Sunday, March 6, 2016

Review: Lexus ES 350

All photos courtesy of Lexus USA.

By Ben Aghajanian, UpShift Contributing Editor

The Lexus brand was officially launched at the 1989 Detroit Auto Show, with the world premier of the LS 400, a full-size luxury sedan designed to go head-to-head with the Germans. The ES 250, a smaller, front-wheel-drive, near-luxury sedan based on the Camry, was launched alongside the LS 400. 

Over the years, the ES remained on the Camry wheelbase, until the 2013 model year, when it was moved to the Avalon's. Along with the RX crossover SUV, the ES has traditionally been one of Lexus' top sellers, as one of the brand's most affordable models.

As I wrote several months ago, Lexus has been trying to shed a degree of their “predictable luxury” image. The F Sport and F Performance line are the results of those efforts, and with models like the IS 350 F Sport, tested here, I would argue they've done quite well. Where does the ES fit in?

The ES 350 is absolutely your father's Lexus. Moving to the longer wheelbase Avalon as a base has helped the ES' mission of carrying 4 or 5 passengers in comfort, providing a larger back seat.

*Since the ES was traditionally based on the Camry, and I have only sat in, and not tested an Avalon, I will draw a number of comparisons to the Camry I drove.

One of the things about the Camry that disappointed me was the general quality of the interior materials and the seats. It was a nearly 36K car that felt less than that. Our ES 350 tester stickered for 42K, and felt every bit worth the premium. Of course, there will be some differentiation in material quality and choices from Toyota to Lexus, but this gap feels wider than it has been in the past, where older Camrys felt better in comparison.

The ES 350 is powered by Toyota/Lexus' volume V6, a 3.5L unit with dual overhead cams and VVT, but no direct injection. With 268hp and 248lb-ft of torque, it's coupled to a 6-speed automatic, with a manual gate and three drive modes, Eco, Normal, and Sport. Sport raises the shift points without being crass—you can continue to drive the car sedately in Sport mode without hanging onto the lower gears. 

Again, this fits well with the mission of the car—smooth and comfortable. However, should you choose to hustle the Lexus, it has plenty of power for highway merging and passing, and the automatic shifts well. It's the sort of car you wouldn't mind hopping in for a 9 hour drive. Wind noise is distant.

As I alluded to above, material quality in the ES is impressive. The leather seats, both heated and cooled, are soft yet reasonably supportive. The door trim is finished with soft leather, as is the steering wheel. Fit and finish is quite good. Controls are immediately familiar to a Toyota driver, although the ES features the same haptic-mouse for the infotainment as the IS did. I became more comfortable using it with time, and it's more intuitive than the touchscreens of some competitors. Bluetooth integration works well.

Like the IS 350, the ES's ride/handling balance impresses, though for different reasons here. In the IS 350, I thought the car rode well in spite of its low-profile tires, very good body control, and handling prowess. In the ES, the ride was smooth without feeling sloppy while cornering. Steering is light and there isn't much feel, but it fits the mission of the car.

The ES 350 is a good example of a car that fulfills its intended purpose—delivering a smooth, roomy and powerful sedan at a price point above the volume market, but undercutting the mainline luxury sedan market. Given Lexus' track record of quality and durability, we aren't surprised at its sustained sales success.

Lexus provided the vehicle, insurance, and one tank of gas for this review. Paul Lombardo at Metro Lexus provided a vehicle for a follow-up test drive. Metro Lexus can be reached at 216-916-6000.