The Lexus ES was refreshed for the 2016 model-year to enhance its styling and luxury equipment, along with a new build location as the first Lexus to be made in the USA.
Its upgrades are fairly skin-deep, however, so we worried this car would be left behind by all the new midsize luxury models. Vehicles like the Lincoln Continental or C-Class are all significantly fresher than the ES350 outside and in. The ES has a huge target on its back — even from upstarts like the latest Avalon, Acura TLX and even Kia Cadenza.
These rivals often have the latest turbo engines and eight-speed automatics that are cutting-edge tech for performance and efficiency. Not to mention handling balance from rear-drive rivals like Infiniti Q50, BMW 3 series or Genesis G80.
How could this Lexus ES350 still not only compete — but actually dominate — sales on the 2017 midsize luxury sedan charts with such a light refresh? And do so by sharing its core chassis and drivetrain (still) with the humble Toyota Camry.
Such is the ES mystery. We came close to solving the puzzle on the road with the new ES. Spoiler alert: the ES scores major points with its serenity at speed, its simple feature controls and its jumbo back seat and trunk. Might not be biting superiority that keeps ES on top, then. But rather a focus on being excellent in places real buyers demand.
Two videos show the car on the road and outside/in during a static walkaround. 50 photos of our loaded example also wrap the section headings of Exterior, Interior, Performance, Pricing and Summary.
HD Drive Review Video
Looking familiar is an asset for for the Lexus ES thanks to its millions of current, and extremely loyal, owners. They like the continuity of the ES look even while the rest of the Lexus range goes wild with designer flair.
As such, the 2016 refresh is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it subtle. Slight all around, but especially up front where the nose adds the Lexus spindle grille fully after years of flirting with its adoption. This singleframe grille is indeed huge but not quite as polarizing as it looks on the SUVs or sporty IS/RC models. Lexus accomplishes this by using only a thin strip of chrome in the grille’s outline. The rest is a simple metallic silver that blends nicely. Horizontal black slats up and down the grille are just traditional enough to stay inoffensive.
The ES nose of our test car wears optional bi-LED projectors for its new quad lighting balls as an option. (The inner projectors are just decorative with the $515 LED light option.)
All ES350s and ES300h models have LED DRLs and LED fogs down below — with each wearing a new look. The arrowhead LED is a big letdown to these eyes because it looks so basic. You can see the individual bulb elements behind the light graphic — much like the base RX350 versus the triple-beam units available as an option. Slightly yestertech in their appearance, then, as no LED DRL upgrade is offered on ES.
Will buyers care? Certainly not.
Newly layered lower bumper intakes fold around the LED fog nicely, and the whole nose is clean and likeable overall.
In profile, the ES suffers from slightly too-long overhangs front and rear versus the rear-drive GS and IS models. The clean and flat aero-optimized doors and bodysides carry over from before, right up to the tail of the machine. The new ES has L-graphic LED taillamps, a new bumper with sharp lower sill edges and a cleaner trunklid look.
All mostly feels like an effort to keep the ES looking like a vague copy of the LS flagship — as long as you don’t look too close. Even versus the avante-garde proportions of the new LS500 this fall, the ES will share clear family traits.
Will it set the pulse racing? Certainly not.
But in terms of looking like clean, classy luxury on the road? Lexus ES scores even without trying very hard.
HD Walkaround Video
Our Lexus ES test car’s ridiculously comfortable and quiet interior is the first clue at this car’s real mission. Smooth, soft and floaty luxury — in a good way. This asset for the target market is standard from the car’s $40k base price. Standard leather and power seats, yes. But standard nav or power tilt/telescope? Nope, these are options.
Even so, there are many modern updates to note even without detailing the many options that make our $48k test car feel like good value. Little things like the new frameless, electrochromic dimmer mirror and electrostatic LED dome lights make a difference. They reinforce the Lexus-ness of the car effectively. The upgrades are certainly not enough to banish Camry sharing. The seat memory buttons, mirror adjustment toggle and entire gauge cluster is wholesale Camry equipment and it shows. Yes, on the one hand you’ll never be flummoxed trying to adjust the side mirrors or turn on your cruise control.
But where are those super bright electroluminescent gauges and needles from even the first-gen ES? Where is the electronic parking brake, or any premium 3D nav elements?
Even with Toyota navigation and display screen, the Lexus toggle control and sunken screen is easier than ever to use. The knob falls right in hand and it auto-snaps to whatever button or function you might need above. Somehow more classy not to have to tap the screen? Perhaps.
