates in equipment for 2004, such as larger standard side airbags and improved optional navigation system.

But thankfully for its fans, who are mostly folks in their 50s, the ES retains the hushed interior that makes this auto seem pricier than its nearly $32,000 starting manufacturer's suggested retail price.

The price also brings a substantial amount of standard equipment including leather seats, a wood interior trim, 10-way power adjustable front seats, automatic dual-zone climate control, a power moonroof, double door seals, curtain airbags and Lexus premium audio system.

Camry based
As with previous ES sedans, the 2004 model rides on a platform that's also used by the Toyota Camry midsize four door. Lexus is the luxury brand of Toyota Motor Corp.

But the old, 210-horsepower 3.0-liter V6 with variable valve timing that produced a maximum 220 lb-ft of torque in the previous ES is gone.

Now, the ES has a 225-horsepower double overhead cam V6 with variable valve timing that generates more ready response across a wide range of speeds. Torque is up to 240 lb-ft at 3600 rpm. It's the same engine that's in the 2004 Lexus RX 330 sport-utility vehicle.

Fortunately for fuel-price-conscious buyers, the increased power, which gives a more sprightly feel to the ES, has scarcely hurt the car's fuel economy rating.

The ES remains rated by federal regulators at 29 miles a gallon in highway driving. The rating for city driving dropped from last year's 21 mpg to 20 mpg after the engine change, but the combination still makes the ES the most fuel-thrifty of all Lexus models.

Noticeable shifts, though
I just wish more attention had been put into how the transmission and engine worked together in the test car.

Lexus said it "revised" the old tranny to better handle the new power. And for 2004, it had "new grade logic" for the transmission to perform better on descents and ascents on hilly roads.

But in the test car, occasional, clumsy-feeling upshifts came through to passengers. There were enough of them during my test drive that I wondered what had happened to the silky-smooth shifts that I had so enjoyed from the predecessor ES.

I also noticed occasional hesitation, as if the transmission was indecisive about which gear to be in, when I traveled on hilly highways.

The test car also arrived with its "maintenance" light on in the instrument cluster. Did this mean something was amiss? The press delivery coordinator for the vehicle assured me nothing was wrong. Someone at the dealership simply had forgotten to reset the light after changing the car's oil, she said, adding I should ignore the light.

This is the first year that the ES has this maintenance indicator light, by the way.

Sportier competitors
Another note: Even with the power improvement, though, the ES isn't quite up to the performance numbers and choices of some major competitors.

The 2004 Acura TL's 3.2-liter V6 puts out 270 horsepower and 238 lb-ft of torque at 5000 rpm and the 2004 Infiniti G35 sedan's 3.5-liter V6 generates 280 horsepower and 270 lb-ft of torque at 4800 rpm.

And engine choices for the Mercedes-Benz C-Class include a 215-horsepower 3.2-liter V6 and a 349-horsepower 3.2-liter supercharged AMG V6 with 332 lb-ft of torque as low as 3000 rpm.

Meantime, Audi's A4 is available with a 170-horse 1.8-liter turbocharged four cylinder or a 220-horse 3.0-liter V6. The A4, C-Class and G35 can be had with all-wheel drive.

The ES, which automotive critics tend to characterize as a dressed-up Camry, remains a front-wheel-drive car only.

Note that the A4, TL, C-Class and G35 offer manual transmissions, too, while the ES only has the automatic.

Soft, comfortable ride
Overall, the ride in the ES is soft, sort of like a Buick's. The softness carries over to the body motion and body lean that riders feel when the car is pressed hard into a curve.

On the other hand, this car shines on long highway runs. Road bumps are only mildly felt, if at all. Mostly, it seemed as if I rolled right over bumps.

The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering has a light feel. Buttons and controls are well-positioned and good-sized, and riders have comfortable seats that aren't deeply sculpted or shaped.

Luminescent gauges in the ES instrument cluster are easy to read, and the 14.5-cubic-foot trunk is bigger than the 12.5 cubic feet in the TL but a tad less than the 14.8 cubic feet of the G35.

The test ES 330 had the excellent fit and finish expected in a Lexus.

All upholstery seams, trim pieces and body gaps were lined up perfectly. There were no squeaks or rattles—all this fitting for a car with such a commendable record for quality.

The ES was the top entry luxury car in J.D. Power's Initial Quality Study for three out of the past five years. The IQS measures problems reported by owners within the first 90 days of ownership.

In addition, the ES was the top entry luxury sedan in Power's Vehicle Dependability Study last year. This report measures problems reported by owners after three years of ownership.

And IntelliChoice, which evaluates ownership costs, named the ES the "best overall value" in its near-luxury category in 2003.

Even Consumer Reports magazine lists the ES as a recommended buy and lists reliability as much better than average.

MSN Autos

© 2009 Microsoft

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