Interested in a Lexus ES350, but too pressed for time to indulge in a full-on road test? Let me save you an hour: Just slide into the driver’s seat and open the cupholder, on the console next to your right elbow. And then close it again, with that button marked “push.” That’s all.
Note how smoothly and silently this happens, and at the merest touch. Look down into the cupholder, past the self-adjusting, spring-loaded clamp, and see that even the bottom is perfectly finished. Notice how the lid rises to fit into the panel around it, and admire the gloss that echoes Japanese porcelain. An engineering team designed this minor feature, but did a robot or a cabinetmaker build it?
If you obsess over attention to detail—and can swing the payments—you may now skip the driving and go directly to the salesman’s cubicle. This is how the entire car is manufactured, or maybe crafted.
No, let’s not skip the driving. No matter how plush or organically grown it may be, part of a car’s “luxury” is how competently and quickly it moves us down the road.
The ES350’s V-6 engine sends up to 268 horsepower to the front wheels through a slick 6-speed automatic transmission. Lexus says the car will hit 60 MPH in a tick over seven seconds, and its top speed is limited to 130. (As if.) Overall, we got 25 miles per gallon, and 30-ish on the highway.
(Want 10 more MPG? Lexus offers a less powerful ES300h hybrid for about three grand more.)
Each wheel moves independently on struts and gas shock absorbers, and there are stabilizer bars front and rear. The ride is compliant and quiet, and the ES doesn’t give up in tight corners, either. But twirling the Drive Mode knob to Sport seems only to stiffen up the steering, which has the perverse effect of making the car feel logy, not sporty. ECO mode is less obnoxious, as its effects are spread over the full range of car operations, but Normal is, well, most normal. Then, if you want the ES350 to tighten up its sneakers, nudge the gear lever into “S” and either shift manually or let the genie do it.
That said, this is no sports car; it’s a big sedan that’s comfortable even while stuck in traffic. That’s a good time to play with the available Enform infotainment package, operated by Lexus’s unique mouse-equipped computer. It’s easier to use than BMW’s iDrive or Audi’s MMI, to name just two other systems, and the screens and graphics are bright and clear.
Like every Lexus, the ES is a gorgeous place to inhabit. The classy cabin is done up in neatly stitched leather and dark, glossy wood veneer, highlighted with streaks of satin-metal trim and splashes of bright chrome. Inside and out, this 6th-generation ES has grown; in the front seats, its dimensions come within an inch or so of the full-size, top-of-the-range LS460—and in the back, there’s more legroom than in the LS.
ES350 prices start at $37,000. However, I’d want the blind-spot and cross-traffic alert ($500) and the Luxury Package, with all its power adjustments and trim upgrades ($1,370). At this point, what the heck, let’s add the $2,625 tech package too. Now we’re in for $43,000.
At any price, the ES350 lacks the oversize split screen of its more costly siblings, and there are fewer apps in its computer, there’s no “Snow” mode, adaptive cruise control or a few other items, but the ES350 is just as velvety on the tongue as the GS and LS models—for about 30 and 50 grand less, respectively.
When the ES arrived, 24 years ago, it was dismissed as a gussied-up Toyota Camry. The ES now shares a platform with the also-upgraded Toyota Avalon, but the car has become every inch a Lexus. It isn’t the entry Lexus any longer, either. (That’s the smaller and less expensive IS.) Surprisingly, the ES is not the best-selling Lexus—that’s still the AWD RX350. If it weren’t for our national obsession with SUVs, it probably would be. And maybe it should be.