As noted, the test car’s options make a luxury case much more convincingly than the base car. Favorite element must be the $1700 Luxury package with heated/cooled seats, power wheel, memory seat (for driver only!), and the key: embossed-stitch leather and new matte woods for dash. Adding heat to the wood/leather wheel adds another $450 but only heats the leather side sections. Thankfully, the smooth matte effect of the wood all around — especially the wheel — banishes the heavy gloss from before. It might have looked nice, but the old wheel feels like holding nasty plastic to your fingertips in 2017. Good updates then, and much needed.
Also helpful are the $500 glass roof with viewport in the back and sliding glass section in front. This glass raises up over the roof when open and a black-tinted wind deflector rises from the leading edge. Classy inside and out – even if the open/close button is ancient and not one-touch.
More options continue the march to luxury normalcy, if in a pricey way: the $2600 nav and Mark Levinson audio upgrade seems pricey and dicey value, but nav is a must of course. $500 power trunklid, $500 parking assistant for hands-free parallel parking is silly as no one will figure out how to work it. $500 blindspot monitor is nice as standalone option because it is a must for the target buyer. $210 power sunshade for the back glass is nice, but there are no side window blinds — manual or power. No rear seat adjustment, chintzy armrest and single power port for backseaters shows this car behind the tech curve in some ways.
Comfort on the road is not one of those, however. Our only wish on the options list that wasn’t selected? The Ultra luxury pack for $3500 brings extendable seat base squab that enhances comfort dramatically on long drives. This Ultra pack also bundles most of the individual options together, too, and seems like a good pick.
Of course, anyone considering the ES versus the GS makes smooth progress their priority. These buyers are not carving corners or engaging the ES’s (somewhat silly) sport mode very often.
So you have to set yourself into the smooth, half-throttle drive mood. Driven like this, the ES is a breeze. Ultra light steering is actually pretty precise and good on-center, even if it lacks feel. The throttle and brake action is insulated and traditional. The six-speed automatic is eager to find a cruising gear and keep the engine a distant, soft whir.
This drive mood at half-throttle makes the ES just as easy on the highway as it is in town. Just point and go.
But what about on three-quarter throttle? Or perhaps the full goose?
The ES falls apart in these drive scenarios. It has glacial reaction times, massive body lean and almost alarming dive and squat under brakes/throttle. ES really dislikes this drive style, even with its slightly heavier Sport mode engaged. (Yes, Sport mode does help the transmission kick down faster, too, helpfully.)
ES350 shows its disdain for big throttle and corners by squealing its tires eagerly and without much purpose. Its 21/30 MPG ratings dive when you push the 268HP engine to deliver some actual power. Yes, you can drive the ES350 quickly — but risk exposing the fact that the car is unfun and unfast.
Back to half throttle, then. Let the smoothness wash over you like a sedative. Let it calm your savage beast/throttle foot.
And here the ES shows its brilliance. At half throttle, the ES is convincingly as good as the big LS sedan or perhaps even an S-Class. It is rolling luxury for those who never intend to floor it, basically. In this vane, the ES is actually smoother and cosier than ultra-modern Jaguar XF. A world above any 3 series for elbow room, quietness and smoothness.
The S-Class and LS (not to mention XF or 3 series) do dance when you push them hard. ES does not. So that’s the core limit of the ES. Part-throttle luxury heaven.
We covered many of our test car’s options above, but check out the photo of the Monroney sticker to see them all in detail. $39,875 base price rises to $48,090 as tested.
At this point, we have to talk about price’s smart cousin: value.
The value of ES comes from its ability to look, feel, drive and ride like a true luxury limo (at half throttle, at least.) Yet the price of the ES is fairly cheap for a smooth/quiet skill set no rivals can really match at pricing under $50k.
When price comes into the equation, the ES makes a strong case for itself in this world.
It is just so easy to master, and easy to love.
Lexus might be brilliant for keeping the ES so familiar after all these years. While even base Mercedes and BMW models become unfathomably complex, expensive and sporty… the ES has frozen its core appeal in time. A luxury car that offers a true prestige ownership experience, almost zero learning curve to understand its buttons, and a smoother ride than Cloud 9 itself.
The ES350 is not out to earn conquest buyers from Audi. It is not a social-climbing new badge like Genesis. Nor a silly waste of power/performance.
Truly, the ES achieves its sales by being the most in-tune with its customers. The latest refresh speaks to this mission: slight updates that bump the lux factor but keep the price low.
The Lexus ES350 might not be your dream car for how it handles. But for how well it aces a mature owner’s realworld luxury needs?
Tom Burkart is the founder and managing editor of Car-Revs-Daily.com, an innovative and rapidly-expanding automotive news magazine.
He holds a Journalism JBA degree from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Tom currently resides in Charleston, South Carolina with his two amazing dogs, Drake and Tank.
Mr. Burkart is available for all questions and concerns by email Tom(at)car-revs-daily.com.