Lexus’s comfort-oriented, near-luxury cruiser – the ES – has passed through my hands on more than one occasion. In fact, I’ve sampled its every iteration – although to be fair, there are really only two: the ES350 and its hybridized sister, the ES300h. Refreshed for 2016 with a sharpened maw and more equipment, the ES350 nevertheless remains true to its principles of low-key, fuss-free transportation.
We last drove the ES350 roughly three years ago, and in that time, little has changed with Lexus’s near-luxury mid-sizer. It still rides on an underlying front-wheel drive architecture shared with the Toyota Avalon and Camry (once removed), with a naturally aspirated V6 spinning out just under 270 horsepower through a standard-issue 6-speed automatic and front-wheel drive. Tried and true works in the ES’s conservative segment, apparently, because sales are still quite healthy – many would be surprised to learn that the ES was Lexus’s strongest selling car nameplate last month (and most other months, for that matter), racking up more than 60,000 annual sales fairly consistently. Only the RX crossover moves out of Lexus showrooms faster. So while its mild-mannered Avalon roots are apparent from behind the wheel, buyers are clearly not swayed by any dynamic shortcomings.
Characterizing the ES350’s dynamics as “shortcomings” is probably overstating the case; although the sedan tends toward safe, progressive understeer in any fast-paced cornering moves, the goal of this car is not to indulge any red-mist fantasies like the rest of Lexus’s rear-wheel drive lineup. Instead, the ES is the brand’s bread-and-butter, and typifies perhaps more than any other current Lexus the values that helped build the brand: rock-solid assembly quality, reliability to set your watch to, and a quiet, comfortable driving experience. The ES provides all of this in spades.
The interior is well-constructed and boasts mausoleum-levels of noise, vibration and harshness at just about any speed. Front-wheel drive underpinnings allow a nearly flat rear floor, so 5 passengers have no trouble fitting for medium to long stints. Trunk space is likewise cavernous, and the 10-way power front seats help drivers soak up highway miles without complaint. Though the dash layout remains familiar from our 2013 tester, a new steering wheel, updated materials and trim colors, and an enhanced Lexus Enform infotainment suite featuring widgets for mobile, service and safety apps help keep the interior current. Our tester also carried a new Safety System+ package, which bundles pre-collision and lane departure alerts with intelligent high beams, dynamic cruise control and active steering. At just over a grand, consider it a must-tick option box.
Though we could probably forgo some of them, another requisite option is the Mark Levinson audio system. 835 watts and 15 speakers combine with enhanced noise-cancelling measures to make the audio experience a memorable one. Outside, Lexus’s familiar “spindle” grille treatment and L-shaped headlight clusters have been tweaked for even more angularity, and are accented by now-standard LED headlights. Around back, new taillights and bumper treatments ape the big daddy LS sedan, and new wheel designs round out the nip-tuck treatment. It’s not as honed as, say, the IS or GS, but the look is certainly distinctive and relatively effective at masking the ES’s Toyota-based roots.
2016 Lexus ES350
Base price: $38,940
Price as tested: $46,679
Options on test car: Navigation/Mark Levinson Audio Package ($2,650), Luxury Package ($1,670), Safety System+ Package ($1,015), Blind Spot Monitoring ($500), Intuitive Parking Assist ($500), Heated Wood & Leather Steering Wheel ($450), Illuminated Door Sills ($379), Power Rear Sunshade ($210), Rain Sensing Wipers ($155), Trunk Mat ($105), Cargo Net ($65), 17” Split Spoke Wheels ($40)
Powertrain: 3.5-liter V6 engine, 6-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive – 268 horsepower, 248 lb-ft torque
S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 25 MPG