Go ahead and find the tape of Sade’s “Smooth Operator” in your collection and fire it up for this review.
The newest version of Lexus’ venerable ES model is the best one yet. That’s what Lexus is telling us. Yes, what’s underneath is shared with a multitude of vehicles in the Toyota and Lexus family. And yes, it’s good stuff that’s being shared, and Lexus did a bang-up job making improvements to this generation. But was everything improved?
The ES 350 starts at CDN $39,500. That’s the well-equipped base model, to which you can add up to $12,250 in option packages. Mine added the $2,000 Premium Package as an option and the price as tested was $43,630.
Under the Hood
There’s nothing terribly exciting under the hood. Lexus’ familiar 3.5-Liter V-6 makes yet another appearance, putting out familiar numbers. 268 horsepower at 6200 RPM, and 248 lb.ft of torque at 4700 RPM. The power is sent to the front wheels via a 6-speed automatic transmission.
ENGINE BAY PIC
Fuel economy is pretty good. The ES 350 is rated at 9.9 L/100 km 24 mpg) in the city and 6.4 L/100 km (37 mpg) on the highway. I managed to eke out 10.7 L/100 km (22 mpg) during essentially all city driving, in cold weather and snow, with no effort to conserve fuel. The fuel tank holds 65 Liters.
I found the ES to look more stretched out than previous generations (the wheelbase has, in fact, been extended), and I liked its sleeker, more muscular stance. Up front, you’ll find Lexus’ new corporate face, the spindle grille. Nice aggressive looking headlight pods house a hooked strip of LED running lights, and the foglights are beautifully integrated into the air dam.
I liked that there isn’t too much drama on the car’s sides, and I also liked the flanks that show up behind the rear doors, making up part of the trunk lid plane.
The roofline seems to be lower than before, and the rear sports fresh tail lamps that are sophisticated and complex, but integrate smoothly into the rear fascia.
The wheels are a surprisingly small (by today’s standards) 17″ diameter, yet it doesn’t look bad on this car. But to be clear, the 18” upgrade rims look much better.
Overall, I found the new styling to be slipperier and it makes for the handsomest and least stodgy-looking ES yet. That’s all relative though, right?
The fit and finish in the ES are exemplary, and materials are wonderful. I did find more hard plastic than I expected, but they’ve went through great pains to make it beautifully textured, and you will find soft-touch materials wherever your hand might fall. You’ll also find nice stitching and contrasting trim. I like the sculpting of the dash, including the “eyebrow” look.
Everything is powered – door locks, windows, mirrors, a trunk release, the fuel door and the tilt/slide sunroof overhead. Entry is keyless, and the ignition is push-start.
The interior is roomy. Headroom is decent, and the cabin feels wide and spacious. The 10-way power adjustable seats with driver’s side memory are clad in NuLuxe, a rich-feeling faux leather, and are very comfortable. They’re heated and they actually offer a reasonable amount of bolstering for this class of car.
The nice chunky steering wheel (which is power adjustable and heated) has controls for audio, handsfree operation, phone and the driver information screen.
Behind it sit two large gauges, separated by a great driver information screen. The graphics and fonts are crisp and the information is kept simple and useable. It lets you toggle between instant, average and since-refueling fuel economy, outside temperature, elapsed driving time, tire pressures, average speed and the fuel range. It also contains two trip meters and the standard odometer. No lack of information here.
In the middle of the upper dash sits a 7″ display screen. This is not Lexus’ biggest screen, and in this trim level (with no nav), it is controlled with a joysticky rotary knob ahead of the wrist rest. I’ve never been a huge fan of the more mouse-like Remote Touch Interface with the strange feedback, and I actually prefer this more elementary input device myself. The screen handles audio, temperature, settings and phone/bluetooth functions and does so very well. I liked the layout and the way this rotary joystick let me find my way through things, once I got used to it.
Though it’s not the nicest one I’ve seen, the analog clock sitting smack dab in the middle of the stack is a classy touch.
The 8-speaker audio system feeds off of AM, FM, satellite, CD, auxiliary, USB and Bluetooth streaming sources. It sounds good, but not great, and certainly not nearly as good as the upgrade to the Mark Levinson system, which is (in my humble opinion) one of the best in the automobile world. The functions are handled by a very simple hard button layout in the middle of the dash, as well as the screen functions and the rotary knob.
Below that sits an automatic dual-zone climate control system.
The center console starts with rotary seat heater controls at the front and the drive mode selector behind that – I’ll talk about that in the Drive section. The gear selector on the left of the console offers an additional sport mode, as well as manual shifting mode.
There is a HomeLink garage door opener with three settings in the rearview mirror.
Back here, you’ll find three seats, three seatbelts and three headrests. The rear seats are extremely comfortable, and this would be a very nice place to spend some time if you were on a road trip. As is typical, the middle seat is narrow and a bit raised, and there’s a small tunnel in the center of the floor – so the middle seating position isn’t great for an adult.
I was shocked by the amount of legroom in the back – it’s cavernous. Headroom is also great.
There are adjustable air vents, and a 12V plug, as well as two seatback map pockets. Overhead, there are separate dome-mounted reading lights for rear passengers.
The center seatback folds down to become an armrest with two cupholders in it.
