2016 Lexus ES 350 Review
Of course, one has to look to the future as well. Where some ES customers might be turned off by Lexus assertive new stance (and believe me there are some that really don’t like it and don’t hold back when voicing their opinion), a whole set of new prospects will no doubt take notice of a car that actually looks a lot more like the similarly sized albeit sportier GS than the aforementioned RC, especially from the rear.
I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to turn away from the ES’ broader, deeper, polished nickel-rimmed and glossy black multi-angled front latticework, and not only because of this most noticeable upgrade, but also due to needle-sharp scalloped LED headlamp clusters with LED DRLs, similarly pointy chrome-bezeled LED fog lamps at each lower corner, beautiful multi-spoke 18-inch alloys rounding out a sleek profile that’s highlighted above by polished nickel brightwork surrounding the side windows, elegantly elongated and reshaped LED taillights conjoined by a thicker and better-integrated slab of bright metal, and a new rear diffuser-like lower valance incorporating downright sporty looking dual chrome-tipped angularly ovoid exhaust pipes, the new ES an all-round more appealing and unique shape. This is a big visual step up for the Avalon-based model, and one I hardily condone, although compared to the cohesive whole of the RC, IS, NX and new RX designs that are entirely edgy from front to back, the ES’ flashy new frontal design is a bit at odds with its still cautiously penned rear end.
All four doors open wide to allow easy access front and rear, although water pouring onto my driver’s seat wasn’t the luxurious welcome I would’ve liked. After drying off my otherwise stylishly sporty black leather-clad and white stitched perch (“Parchment” beige, “Flaxen” caramel brown, and “Stratus Gray” are also available), I took in a cabin that’s still suitably devoid of most of the hard plastics I grumbled about in the previous fifth-generation ES. Of course, Lexus always finished the dash top, most of the instrument panel and all four door uppers in soft pliable synthetics, but since the sixth-gen ES debuted for the 2013 model year even these surfaces were upgraded while yet more improvements were made throughout the interior. The hard plastic started further downward around hip level, while the center stack received Lexus’ first-generation Remote Touch Interface and associated leather-covered hand rest that’s still present, a once state-of-the-art infotainment controller made old looking thanks to Lexus’ own second-gen RTI found in the new RC noted earlier, as well as the new NX and RX. That hand rest gets stitched in white to go along with the seats and armrests, albeit the latter items incorporate extra padding for added comfort. A soft piece of leatherish trim spans the dash ahead of the front passenger too, just above a narrow glove box with a disappointingly hard shell lid, although this detail is also a letdown in other premium models including Audi’s much-revered A6, so it’s hard to complain in this considerably more affordable Lexus.
The rest of the cabin remains a feast for the luxuriant soul, with beautiful metallic and genuine hardwood inlays highlighting the instrument and door panels, yet more wood and metals on the lower console (my car was trimmed in Linear Dark Mocha, but Matte Honey Bamboo and Espresso Bird’s-Eye Maple are also available), whereas the ES’ steering wheel remains a revelation in performance-oriented luxury. It’s rimmed in white-stitched black leather in my loaner, along with wood in three separate sections, while the two side spokes’ switchgear is superb, as are the other buttons, knobs and toggles throughout the rest of the car, while the my ES test car shed light on all its handiwork via beams of overhead LEDs front and back as well as a dual-pane panoramic sunroof that makes for an open and airy ambiance.
Ahead of the driver are the model’s usual bright, clear and colorful Optitron gauges, although a 4.2-inch high-resolution color TFT multi-information display now sits between the tachometer and speedometer, looking good and filled with lots of useful go-to data, while the deeply recessed and properly shaded infotainment system appears identical to last year’s very effective design, although the console-mounted RTI controller mentioned a moment ago gets a nice new grayish metallic-silver pedestal that houses long, narrow buttons at each side for making selecting a given “link” after toggling around the system, adding just that little bit more control without having to totally update to the gen-2 touchpad.
ES 350 buyers should never feel unloved, at least by Lexus that pampers even those at base levels with myriad standard features to go along with the creature comforts already noted. A shortlist for the $38,000 entry model includes the LED lights mentioned earlier, 17-inch alloy wheels, Lexus’ SmartAccess proximity-sensing passive entry with pushbutton ignition, powered windows with auto up/down all-round, an electrochromic auto-dimming rearview mirror, a universal garage door opener, a tilt and slide powered moonroof, an LED illuminated analog clock, dual-zone auto climate control, an infotainment display, a backup camera, an eight-speaker AM/FM/CD/MP3/WMA/USB/AUX audio system with satellite and HD radio, iTunes tagging, Bluetooth streaming and phone connectivity, plus 10-way powered front seats, although unlike my tester’s premium leather the base seats are covered with perforated NuLuxe faux leather, but this said leatherette upholstery is an especially common occurrence amongst the base Germans as well.
Additionally the ES gets a standard rear-seat pass-through that, while ideally good for skis down the middle when four occupants are enjoying mountain views via heatable window seats, it’s a rather small hole to pass four sets of skis through, but I must admit the trunk is plenty large at 15.2 cubic feet so smaller kids’ skis will fit in sideways or on an angle. I’m going to guess that most active lifestyle families will just buy an NX, RX, GX or LX instead and be done with it, so go ahead and enjoy all that trunk space for your golf clubs.
Continuing with standard features, the ES has long been a safety leader so it gets all the usual airbags as well as driver and front passenger knee blockers plus rear side-impact airbags for a total of 10, while tire pressure monitoring joins Lexus’ usual Star Safety equipment including ABS-enhanced four-wheel discs with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist, traction and stability control, and Smart Stop Technology (SST) that limits power under braking.
