Lexus has expended much energy to demonstrate how sporty it is. Run a limited-production supercar, the LFA? Check. Follow it with the doorstop-shaped RC 350 coupe? Check. These edgy cars are there to help you connect the brand with the virtues of performance and style, even as the first thing that comes to mind is the brand’s celebrated poshness, of which the ES 350 has plenty.
Many luxury car manufacturers have changed their images through the years, some with varied success, as witnessed by an ES 350 competitor, the Lincoln MKZ. The MKZ is selling well, and its unenviable job is to help return Lincoln to being a logical default on luxury buyers’ shopping lists.
Lexus has a different challenge:. It has solidly staked itself in the luxury landscape, and the sporty cars it creates show its need to expand outward. But unlike the MKZ, which is shoring up a division that has abandoned big chunks of its core audience over the years, the ES 350 simply keeps carrying water for the coddling virtues that have brought its maker this far, and it forms the platform from which Lexus can grow sportier.
So when you’re considering an ES 350, you are considering a car with a reputed softness and richness, accompanied with some assumed dullness in the drive.
That’s what happens when your lineage ties in so closely with the Toyota Camry: guilt by association. I’m not going to try to convince you that for the discerning driver, the ES bears merit over its more athletic competitors, such as the Volvo S60 or the Infiniti Q50. But the coddling thing the ES does? It does it very well indeed.
First, the driving: the ES is not irretrievably somnolent. The 268-horsepower V6 the ES shares with the Camry feels powerful, and sharp acceleration comes with a pleasing grumble; when I gunned it to merge onto a highway, my passenger said, “Wow, I like the sound of that.” He clarified: “The engine is isolated, but it is definitely there”. The six-speed automatic transmission gave shifts that were prompt and wrinkle-free.
The ES takes the Camry’s handling and smooths over it with a layer of lotion. Steering and suspension are slicked-up; both seem geared for a plush first impression, and that’s just the thing for dealer test drives, where the first minute or so forms the opinion.
The ES can get floaty, particularly in the front end. What makes the ES a delight at low speeds – running errands in a nimble pile of mashed potatoes is actually kind of fun – also makes the ES inured to pokes by the enthusiasm stick.
Interestingly, the mashed-potato effect does not continue to the front seats: the ES’s thrones are remarkably thin and yet are still very comfortable and supportive.
The $2,935 Ultra Luxury Package includes a “Driver’s Seat Power Cushion Extender”, and its cuddle under your thighs plays in harmony with the interior’s sumptuous trimmings.
Displays and controls are typical Lexus: peaceful and easy.
The Ultra Luxury Package includes bamboo wood instrument panel trim, and another $300 extends it to a heated steering wheel.
It all seems carefully designed with top-tier trimmings.
Indicative of the ES’s foot-soldier station in the Lexus lineup were the reactions to it being compared with the Lincoln MKZ on The Brougham Society, a Facebook group for those who appreciate traditional luxury. Comments such as the ES being “nothing more than a glorified Camry with a bloated price tag” were balanced by respect for the ES’s quality and resale value.
That’s what the foot soldiers do: they take the hits for the brand while delivering the core of why buyers liked it in the first place.
The ES is more than a glorified Camry. Drive them back to back, and the Camry comes off as simple and earthy. Part of the reason Lincoln has had such a long row to hoe is because competitors like the ES are effectively distinctive to a loyal set of buyers, while others hold them up as something to which to aspire above the usual mid-sized sedan fare. When the Lincoln MKZ naturally fits next to the Lexus ES in being held in such broad and sometimes grudging esteem, it will have done its job.
Price as Tested: $46,089
Ultra Luxury Package: $2,935
(Includes Bamboo Trim, Front Heated and Ventilated Memory Front Seats with Driver’s Side Cushion Extender, Ambient Lighting, Power Tilt and Telescoping Steering Wheel)
Hard Disk Drive Navigation with Eight-Inch Screen: $2,625
Lane Departure Alert with Intelligent High Beam Headlamps: $1,015
Blind Spot Monitor with Rear Cross Traffic Alert: $500
Intuitive Parking Assist: $500
One-Touch Power Trunk: $400
Bamboo and Leather Trimmed Shift Knob and Heated Steering Wheel: $300
17-inch Split 10-Spoke Wheels with Liquid Graphite Finish: $110
Trunk Mat: $105
Cargo Net: $64
Quiet and smooth
Gutsy V6 engine