Lexus ES350 Review

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta
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lexus es350 review

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.]

Sajeev Mehta
Sajeev Mehta

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  • Dctomlinson Dctomlinson on May 01, 2008

    I must be driving a different car than you guys. Interior materials are excellent, road noise is very low, engine torque is just fine. All the instrumentation works great. It's quiet, smooth driving, handles potholes well in the pothole capital of the world (Chicago), powerful and elegant enough for me. It gets about 21 miles per gallon and I wish that were better, and the sound system could use some cajones, but that's all so far. I'd like to change the Nav voice to HAL 2000 or KITT, but other than those minor issues, what are you all complaining about? I drove the Jaguar S and X series, a couple of the Mercedes C series, the Maxima and the Camry. The ES 350 was better than any of them. The Camry doesn't even compare. I got it for a couple of hundred bucks over invoice and 3.24% financing, what's not to like?

  • Lexuses Lexuses on Jul 26, 2015

    Hi everybody,i am from Australia i am looking for the most comfortable, quite and floaty ride i can find, i ve driven the 2003 es300, 2006 gs300, and the 2006 rx350. cant afford to satisfy the 2002 ls430 thirst(although it is the best car) I ve found that the rx drives like a ute, engine noise is very intrusive ,especially in traffic. Gs is too unforgiving on potholes. Looks like the 2002 es will be my pick, but it is just too old, with non of the new goodies, except may be an outdated nav. anybody has any alternatives?(buick and toyota avalon dont come here) thanks

  • El scotto Another EBPosky, "EVs are Stoopid, prove to me water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius" article.It was never explained if the rural schools own the buses or if the school bus routes are contracted out. If the bus routes are contracted out, will Carpenter or Bluebird offer an electric school bus? Flexmatt never stated the range of brand-unspecified school bus. Will the min-mart be open at the end of the 179-mile drive? No cell coverage? Why doesn't the bus driver have an emergency sat phone?Two more problems Mr. Musk could solve.
  • RICK Long time Cadillac admirer with 89 Fleetwood Brougham deElegance and 93 Brougham, always liked Eldorado until downsized after 76. Those were the days. Sad to see what now wears Cadillac name.
  • Carsofchaos Bike lanes are in use what maybe 10 to 12 hours a day? The other periods of the day they aren't in use whatsoever. A bike can carry one person and a vehicle can carry multiple people. It's very simple math to figure out that a bike lane in no way shape or form will handle more people than cars will.The bigger issue is double parked delivery vehicles. They are often double parked and taking up lanes because there are cars parked on the curb. You combine that with a bike lane and pedestrians Crossing wherever they feel like it and it's a recipe for disaster. I think if we could just go back to two lanes of traffic things would flow much better. I started coming to the city in 2003 before a lot of these bike lanes were implemented and the traffic is definitely much worse now than it was back then. Sadly at this point I don't really think there is a solution but I can guarantee that congestion pricing will not fix this problem.
  • Charles When I lived in Los Angeles I saw a 9-5 a few times and instanly admired the sweeping low slug aerodynamic jet tech influenced lines and all that beautiful glass. The car was very different from what I expected from a Saab even though the 900 Turbo was nice. A casual lady friend had a Saab Sonnet, never drove or rode in it but nonetheless chilled my enthusiasm and I eventually forgot about Saabs. In the following years I have had seven Mercedes's, three or four Jaguars even two Daimlers both the 250 V-8 and the massive and powerful Majestic Major. Daily drivers of a brand new 300ZX 2+2 and Lincolns, plus a few diesel trucks. Having moved to my big farm in central New York, trucks and SUV's are the standard, even though I have a Mercedes S500 in one of my barns. Due to circumstances with my Ford Explorer and needing a second driver I found the 2006 9-5 locally. Very little surface rust, none undercarriage, original owner, garage kept, wife driver and all the original literature and a ton of paid receipts and history. The car just turned 200,000 miles and I love it. Feels new like I'm back in my Nissan 300ZX with a lot more European class and ready power with the awesome turbo. So fun to drive, the smooth power and torque is incredible! Great price paid to justify going through the car and giving her everything she needs, i.e., new tires, battery, all shocks, struts, control arms, timing chain and rust removable to come, plus more. The problem now is I want to restore it and likely put it in my concrete barn and only drive in good weather. As to the writer, Alex Dykes, I take great exception calling the 9-5 Saab "ugly," finding myself looking back at her beauty and uniqueness. Moreover, I get new looks from others not quite recognizing, like the days out west with my more expensive European cars. There are Saabs eclipsing 300K rourinely and one at a million miles and I believe one car with 500K on the original engine. So clearly, this is a keeper, in love already with my SportCombi. I want to be in that elite club.
  • Marky S. I own the same C.C. XSE Hybrid AWD as in this article, but in Barcelona Red with the black roof. I love my car for its size, packaging, and the fact that it offers both AWD and Hybrid technology together. Visibility is impressive, as is its small turning circle. I consider the C.C. more of a "station wagon" by proportion, rather than an “SUV.” It is fun to drive, with zippy response and perky pick-up. It is a pleasant car to drive and ride in. It is not trying to be a “Butch Off-Roader”, or a cosseting “Luxury Cruiser.” Those are not its goals or purpose. The Corolla Cross XSE Hybrid AWD is a wonderful All-Purpose Car (O.K. – “SUV” if you must hear me say it!) with a combination of all the features it has at a reasonable price.