As you’ve probably noticed I’ve been referring to special features found in “my tester”, and that’s because it was fully outfitted with the ES’ $3,500 Ultra Luxury Package that included the hardwood mentioned earlier, LED ambient interior lighting, thepowered wood and leather-wrapped steering wheel, perforated semi-aniline leather upholstery, a memory system for both front seats as well as the outside mirrors and steering wheel, the panoramic sunroof, powered variable cushion length for the driver, heatable and ventilated front seats, clearance and backup sensors,plus the powered rear sunshade and rear door sunshades already noted.
Additionally the $2,650 Navigation/Mark Levinson Premium Audio Package was added featuring the larger eight-inch high-resolution infotainment display I commented on earlier (the base display is seven inches) with navigation, plus the Remote Touch Interface, voice activation, a superb 15-speaker Mark Levinson audio system, an in-dash DVD/CD player, SMS text-to-speech with reply, and loads of apps, while a $500, Lexus Safety System + with Bi-LED Headlamps package added a pre-collision system with pedestrian alert, lane departure alert with steering assist, dynamic radar cruise control, and auto-leveling bi-LED headlamps with auto high beams added to the LED low beams that come standard.
Lexus also added on some standalone features including those 18-inch alloys mentioned earlier for $880, rain-sensing wipers for $155, a powered trunk lid for $400, and blind spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert for $500.
With all of its optional safety equipment the 2016 ES earned Top Safety Pick + honors from the IIHS, while the NHTSA has yet to rate the 2016 model. Then again, last year’s ES earned a five-star rating from that government safety organization so the 2016 should do likewise as its mostly carryover under the skin.
The multi-adjustable driver’s seat looks suitably supportive, but unlike most Lexus office chairs I’ve enjoyed in recent years I couldn’t get the lumbar to adjust low enough to fit the small of my back and unfortunately there’s no vertical adjustment for fine tuning, rendering this feature useless for me. I’d much rather have a well formed driver’s seat that needs no adjustment than powered lumbar that pokes me in the wrong places, although to be fair the seat was a great deal more comfortable when I pulled all the lumbar support back and just relied on its inherent design.
On the positive the rear seats are fabulous. They’re sculpted into two bucket-like outboard positions, with superb lower back support, ideally placed lower squabs and loads of leg, hip, shoulder and headroom, not to mention a comfortable flip-down armrest with dual cup holders at center, heatable cushions in both outboard positions, plus those rear window sunshades previously noted that even include sideways-sliding shades for the tiny quarter windows, while as also mentioned the rear glass can be shaded via a powered version of the same, so I figure with the money you’ll save on an ES over a similarly roomy full-size luxury sedan, such as the LS, you can hire someone to drive you around.
Politically incorrect dreams of living in a third-world country with labor that’s cheap enough to fulfill such fantasies on a journalist’s wage aside, the newly upgraded front-drive four-door improves as a driver’s car, but the experience behind the wheel remains 100 percent ES. That’s a very good thing, I should add, because Lexus has its strong ES following to consider, and besides the two sportier models I noted earlier already have the performance end of the sedan lineup handled. Instead, the ES is still mostly about quiet, serene comfort, a task it takes to very well, although it now also takes to corners impressively too, drives brilliantly on the highway, and remains totally stable and always in control if left to reasonable albeit high speeds, especially with the dash-mounted Drive Mode Select dial set to Sport mode. This said I tend to drive the ES much more sedately than I would an IS 350, for example. I’m sure that I’m not alone in this regard, as I rarely see an ES 350 blast past in a rapid rush unless there’s a new driver sticker on the back bumper and a teenager or young adult male at the wheel. It seems the personality type that purchases an ES is more interested in relaxed luxury than extracting the most out of this car’s performance potential, but take note it’s there when required.
The ES 350 doesn’t get the most powerful V6 in Lexus’ lineup, but thanks in part to dual variable valve timing with intelligence (VVT-i) the 24-valve, DOHC, 3.5-liter mill puts out 268 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque resulting in spirited if not breathtaking performance. It’s not exactly a state-of-the-art powerplant, devoid of some newer mechanical tech such as direct injection, while the six-speed automatic with shift lever-actuated manual-mode it’s mated to is similarly old school within a premium sector filled with seven-, eight- and now even nine-speed autoboxes, plus 10- and even 11-speed units reportedly on their way. What’s more, many rivals now come equipped with standard fuel-saving enhancements such as auto start/stop and regenerative braking, which in the case of the ES are only included with the 300h hybrid version.
Such upgrades would likely allow for better efficiency, although the ES 350’s EPA rating is still passable at 21 mpg city, 31 highway and 24 combined, while if you’d rather pay less at the pump and apply a smaller footprint on mother nature it should be noted that the ES 300h is good for a near class-leading 40 city, 39 highway and 40 combined.
Some might snicker at the ES 350’s less than future-think powertrain tech, but it’s hard to knock the car’s reliability or that of Lexus on the whole. In the latest J.D. Power and Associates 2015 Vehicle Dependability Study the ES placed number one in the Compact Premium Car segment (yes, we all know it’s a mid-size car, but try telling that to J.D. Power), while the brand’s CT 200h was third and the brand placed first overall by a very wide margin.
Either ES model is sublime to drive around town, on the highway, and now even on a curving road, where it’s also ultimately comfortable, quiet and suitably luxurious, the perfect car to cruise through busy traffic, take on a road trip, or as mentioned, be driven in. Now that the 2016 ES has been given Lexus’ stylish new duds and had its interior slightly upgraded it should have no problem continuing as a bestseller in the front-drive mid-size luxury class.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press; Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press; Copyright: American Auto Press