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Test-drive reviews by NITISH S. RELE, motoringtampabay@gmail.com

THE RIDE: Four-door, five-passenger 2012 Lexus ES350 midsize sedan.

DOWN THE ROAD: A carryover from last year, the ES350 is a luxury car lover’s dream. The front-wheel-drive sedan delivers an enjoyable and spirited ride with good overall handling and steering feel. Acceleration is smooth and linear with ample power just a throttle away.

TECH & PERFORMANCE: Power comes from a 3.5-liter V-6 engine, which produces 268 hp @ 6200 rpm and 248 pounds-feet of torque @ 4700 rpm. It is mated to a sole and seamless 6-speed auto transmission. Suspension handled by independent front and rear MacPherson struts works splendidly to absorb unpleasant highway bumps and sudden sharp turns. Returning a weighted response to the driver’s input is a power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering. And 0 to 60 mph is achieved in 7 seconds, which is aptly fast for a 3,605-pound vehicle.

LOOK & FEEL: Ensconced on a unitized steel body is a huge chrome grille with a centered Lexus insignia flanked by arrowhead-shaped projector-bulb headlights, integrated fog lamps, wraparound tail lamps and dual exhaust tips. The cabin is classic Lexus with inviting wood trim and leather while occupants are coddled in roomy and comfortable seats. Other standard amenities include dual auto climate control, power moon roof and tilt/telescopic steering column, keyless entry/engine start, 10-way power front seats, Lexus premium audio system and rain-sensing wipers.

SAFETY FIRST: Dual front and side airbags, side curtain airbag, front knee airbags, four-wheel antilock brakes with Electronic Brake Distribution and Brake Assist, vehicle stability assist with traction control system, front/rear crumple zones, three-point safety belts for all, daytime running lights and tire pressure monitoring system.

OUT THE DOOR: $36,725, plus tax, tag, delivery and destination charges.

BY THE NUMBERS: Tires, P215/55R17; wheelbase, 109.3 inches; length, 191.7 inches; fuel capacity, 18.5 gallons; city, 19 mpg; highway, 27 mpg; Web site, www.lexus.com

WHY DIG IT: Positioned between the entry-level IS and the larger GS, the ES350 is a delight to drive, responding with nimbleness and swiftness in any driving situation. If you are vying to buy a midsize luxury sedan, do test-drive the ES350. You won’t be disappointed.


This compact’s got some pizzazz. A redesign along with a boost in horsepower only serves to make the 2012 Ford Focus Titanium sedan more appealing than its predecessor.

A 2.0-liter gasoline-direct injection inline-4 cylinder engine develops 160 hp (up by 20) @ 6500 rpm and 146 pounds-feet of torque @ 4450 rpm. A sport-tuned but independent MacPherson strut front and multilink rear suspension suppresses road and wind noise to result in a pleasingly agile ride. The new Electric Power Steering is accurate, communicative and fast, while the 6-speed auto gearbox provides smooth upshifts and swift downshifts.

Standard safety features include dual front and side airbags, side curtain airbag, four-wheel antilock brakes, AdvanceTrac with electronic stability control, antiskid system and tire pressure monitoring system.

The unitized steel body of the front-wheel-drive sedan offers a boost of 1.4 inches longer wheelbase, 3.5 inches longer overall, 4 inches wider and 2 inches front head/leg room than its previous version. A steeply raked windshield meets up with a bulging hood and halogen headlights flanking a chrome bar and the familiar blue emblem. The instrument panel gauges with eye-catching aqua-blue needles atop white numerals amid black background give the cabin a cool, fresh feel and look. Dual-zone auto climate control, tilt/telescopic steering column, driver information center, push-button start, 60/40 rear seat and remote keyless entry are among the standard amenities. However, we aren’t advocates of the MyFord Touch (we call it Mighty Touchy), which accesses audio, telephone, navigation controls via a voice command, touch screen tap or button click.

Base-priced at $22,720, the Focus Titanium is slightly expensive for a compact sedan. You can always choose the S model, which starts at just $16,270. Regardless, the fuel-sipper (we averaged nearly 29 mpg in city/highway) delivers fun-to-drive handling, worthy steering and body control, and bold styling.

