We spend a week in the redesigned entry level sedan from Toyota's luxury division
Not an involved driving experience
Some cabin trim looks cheap
Remote Touch joystick not a joy
Entry level Lexus
The Lexus ES series shares a distinction with the LS of being the longest-running nameplate in the Lexus lineup as it was introduced alongside the brand's flagship in 1989.
At the time it was and it remains the only front-driver in Toyota's luxury lineup. In large part that has to do with the fact that it shares its underpinnings with the Toyota Camry – which, from a quality and reliability standpoint, is not necessarily a bad thing.
In preparing the sixth iteration of the ES, Toyota didn't stray far from its winning formula and, in fact, has pushed the entry into luxury even further from its Camry-esque roots. Overall length grows by an inch to 192.7, wheelbase is up 1.8 inches to 111.0 – matching the new Avalon - height is up a scant 0.8 of an inch, while its width remains the same at 71.7 inches. The ES 350's front and rear track have also been increased slightly to 62.6 and 62.0 inches, respectively.
Under the hood is Toyota's venerable 2GR-FE 3.5-liter V6 churning out a maximum of 268 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 248 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,700 rpm. This is mated to a 6-speed automatic that's electronically controlled and features three driving modes – Normal, Eco and Sport. Something that is new are the ES's four active-control engine mounts that match the frequency of external vibrations to reduce the amount of shake transferred to the body structure below 900 rpm.
For 2013 fuel efficiency numbers have also risen. Greater use of high strength steel has resulted in a 50-pound weight loss from the 2012 iteration, while airflow around and under the body has been improved for a coefficient of drag of just 0.27 (like the Camry we're sure that the ES also takes advantage of "Newly developed vortex-generating aerodynamic fins based on F1 technology (that) are used (near) the side mirror and (on the) rear combination lamps to enhance stability"). The result is that the ES350 achieves an EPA-estimated 21/31/24 city/highway/combined mpg with our observed fuel economy in fairly brisk around-town driving was pegged at 23.1 mpg.
Outside Lexus went the conservative with the most recent re-do – and, yet again, it's for good reason. The ES, it should be pointed out, is by far the best-selling Lexus car model with 42 percent of sales while representing nearly 23 percent of the brand's overall sales here in the U.S.
The biggest styling change to the 2013 model is up front, where the ES now sports Lexus' signature "spindle" grille. Other changes include a more aggressive lower air dam, revised headlamps sporting the brand's new L-shaped LED daytime running lights and deeply recessed fog lamp bezels.
In back, changes include narrower tail lamps with LED lights that mimic the "L" design motif as well a large trapezoidal license plate opening topped by a chrome trim strip that spans the distance between the tail lamps. LEDs are also used to illuminate the license plate.
Inside the increase in front seat room could be measured with a pair of calipers – a tenth of inch in headroom and three-tenths of an inch in shoulder room. Other small changes include an available 12-way power seat that allows the front seat cushions to extend an additional 1.4 inches for better leg support while the steering wheel angle was reduced from 24 degrees to 22 degrees for "a more natural control position."
The biggest changes concern those sitting in back where rear seat occupants are treated to seven-tenths of an inch increase in headroom, 2.8 additional inches of knee room and 4.1 inches more leg room - although shoulder room is down by 1.3 inches.
Adding everything up, interior volume has been increased by 4.7 cubic feet.
Up front, owners will find front seats that are both firm and supportive with just the right amount of side bolstering with standard 10-way power driver and passenger seats that also feature adjustable power lumbar support. There are also soft-touch surfaces galore, a thickly-rimmed steering wheel finished in wood and leather and, in our tester, a remote-touch joystick with haptic-feedback that worked the Lexus Premium infotainment system.
Instruments are clear and easy to read, with the smooth console and center-stack buttons and controls being very intuitive. The only issue I had with this setup involves the aforementioned joystick residing atop the center console. Although it works well even giving the user tactile feedback) I found that it seemed a bit overly-sensitive at times. The downside, however is that this system seems to demand too much of the driver's attention to the point where the best option is often pulling off to the side of the road to perform certain functions.
