Lexus has been making fine luxury cars for decades now. It’s what they are known for, and why the brand has been remarkably successful. They put high quality materials in their car’s interiors, and a long list of optional amenities to add to cabin comfort and entertainment. They provide smooth, quiet, soft, comfortable ride qualities, and smooth engines and transmissions.
The big car magazine and web site journalists think they were Formula 1 drivers in a past life, so while they give Lexus props for those qualities, they always seem to temper their enthusiasm because there is nothing exciting about how they drive. They say that Lexus cars have no “character”. They provide a bland, ho-hum driving experience. And they are right. They do not engender driving excitement, or inspire passion, or visceral experiences. BUT THAT’S NOT WHAT THEY WERE DESIGNED FOR!!! The engineers got exactly what they were aiming at, and there is no shame in that.
Millions of drivers, could not care less about driving excitement, or performance qualities. They will never go out on a quiet Sunday morning to find their favorite stretch of twisting tarmac to thrash their cars about. Most drivers view their cars as an appliance to get them from point A to point B. comfortably and reliably. And there is no shame in that either. The cars they buy usually depend upon the size of their bank accounts. The larger the bank account usually means a larger car with more luxury amenities. But it seldom means they’re looking for a more dynamic driving experience. Some luxury cars combine both, but others, like the ES350 do not. And there is nothing wrong with that.
The ES350 is based on the Toyota Avalon architecture, and is a milder, softer, and comfort oriented model, compared to the somewhat sportier IS and GS models. The 3.5 liter V-6 makes 268-hp, which is more than enough to push the 3571 lb. vehicle down the road quickly. Zero to 60 happens in just over 7 seconds, so merging on the highway, or passing cars on a two-lane road is easy. But it is the quiet, vibration-free, smooth operation that will please the buyers. Mated to a 6-speed automatic, you get a refined, seamless flow of power, through the gear changes. And the EPA says the car should get 21-mpg in the City, and 31-mpg on the Highway, and those were the numbers I experienced.
The brakes stop the car well enough, but the pedal feels mushy. Cornering should be done at moderate speeds to prevent too much body lean, but the suspension never feels sloppy, just relaxed. Again, that’s what it was designed to do.
The cabin is very roomy, with a lot of leg and head room, and even a third rear seat passenger will be comfortable. Driver and passengers will enjoy the library-like quiet, with road and ambient noise filtered out by the suspension, and sound deadening materials. The ES also provides a very large trunk, but the rear seats do not fold down to add to it. There is a pass through for skis or longer items, however.
The heated and cooled perforated leather seats are comfortable, without much side bolstering, but I was disturbed with the loose sagging leather on some of the seatbacks, which should be addressed in the quality control department.
The dash is a tiered horizontal affair, with nice wood accents and a bit of brightwork, and some piano black trim surrounding the gearshift area. The stylish design reminds one of some of the new interiors found in the sportier IS and GS models, which is a good thing.
The center stack features a large Nav/info screen, and the ubiquitous analog clock. Separate HVAC controls are also present, so you needn’t use the Nav screen to adjust the airflow or climate. And that’s a good thing, because unfortunately in order to navigate around the Nav system, vehicle settings, and infotainment system, you’re forced to use the cumbersome Remote Touch mouse control, which is difficult to use accurately when stopped, and almost impossible to use while driving. The only good thing I can say about it, is that it isn’t as horrible as the Lexus touch pad, which is used on some models, including the RC350 I’m currently driving. And don’t count on using the voice commands to input an address into the Nav system. You’ll arrive at your destination before you’ll get the system to get the address right.
There is a rear back up camera, and the ES has the Lexus Enform Remote app. The app lets you do things like remotely locating your vehicle, remote start, and unlocking the car. Lexus has also partnered with Apple so you get a more streamlined bundle of controls for iPhone users. Also standard is a keyless entry system, Automatic Climate Control, 8-speaker audio system with Bluetooth streaming audio, HomeLink garage-door opener, and USB/iPod connectivity.
Overall, I enjoyed my week with the ES350. It does everything most luxury car buyers are looking for, and very well. Where it really falls down for me is the exterior styling. This car could be voted “most likely to get lost in a parking lot” among the scores of similarly shaped cars. Looking at it from a profile, the shape is derivative, and not much character from the front to the rear. The front end, which does have a stylish headlight, and lower corner treatment, is ruined by the huge, hideous, black plastic trapezoidal spindle grill which is gracing more and more of the Lexus/Toyota models. Toyota and Lexus have never been known for bold styling, and when they do step out of their stodgy mold, the best then can come up with is just plain ugly. And even more disturbing is that this luxury car, doesn’t give off a luxury or expensive status vibe from the outside. Even the Toyota Camry looks more upscale.
For similar or less money, the Chevrolet Impala, Chrysler 300, Lincoln MKZ, Cadillac ATS, or Buick LaCrosse look more expensive than their sticker prices. The ES looks less expensive. And all of the aforementioned competitors can also provide the same kind of luxury that the ES offers.
The base price of this test car is $37,550. Blind Spot monitor with rear cross traffic alert, HID headlights, and rear power sunshield, combine at add up to $1,275. The $1,370 Luxury Package adds the memory perf leather heated and cooled seats, wood trim, power tilt and telescope steering wheel. For another $1,795 you get the Hard Disc Drive Nav system, with 8” screen and back up camera, voice command, single DVD/CD player, Remote Touch controller, Enform Destination Assist, and App Suite. The wood trimmed shift knob and steering wheel, power truck, and intuitive park assist, combine for another $1,230. The final number is $44,145.
So any buyer who wants a large, roomy, quiet, comfortable car will enjoy the Lexus ES350. For those who want a better driving experience, it’s best to look elsewhere.