Our three kids fit comfortably back there, including a couple of their seats. The doors open nice and wide for easy access and there are two sets of LATCH anchors for seats.
You’ll find a nice glove compartment and door bins that are a bit useless because they’re tucked in under the armrests and difficult to access. There are two cupholders in the center console, both concealable by flip-away lids. The passenger’s sits far toward the front, the driver’s is tucked in quite a way back.
The armrest lid opens to reveal a spacious and deep storage bin, where you’ll also find auxiliary, USB and 12V plugs. There is a nice, carpeted change bin that pops out of the left underside of the dash.
The trunk is big enough at 430 Liters and very usable. There are 4 heavy-duty tie-down hooks in there too.
The drive is where the ES failed me a bit.
Let’s talk about the good first – there’s plenty of it. First of all, the 350 never feels underpowered, and pulls away from a stop smartly. There’s plenty of jam for any situation, and it will respond nicely to the throttle at any speed.
The ES’ 6-speed transmission is very, very smooth. Shifts are imperceptible, and it likes to hunt for higher gears to save fuel unless you put it into Sport mode.
Speaking of modes, the ES allows you to choose from several. There’s Normal, the fuel-saving Eco (which retards the car’s responsiveness) and finally Sport mode. The main gauges are capped with a horizon – in Eco or Normal mode, it glows a healthy, fresh-looking blue – the more fuel efficient you drive, the fuller the blue sky gets. Step on it, and things get darker. Switch the car to Sport mode and almost hilariously, the horizon lighting switches from blue to red, as if you’ve suddenly become Boy Racer! Not really, but I’ll give them points for effort.
The brakes are good – powerful enough, and easy to modulate.
The ES’ ride is simply fantastic. It soaks up the big and the small bumps like a champion and never got upset at anything our terrible roads threw at it, including icy ruts, windrows, you name it. I was very impressed. Handling is decent. I would say it’s very competent – if you HAVE to make a quick move, the car will grip the road impressively, but it prefers straight lines. As expected, there’s body roll, and you can feel the weight, but this car never feels as though you’ve pushed it too far and I would say that it stays quite flat considering the class of vehicle. You’re not buying an ES to win a track day so this doesn’t come as a surprise.
Visibility out of this car is very good in every direction.
Now the bad. I really, really hated the steering feel in the ES 350. The overboosted electronic steering never felt truly connected to the car. It’s great at low speeds and for parking, but it never appeared to tighten up and even at high speeds, it felt numb and completely dead to me. There’s no road feel, and this, combined with the uber-cushy ride, silent operation and overall buttery smoothness, makes for a very uninspiring driving experience. Of course, that might be exactly the kind of drive some buyers are looking for, but it left me wanting for more.
One final thing that I have to comment on regarding the ES’ drive is the traction control. I spent much of my review time on icy and snowy streets, and I was highly impressed with the traction and stability controls here. Coupled with winter tires, it was a very pleasant experience. Somehow, it always managed to find ample traction and rarely did I see the traction control light flashing – more importantly, I never felt it intrude on my driving where it would cut the throttle, etc. Very well done!
The feeling of quality is there throughout the entire vehicle. The switchgear and operation of lids and moveable panels throughout the vehicle is perfectly weighted and smooth.
Another example I found was the power windows. They open and close in complete silence and slow down for the last inch of travel so they don’t thunk into the stops. Little things like that make a difference when you add them all up.
Although it would be nice to explore a full loaded review vehicle with all the bells and whistles, you can obviously see that this “base” ES comes well-equipped and it was illuminating to spend quite a long time with it. I learned that I would be very happy with this trim level, and adding thousands on isn’t necessary to get a loaded-up feeling vehicle. Yes, the toys and gadgets are fun, but there’s plenty of great content here, and you start with a highly liveable vehicle in the base trim level. What I’m saying is you don’t have to spend more than the base model costs to get a great car.
I give the ES 350 a 7 out of 10. As great as this car is, and as well as it does almost everything, I did find myself searching for some soul – ANY soul – while driving it. I wanted to latch onto something as a driving enthusiast, but other than saying it does things well, I can’t say I was ever entertained while driving this vehicle, and that is something that matters to me.
To be clear, I don’t believe that matters to most of the buyers who are picking one up. The ES is a perennial best-seller, and there are plenty of folks who WANT the car that does everything well, will offer outstanding reliability and resale value, and who care little about being more involved in the driving experience.
The ES gives the buyer a solid set of standard features. It’s full of safety and luxury appointments, and if you have the money to spend, you can add to that. You can add leather, wood, navigation, etc. None of these make it a better car, but it will be more enjoyable, albeit significantly more expensive.
WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) was very high for the ES. My wife loved the smooth ride, the quietness about everything it does and she mentioned that everything felt very well put together. She also liked the looks of it, saying that it was styled for going shopping. She’ll never change.
I enjoyed commuting with this car, and even though I had limited freeway time with it, it would very easily be a fantastic road trip vehicle for 4 adults. It offers plenty of trunk space, it offers a ton of comfort, and it handles itself with a deserved sense of confidence.
Remember I mentioned Sade’s “Smooth Operator”? In the end, the ES 350 left me feeling much the same way I do when I listen to that song. It’s smooth as all get out, but it’s a heck of a yawn-fest too.
Disclosure: Vehicle was provided by Lexus Canada.
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