Another issue I had was with the quality of the interior. Roughly eighty-five percent of it is great. The other fifteen percent – including the sides of the center console and much of the door trim – seemed plasticky and out of character for even an entry-level luxury sedan.
Befitting its luxury sedan credentials, the ES comes with a long list of standard features that, in addition to the standard power and connectivity bits, includes push button start, power tilt and slide moonroof, automatic on/off projector beam headlamps and simulated leather with piano black trim.
Our tester came with the optional Luxury package that included a perforated leather interior with heated and ventilated front seats, bird's-eye maple trim, power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, memory functions for the driver's seat, outside mirrors and steering wheel, and remote keyless entry-linked memory along with HID headlamps and the aforementioned wood steering wheel with matching shift knob.
The other major option was a hard disk drive navigation system with backup camera, 8-inch VGA screen, a one year subscription to Lexus Enform with Safety Connect: Automatic Collision Notification, Stolen Vehicle Location, Emergency Assist Button (SOS), enhanced roadside assistance, Destination Assist, eDestination and Enform App Suite along with a one year subscription to SiriusXM NavTraffic, Sirius XM NavWeather and Sirius XM Sports & Stock.
On the road
As for its on-road manners, the ES has never had any sporting pretensions. That mission is currently the responsibility of the GS and, to a lesser extent, the IS.
Going down the highway, it does track well courtesy of opposite-wound front coil springs and recalibrated spring rates. And while there is little feedback on the straight and narrow the electric power steering does telegraph changes in course to the driver accurately (the ratio has been reduced from the previous generation's 16.1:1 to 14.8:1) while offering a fairly flat trajectory through corners.
Acceleration is brisk with the engine pulling strongly off the line and the three transmission modes actually make things a bit interesting – at least when compared to the outgoing model. While the Normal mode will be acceptable to most drivers, Eco revises the throttle mapping and air conditioning for better fuel economy while Sport mode quickens the throttle response and increases steering effort by 20 percent.
At all times, however, interior noise is kept to a minimum and in this respect the ES is very much a scaled-back version of the brand's LS flagship – courtesy of meticulous NVH engineering and sound deadening materials throughout the body including acoustically insulated glass.
Lexus Manufacturer Suggested Retail Pricing begins at $36,995 for the entry model that includes a delivery processing and handling fee of $895 while a fully-optioned model tops out at $48,269.
Adding to the base price of our Starfire Pearl tester were 17-inch graphite-finished alloy wheels ($110), a power rear sunshade ($210), Land Departure Alert ($965). Luxury Package ($1,370), Hard Disc Drive Navigation System ($2,625), Intuitive Parking Assist ($500) and a wood and leather trimmed shift knob and steering wheel ($330) bringing the total price, including delivery, to $43,4105.
The Bottom Line
The 2013 represents a couple of steps forward– exterior styling and interior room – and at least one step backward – in the finish of some interior trim pieces – for entry-level luxury buyers.
Drivers seeking a great deal of involvement will still be disappointed, although no more so than in any other ES and, after all, that's not really what this particular sedan is all about.
That being said, the Lexus ES350 continues to provide drivers with a quiet comfortable interior while offering excellent fuel economy, Toyota reliability and the legendary Lexus dealership experience.
The flip side, however, is that the ticket to this experience, especially in ES350 guise, comes with a fairly steep entry fee. A loaded to the gills Toyota Camry can be had for nearly $10,000 less while a similarly-equipped Toyota Avalon prices out at under $37,000 - a savings of over $6,000.
But the fact is that current ES owners should be pleased with most of the changes. It also doesn't take a crystal ball to predict that many more entry-level luxury buyers will be drawn to Lexus showrooms to take delivery of the latest ES350.