Tires: 215/50R17
Wheelbase: 104.3 inches
Length: 178.5 inches
Fuel capacity: 12.4 gallons
City: 27 mpg
Highway: 37 mpg
Web site: www.ford.com


Eight-speed automatic gearbox in a Dodge? You better believe it. And that’s standard in the Dodge 2012 Charger SXT Plus trim, which cranks out 292 horsepower @ 6350 rpm and 260 pounds-feet of torque @ 4800 rpm. Under the aluminum hood of the rear-wheel-drive sports sedan resides a robust flex-fuel 3.6-liter V-6 engine. Suspension is handled by an independent short- and long-arm up front and a five-link rear system to smoothen breaks, bumps and turns on the road. The rack-and-pinion steering with hydraulic power assist is quick, precise and well-weighted.

Credit for the car’s stout and handsome appearance goes to the chrome-surrounded black grille, which is flanked by quad halogen headlights. The optional decklid-mounted rear spoiler only heightens the bold look.

To say that the cabin is spacious would be an understatement. The Charger can sit three adults in the 60/40 rear seat with sofa-like bench and substantial head, leg and knee room. The driver and front passenger get 12-way power heated seats, which is mostly available in luxury vehicles. We wish other carmakers would keep the instrument cluster as simple and easy-to-read as Dodge does with the Charger. The round speedometer and tachometer gauges, flanked by a driver information center with controls on the steering wheel, are tasteful but functional. And the short shifter for the eight-speed gearbox is classy. Also standard are an Alpine sound system with six speakers, dual automatic climate control, full-length floor console, heated/cooled cup holders, remote start and keyless entry, and leather seats.

Standard safety features include dual front and side airbags, driver knee airbag, side curtain airbag, four-wheel antilock brakes with electronic brake distribution and brake assist, front-seat active head restraints, daytime running lights and tire pressure monitoring system.

After a major update last year, the Charger continues to shine in the large, sports sedan class. It touts plentiful power, substantial cargo and passenger room, commendable fuel economy and a price that is just right. It is just perfect for the daily chore.

Tires: P235/55R18
Wheelbase: 120.2 inches
Length: 199.9 inches
Weight: 3,996 pounds
Fuel capacity: 19.1 gallons
City: 19 mpg
Highway: 31 mpg
Base price: $28,495
Web site: www.dodge.com

Buick debuts REASONABLE but ADEPT Verano

Here’s a reasonable Buick for everyone who’s eyed this brand of vehicles. Positioned below the mid-size Regal, the all-new and luxurious Verano starts at $23,470 and peaks at $26,850. Now, that’s in the reasonable range for potential and new Buick buyers.

Available in base, convenience and leather trims, the compact sedan is equipped with just one power train: 2.4-liter, 4-cylinder engine putting out 180 horsepower @ 6700 rpm and 171 pounds-feet of torque @ 4900 rpm. The sold transmission in the front-wheel drive is a slick 6-speed automatic gearbox. A lighter Z-link rear suspension coupled with a MacPherson strut front isolates occupants from road imperfections and sound. Fuel savings are certain with an electric power steering, which doesn’t require hoses or pumps, as well as direct-injection technology. So is safety with 10 airbags, four-wheel antilock brakes with electronic brake distribution and brake assist, stability and traction control, collapsible pedals and tire pressure monitoring system.

During the ride-and-drive event, Buick engineers repeatedly pointed out materials used to block and absorb noise, vibrations and roughness in the Verano. Also, the body made up of 60 percent high-strength steel, is stiffer. Sure, the 3,422-pound won’t be taking to the racetrack but motoring enthusiasts can scoot 0 to 60 mph in 8.3 seconds. However, heavy footers will have to wait till later this year when a 2.0 liter, 4-cylinder turbo engine (more than 200 hp or so), mated to a 6-speed manual, is introduced.

The easy-on-the-pocket Verano offers brisk acceleration, smooth shifts and a silent but practical cabin. Hats off to Buick for delivering an entertaining, competent and livable ride.

Tires: 235/45R18
Wheelbase: 105.7 inches
Length: 183.9 inches
Fuel capacity: 15.6 gallons
City: 21 mpg
Highway: 31 mpg
Web site: www.buick.com

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