As part of the evaluative process, I cracked open the ES350's owner’s manual. Check it: there’s a "Lemon Law Guide" to help customers find legal recourse should their Lexus fail to, well, anything. Somehow, I don’t think that’s going to be a particularly useful part of the program. After all, under its swanky skin, the Lexus ES350 is little more than a reliable, durable and, let’s face it, forgettable Toyota Camry. Does that make the ES350 an example of the kind of badge-engineering that this site regularly condemns as lazy, cynical and brand corrosive? No, no and yes.
The ES certainly passes the visual differentiation test. Proof positive: dozens of Accord, Camry, and (older) Lexus ES drivers rubbernecking our tester’s amber-bronze curves. The ES leads with a soft, organic front with chiseled grille and chrome ringed fog lights, flowing into an elegant but racy profile, with one of the fastest C-pillars this side of the General Lee. Every crease is well proportioned– until one’s eyes gaze below the door handles. From there, the ES' soaring beltline drops the proverbial ball. The sheetmetal looks worse than a tradeshow drop cloth over a folding table. The back end is endlessly inoffensive, aside from the unintentionally humorous Salvador Dali chrome moustache over the license plate.
Inside, Lexus' "L-Finesse" design lingo ushers forth a suitable blend of gentle creases, folds and curves. From the multi-textured steering wheel to the dual sunroofs, the ES’ aesthetics harmonize like a barbershop quartet– save the crooked fold above the center stack and the disconcertingly asymmetrical console. The center binnacle also rankles. The release button sits front and center on the armrest; any vigorous arm movement triggers the oil-dampened cover to slide backwards.
Ergo-mistakes aside, the ES boasts many of the finest details in its class. The hyper-white LED reading lights, padded grab handles and Optitron gauges are a Caddy's worst nightmare. Add the lustrous woodgrain on the so-good-its-sinful doors (complete with padded vinyl and carpeted door pulls) and a Maybach-grade steering wheel skin, and the ES350 appear to over-deliver at this price point. Yet for each deluxe give comes an equal and opposite economy-minded take.
Press the start button and the ES350’s accent turns distinctly Camry. The baby Lexus’ 3.5-liter V6 delivers the goods, but it sure doesn’t sound good. Pickup truck levels of road growl and wind howl not only hammer at one’s soul at highway speeds, but quickly drown out the eight-speaker audio system. Crank up the tunes in retaliation and the beat box’s tinny highs and flaccid lows don't stand a chance against a textured stretch of tarmac. What’s more (or less), after a three-hour interstate jaunt, the ES’ short seat bottoms on less-than-impressive leather stress one's posterior in a most un-luxurious manner.
Lovers of luxobarge cruising (with a suitable credit history) can up-spec into perforated cowhide chairs and a Mark Levinson Premium surround sound system. But there’s no getting over the ES350’s inherent drawbacks. Stiff crosswinds exact a terrific toll on the Lexus' sky high profile, while the C-pillar’s colossal blind spots make lane changing a difficult task even by Chrysler 300 standards. Compounded by the narrow rear window, parking lot maneuvers turn into a series of educated guesses. If luxury equals ease, it’s easy to see the ES350 isn’t that luxurious.
At least the ES rides right. A tight chassis with 55-series tires and an appropriately dampened suspension gives potholes and pavement joints the strong, silent treatment. The ES’ close ratio six-speed gearbox keeps the motor singing in its power band– albeit facilitated by gear changes slower than a thorazine-injected Giant African Snail. While we’re at it, someone should tell Lexus that torque steer and luxury don’t mix. Cane the ES350’s 272-horse six pot past 4000rpm (even at highway speeds) and the front wheels dance with the devil in the pale moonlight.
That said, the ES350 is a straight line Q-ship that steers through the twisties with a curiously satisfying blend of BMW-esque panache and Buick-like isolation. Safety-oriented understeer is only right for a 3600 pound grand tourer. Still, pop the leather and wood shifter into manual mode and give it some and the ES retains the majority of its lateral composure, rarely embarrassing itself enough to trigger the electronic Nanny.
With its good looks, comfy cabin, smooth ride and miserly mileage (21/30 on premium go-juice), the Lexus ES350 is an inoffensive vehicle that appeases all but purist pistonheads. It proves that Lexus knows how to spizzarkle-up a Camry enough to justify a premium price and issue a rolling “call out” to barely badge engineered botch jobs like the Lincoln Zephyr. But the ES isn't a great luxury car by any stretch. It doesn’t dishonor to the Lexus badge, but it doesn't build the marque’s rep either. In this class, for this brand, good enough just isn’t.
[Lexus provided the vehicle reviewed, insurance, taxes and a tank of gas.]