2013 will bring a new version of the Lexus ES, and we’ve already seen its new mug from photographers in China. Yet even with the new ES in the wings, Lexus is on track to sell 40,000 “lame duck” models, making it the most popular Lexus car and the second most popular Lexus vehicle after the RX350. As a goodbye to the “Lexus Camry,” we took one for a road trip from Northern California to Southern California – a sort of farewell to an important but sometimes misunderstood luxury car.
Last time we took a look at the ES350 was back in 2006, when Sajeev captained the all-new fifth generation ES350 for a week. Since then, the ES350 has had a mild face-lift with a revised grille, new tail lights and some new wheels. The overall proportions are all still slab-sided and plain, and the ES350 remains true to the Lexus mission statement: elegant and reserved. While the form is unlikely to ignite any serious passion, it is undeniably attractive, even when you figure in the slightly droopy nose (pictured above). Back in 2006 the stylish (but similarly boring) new LaCrosse didn’t exist yet, however in typical GM fashion the 2012 Buick merely matches rather than exceeds the ES350, making the volume Lexus a sound choice on aesthetics. Thankfully there are no “ventiports” to be found on the ES.
Stepping inside the ES350, it’s obvious why the ES sells well. While the styling and color choices may not be to everyone’s liking, Lexus’ attention to detail is class-leading, from perfect seams to perfect color matching on all the buttons and trim parts. All ES models are equipped with your choice of birds eye maple or the reddish “brown walnut” trim our tester was fitted with. If you believe true luxury comes with real dead treess inside, then the Lexus easily trumps the Acura and Buick with their plastic substitute. Taking the luxury feel up a notch, Lexus would be happy to sell you semi-aniline leather and a wood/leather steering wheel. We had the opportunity to take the ES350 for a 700-mile round-trip journey to Los Angeles, where it proved a comfortable highway cruiser with supportive seats, although I wished the range of adjustment was greater, as some drivers may not be able to adjust them to their liking. Should you need to haul the kiddos with you, it is possible to squeeze two rear facing child seats and a booster seat in the back. If your rear-seat occupants are adults, you should know that although the ES350 is a fairly wide vehicle, the thicker front seats and rear seat angles compared to its Camry cousin, with less room than the Acura TL, Hyundai Azera, Buick LaCrosse and Lincoln MKZ. The other side of the legroom-coin? Front seats that are thickly padded and comfortable. Expect 2013 to pay homage to the latest trend of faux-stitched dashboards, which is one area where the rubbery dash of the ES350 takes a middle-of-the-pack ranking.
Lexus starts the ES350 off with a standard 8-speaker sound system with in-dash 6 CD changer, XM Radio, and Bluetooth and iPod/USB interfaces. Jumping up to the $2,465 navigation package gets you a backup camera, XM data services (traffic, weather and stock quotes) and the OnStar-like Safety Connect system. The base system is one of the better entry units in this segment providing well-balanced audio and enough bass to satisfy most shoppers. Should you desire more, the $4,065 Mark Levinson sound system is available which combines the same nav system with a 14-speaker 7.1-channel audio system and a 6-disc DVD changer. iPod integration is as good as any entry in this segment save the superior SYNC systems from Ford and Lincoln. Unless Lexus has something new up their sleeve, don’t look to 2013 for major improvements as the latest Lexus models have shown little is changing with infotainment system software except for their new joystick-like controller, which I find difficult to use, and “Entune” smartphone app integration. I doubt the ES customer base cares about Bing searches and Pandora streaming (especially with draconian cellular data throttling in the USA).
People that dislike the ES or the Lexus brand usually resort to one phrase: “It’s just a fancy Toyota.” The ES350 shares essentially no touch-points or sheetmetal with the Camry (unlike the Lincoln MKZ and Ford Fusion), but they do share a drivetrain. The ES350 uses Toyota’s ubiquitous 2GR-FE 3.5L V6 engine, found in everything from the Camry to the Lotus Evora. While the engine isn’t as flashy as its direct injection cousin found in the IS350 and GS350, its 268HP and 248lb-ft of torque are about all you’d want in a front driver, it drinks regular 87 octane gasoline, and the lack of DI makes the engine quieter at idle than the DI engine in the new GS. Sending the power to the ground is the same 6-speed automatic the Camry uses with slightly reprogrammed shift points. The extra weight of the ES350’s considerable sound-deadening effort and luxury trappings as well as a slightly higher coefficient of drag are the reasons why the ES350 takes a 1MPG toll compared to the Camry. The EPA rates it at 19 city, 28 highway and 22 combined. During our 1,321 miles with the ES350 in mixed driving and plenty of high-speed I-5 travel we averaged a respectable 27MPG, only 2.9MPG less than the considerably less powerful LaCrosse eAssist in our tests, and within 1MPG of the direct competition. Before you consider this a win for the ES350, recall that the Buick and TL offer 300HP from their powerplants.
When the going gets twisty, those interested in twisting around the apex rather than getting twisted around a tree off the side of the cliff should probably buy the Acura TL. If floating along the road as if wrapped in a leather cocoon is more your style, the ES350 is the car for you. If you needed proof of the ES350’s mission, it can be found in the narrow and tall 215/55 tires selected for their comfortable ride and low road noise. In comparison, the TL’s standard 245 rubber yields far superior grip, and even the LaCrosse with it’s 235/50R18s could be described as a corner carver in comparison, yet that’s not the ES350’s mission. The light steering, eagerness to return to center, low road noise and soft suspension make the ES350 the car you want to take on a long American road trip, not a hot lap ’round the ‘ring.
Our tester was a
Swansong Edition “Touring Edition” ES which for $110 over the base price adds some rich-looking saddle colored leather and some very red-looking maple trim. With the Touring Edition, you also have to select the $2,465 navigation system with backup camera, XM traffic and Lexus’ Enform system. Our car was also equipped with heated and ventilated seats for $640, a full-size spare with matching wheel for $205, the wood/leather steering wheel and shifter for $330 and a trunk mat for $105 bringing our out-the-door total; to $41,445 after an $875 destination fee. Adjusting for features and the lack of real-tree in the LaCrosse, the prices are fairly similar.
As the ES’s sales record has proved, I’m not alone in liking what many unfairly call a gilded Camry. While it’s clear that after almost 5 years of the competition catching up, the ES350 is no longer the clear-cut leader in this segment, it is never the less a firm competitor in its final year of sales. The ES350 may not be as exciting as an Acura, but with a solid brand reputation and dealers known to coddle shoppers, the ES350 will likely continue its success into the next generation.
Lexus provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review
Statistics as tested
0-30MPH: 2.8 Seconds
0-60MPH: 6.4 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 14.8 Seconds @ 96MPH
Average economy: 27MPG over 1,321 miles