No Fixed Abode: Looking For Value at Lexus

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
no fixed abode looking for value at lexus

I’ve long since learned not to give advice about car purchases to individuals who are not already rabid car enthusiasts. It wasn’t a lesson that arrived immediately, or without difficulty, but it’s one that I have finally and regretfully internalized. My brother Bark has not yet learned this lesson, so feel free to continue sending him Ask Bark submissions, but my days as a would-be car-shopping guru are over.

Yet there are times that I cannot dodge a particular request, whether for reasons of politeness, expediency, or my own self-interest. When those times arise, I usually recommend a Toyota, unless the questioner has stated that she absolutely does not want a Toyota, in which case I will recommend a Honda. If a Honda is not acceptable, I explain that anything else amounts to a roll of the dice and as long as we’re rollin’ the dice we might as well get a Viper ACR and screech our barbaric yawp down the back straight of Virginia International Raceway the way Harambe would have wanted us to had he not been assassinated by the Illuminati.

So when a co-worker at one of my contracts asked me about her next new car, I quickly evaluated her demographics (50-ish, upper-middle class), current vehicle (previous-gen Sonata) and desires (“As much luxury as I can get”) before responding, however reluctantly, with an endorsement of the Lexus ES. This, of course, led to an examination of the pricing and equipment for the Lexus ES. Despite numerous conversations on the subject, I cannot decide if the front-wheel-drive luxo-Toyota represents a blatant cash grab or singular value for money. There’s only one way to decide issues like these, but since Tina Turner let Thunderdome burn to the ground we’ll have to settle for deciding based on the considered input of the Best & Brightest.

For the prosecution: Ladies and gentlemen, I am here to show you that the Lexus ES is perhaps the most offensively-overpriced Japanese passenger vehicle since the Acura SLX. You remember the Acura SLX, don’t you? No? Well, take my word for it.

What, pray tell, do you get for the base price of $38,900? Just about what you get for the $32,295 MSRP of a Camry XLE V6. The powertrain is the same, the interior space is about the same, the driving experience is eerily similar. The XLE comes with heated seats; the ES requires that you pay extra. That’s a six-grand bump for the privilege of avoiding a Toyota dealership. Well, come to think of it, that might be reason enough to pay the extra money.

Both cars offer a premium audio/navigation combination option, but it’s cheaper on the Camry. The ES350 has an “Ultra Luxury” package that gives you a panoramic sunroof and genuine upscale wood trim, but unless you really need that stuff, there’s no equipment-based reason to choose the Lexus. Warranty on the ES is 4 year/50,000 mile basic, 6 year/70,000 mile powertrain, while the Camry warranty is 3 year/36,000 mile basic, 5 year/60,000 mile powertrain. If that bothers you, it’s possible to cover the gap with a Toyota extended warranty for much less than $6,505.

If there is any argument to be made for the ES350, it must rest on the intangibles and/or the interior experience.

Check that out. It’s obviously a flattering photo, but even in the cold light of dealership fluorescents it’s pretty nice.

This is a lesson in how much differentiation you can get with the same hard points. There’s much more gap here than there was between, say, the interior of my 2006 Phaeton and the cabin of a 2006 Bentley Flying Spur. The question is whether it justifies the price increase.

There’s one more difference to consider. You’ve no doubt read that the ES350 is on the “Avalon platform” instead of the “Camry platform.” The “move to the Avalon platform” was certainly reported with sycophantic glee by all the usual suspects. So what does it mean, to be on the “Avalon platform”? Realistically, it means you have a 111-inch wheelbase instead of a 109.3-inch wheelbase. There are certainly times when an extra inch-and-a-half can make or break a relationship, but unless you’re in the real-estate business this won’t be one of those times.

In short, the Lexus ES is a waste of money, a sham, a sad attempt to impress neighbors who are mired too deeply in their own concerns to be aware of your petit-bourgeois pseudo-triumph. Get the Camry, save some money, be a real person instead of a real housewife.

For the defense: You have heard my counterpart prattle at perplexing length about the purported practical product parallels between the mighty Lexus ES and the humble Camry, be it an “XLE V6” or otherwise. Well, my friends, I am here to tell you that the ES350 is never cross-shopped against a Camry. Let’s take a look at its more probable competitors and I will show you, once and for all, that the Lexus is the smart shopper’s choice.

