Continuing the Refined, PG-Rated Legacy

2019 Lexus ES 350 Review: The Best ES to Date Is Still Too Polite to Be Sporty


June 14, 2018 Reviews By Photo by Lexus
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The ES is a sedan that’s as old as Lexus itself, being a mainstay for the brand since its launch in 1989. After nigh on 30 years, the Lexus ES begins its seventh generation, adopts an all-new platform, and even gets its first F Sport iteration. The mission? Maintain the level of craftsmanship that Lexus prides itself on and find luxury in the little things. “My inspiration for the ES came in micro-moments in everyday life,” said ES chief engineer Yasuhiro Sakakibara. He alludes to moments like the confidence brought on by donning a favorite, well-tailored shirt, or savoring each bite of a gourmet meal. Much like we consume cuisine, Lexus customers may very well easily find the “fast food” version of what the ES offers, but miss out in reveling in its careful preparation.

The Good: Seven generations is a long time to get things right, and with that in mind, the ES has honed its role. Slotted closer to the IS on the automaker’s sedan spectrum, it provides the full Lexus sedan experience without expanding to the heftier GS and LS models. What that means is a smooth ride with a well-appointed interior, a well-baffled cabin and a quality aural experience with the Mark Levinson sound system. Audiophiles will rejoice in the quality produced by the 17-speaker package, which was carefully arranged throughout 10 different cabin locations so that tunes are optimally delivered. I’m not as keen-eared as those who can discern finer quality audio gear, but even I was able to hear layers of favorite songs that I didn’t know existed. The sound system is a standalone option, so folks who want it aren’t forced into a particular package.

Who It’s For: In the U.S., the median age of an ES buyer is around 60, but Lexus hopes to broaden the appeal of the ES with this generation while still satisfying the needs of its stalwart buyer base. “Our customers have been with the brand since the beginning. They’ve grown up with us and, frankly, aged with us,” said Brian Bolain, General Manager of Lexus International. This ES and its F Sport injection is an attempt at rejuvenating that consumer base.

Watch Out For: The Lexus multimedia system has come a long way, and is faster and sharper than ever before, but it’s still got some kinks to work out. As it happens, the infotainment interface is accessible only via a “remote touch interface,” which is essentially a trackpad that manipulates an on-screen cursor. It will quickly snap to the options or icons you want to click on — like “Ok” or “Cancel” — and its movements are reinforced with little haptic vibration to confirm your selection. But ultimately it’s quite distracting for use on the go. There’s a reason why car interfaces are different than that of a PCs: they’re not meant to demand that much of our concentration. The 12.3-inch screen has no touch capabilities, making the trackpad the sole interface, which I finally gave in to after smudging the screen ineffectually a couple of times.

Alternatives: The Mercedes-Benz E-Class and the Audi A6 would be the biggest threats to the Lexus ES. Audi’s offer might prove to be the more dynamic drive experience out of all of the three. Mercedes tech is also usually top-notch, not to mention that the car carries a little more luxury brand prestige along with it. Both come with a price tag to match. Lexus says the ES will start “around” $40K, but both German competitors start much higher.

Review: If we rated cars like we rate films in the US, the Lexus ES would be a solid “PG.” This isn’t a disparagement, it’s context: E.T. and The Lego Movie are PG but so are Jaws and Poltergeist. With this in mind, the Lexus ES is a great ride with occasional thrills, but its high points are far from being remotely scandalous or unadulterated.

It’s a nice, safe bet, which is why 2.18 million of them have been sold since the ES launched alongside the Lexus brand thirty-some-odd years ago. As with most safe bets, the latest ES builds upon what makes it great and refines things further with the tailoring needed to keep it contemporary. Now built on the GA-K platform, the ES shares its underpinnings with the Toyota Avalon and Camry, two other vehicles in the Toyota family that have maintained a substantial legacy. This allows the new ES to be 2.6 inches longer, slightly lower, and 1.8 inches wider. Small numbers that make a big difference when it comes to car profiles. These changes allow the wheels to be pushed closer to the corners and gives the car a more sturdy stance.

Up front, the ES wears the signature Lexus fascia whose sharp headlamps pinch the distinct grille towards the badge. This is the highlight of a fluid body shape that emphasizes an appearance of a slippery aerodynamic surface. All told, the car has a sharp profile that has a clean, dignified presence which is suitable for any occasion.

Inside, the extra couple of inches spread across the platform has been put to good use, making for a roomy cabin for both front and rear passengers. Laser screw welds and a 46 percent increase in body bond adhesive have increased the rigidity of the ES to make the ride smoother and improve the noise reduction in the cabin. Lexus compares this to using a zipper to close a jacket rather than a series of buttons. Cute analogy, but it’s incredibly effective. My ride through the streets of Nashville out to the city’s outskirts were in perfect comfort, and watching the scenery go by in my quiet cabin was like sitting in a panoramic theater.

