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By AARON COLE
For Utah Rides

I appreciate Akio Toyoda.

As the president for the company that (basically) bears his own name, Toyoda is a smart man.

From the minutes he took the reigns of Toyota as a global automaker stories circulated about how Mr. Toyoda, a reported stickler for details, would roam the lots looking under, around and inside new Toyotas that were on the lots. One day, it’s been said, Toyoda made it a point to crawl under 4Runners on a Seattle lot to see if they had been updated after a fairly insignificant recall. It was that kind of person, logic would assume, needed to save Toyota from itself as it raced to be the largest automaker in the world.

Reportedly, he’s also a man who can’t stand boring cars.

If you look at the recent Toyota offerings coming on to the lot there would be much to confirm this notion. The new 2013 Lexus GS is undoubtedly sportier; the Scion FR-S is more fun than verbally abusing your mother-in-law; and the Camry is, well, maybe he’s just taking things one at a time.

So just where does the new 2013 Lexus ES fall in Toyoda’s master plan? After all, previous generations of the car were as exciting to drive as cleaning your dentures and were geared toward buyers who wore them almost exclusively.

Would they build a deltawing 2013 Lexus ES 350, complete with cameo in the new “Batman Returns” movie? Product placement in “The Hangover 3” where Zach Galifanakis drag races one in Atlantic City?

Um, maybe we should bring back those dentures.

Because no matter how much he likes making fun cars, Toyoda is a smart man. And the 2013 Lexus ES 350 is just a smart move.

How smart? Well, start with a 3.6-liter V6 that produces a middle-of-the-range 268 horsepower and 248 lb.-ft. of twist. Toss in a super smooth six-speed automatic transmission, 22 mpg fuel economy, wrap it in sheet metal that’s sensible like soup for dinner and you’ve got a winner with the matinee crowd.

That’s not supposed to be a dig on the luxury automaker, mind you.

Appealing to your base is a thing. And that thing worked awfully well for George Bush when it came to winning elections. The same goes for the 2013 Lexus ES.

For the first year, the ES 350 won’t be based on the Toyota Camry. Instead, Lexus is pushing the base platform up a rung to the Toyota Avalon, although exterior dimensions haven’t really changed all that much year-over-year.

The new platform for the 2013 ES results in only 1 inch longer growth overall, while the wheelbase has grown 1.8 inches. That growth has been shifted directly into the rear legroom because the trunk is relatively the same size as the outgoing 2012 model. (There’s 40 inches of rear legroom in 2013 as opposed to 35 inches in 2012.)

Also, the Lexus ES receives the standard exterior makeover for Lexus these days. Gone is the Ambien-inspired front fascia to make way for Lexus’ signature spindle grille that appears on the GS, LF-A, IS, Lexus-branded pens, steak knives, office coffeepots, etc. The treatment is a much-needed update for the ES, which started to look a little tired compared to some in the segment.

If I had a knock on the spindle grille — and I really don’t — I’d say that it makes too many of the Lexus cars look the same. It might be tough to differentiate between the GS and the ES if one were looking at both from 50 feet away. That’s good if you’re buying an ES, probably not so good if you’re a GS owner that wants everyone to notice that you likely paid $10,000 more for your car.

Inside the ES is an upgrade as well. Lexus marketing folks were champing at the bit to describe to us the Cirque du Soleil-type training that interior leatherworkers must go through before working with the hides in the ES.

All Lexus tailors, they said, must be able to fold an origami frog with one hand — their non-dominant hand — in under 90 seconds, blindfolded, in a sauna, while being shouted at, or something. (Part of that is true; some of it, I wish were true.)

The end result however is an interior that’s so well put together, that it fades seamlessly into the background. It’s not wasted effort; it’s just really good.

Also file under the “good” category: the ride quality. Valving in the suspension is to blame for better handling, so say the Lexus engineers, and in mixed driving in and around Dallas the ES 350 handled confidently. Body roll was kept at a minimum and the MacPherson struts up front kept the power planted as it rolled through turns, bends and straights of downtown Dallas.

Lexus won’t say the official price for the ES 350 yet, but it’s likely to be around the same price as the outgoing model, which starts at $36,725.

I imagine the car will be just as popular with early bird dinner crowd as it always has been, which was the right thing to do for the ES this time around. Toyoda knows that his bread is buttered by keeping a model in the range that appeals to an older crowd. The IS and GS can handle the sporting side of the brand just fine, and the ES can catch all who would prefer to keep things a little more docile.

But remember what I said about checking the cars over tougher than an Israeli border guard?

Curiously, the pre-production models we were given in Dallas made an interesting (and loud) noise when you closed the driver and passenger door.

Lexus engineers assured us that it was a pre-production issue and would be ironed out before models hit the showroom floors.

That’s probably a good thing, because from what I hear, the new boss has a thing about attention to detail.

Aaron Cole is a syndicated auto columnist and he knows he’s wrong — he’d just rather hear it from you. Reach him at aaron.m.cole@gmail.com

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