Consider, if you will, the Acura TLX. It’s slightly cheaper than the ES350 and offers slightly more feature content — but what’s gonna happen when you have to sell it? Look at the market for 2008-model-year examples of the TL and the ES. The Lexus fetches a couple grand more and it appears to sell faster, as well. And while the Acura has historically been reliable in most non-transmission-related areas, do you really think that the TLX can match the ES for low frequency and severity of repair?

The optional equipment on offer is also slightly different. Acura has AWD, but Lexus has the panoramic roof and the different wood trims. If you’re in the mood for as much luxury as you can get for each dollar, your business needs to stay with the L-in-an-oval dealer.

What about the new Buick LaCrosse? It’s actually slightly more expensive than the Lexus in the “Essence” trim that most closely matches the base ES. Residual value? Come on now, you can read the numbers just as easily as I can. That goes for reliability as well. It’s hard not to think that the Lexus will actually be cheaper to own than the Buick. Lastly, there’s the prestige gap. It’s very real. Drive a Lexus ES, and your friends might think it’s an LS from a distance. Drive a LaCrosse, and they’ll ask you if you’re willing to haul some mulch in the back seat before you take it back to Hertz.

Finally, there’s the Lincoln MKZ. It’s very much the avant-garde choice, from styling to powerplant. Truly, it’s hard to imagine the MKZ and the ES350 appealing to the same person. But if you’re one of the people who would consider either, then many of the same caveats that apply to the Buick are also present here. It’s also worth noting that the MKZ doesn’t really line up with the ES in terms of powerplant choice. The anvil-like reliability of the Toyota V6 probably isn’t going to be a noted feature of any Ford EcoBoost engine, and even if it is there’s more complexity (read: more need for service) in the turbo powerplants.

So I submit to you that the Lexus ES is the most sensible, the sanest, the safest choice out there for your near-luxury cash. It looks good both inside and out. It is based on proven, reliable mechanicals. And it’s easy to sell when you’re ready to bid it adieu. Is it a Camry with a fancy frosting? Perhaps. But in this case, the frosting makes the cake.

Those are the arguments. What say you, B&B? My heartfelt personal advice would be to get an Accord if you can live with a Honda, and a Lexus IS350 if you can’t. But the Camry and ES are both best-sellers for a reason. The only question is whether the Lexus MSRP juice is worth the squeeze.

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6 of 216 comments
  • 05lgt 05lgt on Sep 05, 2016

    I guess I will just never understand why non-spec sheet features are treated as ephemeral. The improved NVH has been measured and reported on in the media, whether it's the result of better suspension isolation or simply more insulation it is real. Cooled seats and seat memory that includes steering wheel and side mirror adjustments are my most valued "luxury" features. Not a side show; the main reason to spend more. The interior, all of it, is different. Better leather, door inserts, dash design that is apealing... It may or may not be worth the extra coin to a given buyer, but dismissing thier choice as badge whoring is simple minded, pretending platform sharing is badge engineering is disingenuous, and the real answer is test drive both (not spreadsheet both, DRIVE THEM, new and used if available), and let an informed driver/buyer make thier own choice.

    • See 3 previous
    • Corey Lewis Corey Lewis on Sep 07, 2016

      @VoGo EVs should have been on the list as well probably. I didn't think of them, they were dismissed from my thought process before it started.

  • Alexdi Alexdi on Sep 06, 2016

    Put it this way: were I going back in time to show 1950s GM one vehicle as the standard-bearer for the future, it would probably be an ES350. It's the definition of a competent, reliable, comfortable, general-purpose people transport. There's nothing wrong with it. There are no caveats, no worries, and no thought required to buy one. This article might be a better argument that the Camry is value-priced.

  • Kat Laneaux What's the benefits of this as opposed to the Ford or Nissan. Will the mileage be better than the 19 city, 24 hwy? Will it cost less than the average of $60,000? Will it be a hybrid?
  • Johnster Minor quibble. The down-sized full-sized 1980-only Continental (which was available with Town Car and Town Coupe trims) gave up its name in 1981 and became the Town Car. The name "Town Coupe" was never used after the 1980 model year. The 1981 Lincoln Town Car was available with a 2-door body style, but the 2-door Lincoln Town Car was discontinued and not offered for the 1982 model year and never returned to the Lincoln lineup.
  • Zipper69 Some discreet dwebadging and this will pass for a $95k Lucid Air...
  • Zipper69 Does it REALLY have to be a four door?Surely a truly compact vehicle could stick with the half-door access with jump seats for short term passengers.
  • ToolGuy See kids, you can keep your old car in good condition.