10-way adjustable seats and power adjustable steering column makes finding a preferred driving position quick and easy, which will give you time to marvel all that’s going on in the interior, which is a lot. The dark brown and tan interior colors Chateau and Flaxen are your standard interior palettes in the ES 350 and 300h hybrid. Black is an option as well in both models plus the F Sport, which also gets an exclusive red interior to distinguish itself from the others. Dark Mocha and Espresso wood trims are the high-gloss options, but it’s also joined by a matte bamboo, which stands out from the two mainly because it doesn’t look as premium. The F Sport gets a new Hadori Aluminum metallic trim machined to emulate the polishing process of ancient Japanese swords.

Loaded with tech, Lexus has kept the ES up with the times in terms of creature comforts. Safety features like lane keep assist, collision warnings and adaptive cruise control keep things nominal during commutes. The Lexus multimedia system is as crisp and smooth as ever; there are just a few ergonomic hangups that the automaker staunchly hangs onto. As mentioned before, the 12.3-inch interface isn’t a touchscreen and, while Lexus isn’t the only player in the game to refrain from letting occupants paw at icons, its trackpad-and-cursor system tends to draw in already preciously divided attention. The cursor’s omnidirectional capabilities — whether it snaps to options or not — is not the most intuitive solution to in-car interactivity. With the ES being the first Lexus to incorporate Apple CarPlay, there is at least an alternative available for some.

There is perhaps a glut of tech in the ES, with several buttons across the steering wheel, dash and in between. It’s handy to have a physical button for specific functions, but the trade-off is trying to find the one you’re looking for throughout the array of dials. Perhaps to satisfy an older customer who would prefer an old-fashioned button rather than a menu option, tons of car functions are laid bare.

There are some instances, though, where this layout would lead to surprise when a button I wanted was missing. There was indeed a button to turn the head-up display on or off, but nothing handy to adjust the height while on the go. All of this seems to be one of the side effects of having such a long-running and successful car: the need to hoard features lest the car stray too far into new territory. Lexus wants to broaden the appeal but not ostracize its brand loyalists, which means adding rather than removing, and the tech is an area that could use some heavy streamlining.

The ES 350 is saddled with a 3.5 liter V6 that puts out a modest 302 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque. It’s certainly enough to get the job done, either for cruising or overtaking. I hopped into the F Sport, which offers no power bump but does get an adaptive variable suspension, which adjusts the stiffness based on the changing conditions. Finding a sublime stretch of country backroad, I endeavored to see if there was any sportiness to be found. Pleasantly, what the ES offered was fairly enjoyable. The roads I faced were hardly challenging but twisty enough to demand some hard braking and powering through sweeping apexes. Control was easily maintained thanks to the F Sport’s chunkier steering wheel and, though I couldn’t figure out how to adjust it, the head-up display was helpful in knowing what speeds I was dealing with without breaking my concentration. There was a surprising amount of acceleration to be had, but heading into a deep brake, the ES felt like a broad barn door about to swing wildly outward if pushed too hard. The limit of this front-wheel-drive sedan is found quickly and it feels like control would be difficult to regain if things went awry.

Saying “it’s not the worst” may be a back-handed compliment, but the ES F Sport has all the performance anyone attracted to the ES could ever want. Those whose performance tastes stray outside of the PG rating wouldn’t be eyeballing the ES for that particular appetite to be whetted, regardless of the F Sport injection.

Verdict: The legacy of the ES is secure. Within its element, it’s the best its ever been with contemporary looks and tech conveniences. The F Sport accoutrement only improves things, as long as buyers go in with the right expectations. The ride is smooth, the cabin is a comfortable place to be and it’s easy to see why Lexus loyalists have stuck with it for a few decades. This generation ES is far from a radical upgrade, but as Sakakibara-san states, the pleasure is in the little things it consistently gets right.

What Others Are Saying:

• “I can confirm that it is indeed unerringly serene, and it enjoys excellent ride quality and sound isolation. Further, there’s no reason to assume that the new ES will deliver anything other than sterling reliability.” — Chris Paukert, Roadshow

• “The F Sport version adds engine sound through the speakers to add a little drama to accelerations, and shifts come reasonably quick, but again, if I’m looking for a four seater that’s more sport than luxury, this is not it. ” — Jake Lingeman, Autoweek

• “When Lexus first launched its mouse-like Remote Touch controller, I thought things couldn’t get any worse; the touch pad with which they replaced it has proved me wrong. There is absolutely no way to use it without staring at the screen, which is not where a driver’s eyes should be.” — Aaron Gold, Automobile

Key Specs: 2019 Lexus ES 350

Engine: 3.5-liter V6
Transmission: eight-speed automatic
Horsepower: 302 hp
Torque: 267 ft-lbs
Weight: 3,704 pounds
MSRP: $40,000 MSRP (est.)

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