BEAUTY, INSIDE AND OUT

by Haney Louka . Apr 05 2019

Since its inception, the ES 350 has been the deluxe version of the Camry from Toyota’s luxury brand. So, as the Camry goes, so does the Lexus ES. Thing is, the Camry has come a long way. It used to be so easy to heap criticism on the Camry’s numb steering, flaccid handling and general penalty-box driving experience. The ES, then, was just a cushier version.

Calling the new-for-2019 ES a nicer Camry would no longer be the insult it once was. But it wouldn’t do it justice, either. The ES has fully its own identity, even if under the skin it’s not that different. For the first time, Lexus’s mid-luxe sedan has a presence on the road, and it’s not only because of the comically exaggerated spindle grille. Everything from the sleek profile of its greenhouse to impressive detail in its LED lighting treatments reinforce its premium place in the market. At first glance, it’s easy to confuse the ES with the rear-drive-based GS, a compliment to the new car’s proportions and design details.

That beauty isn’t just skin-deep, either: our tester’s Ultra Luxury package put the ES’s best foot forward. Quality in materials and assembly is evident throughout, and our tester’s two-tone interior and striated wood trim make this a premium cabin indeed. There is a 10-inch heads-up display and 12.3-inch centre display screen that is controlled by Lexus’s Remote Touch interface. As with most such systems, the trackpad diverts too much attention from the driving task at hand. Acura’s new “True Touchpad” system is a step in the right direction, but the approach of requiring the brain to concentrate on operating the touchpad and watching what the pointer is doing on the screen while driving is fundamentally flawed. For now, I haven’t found anything that beats a well-sorted touchscreen interface.

Step into the ES for the first time, and your head just might have an unexpected encounter with the A-pillar on the way down. Thank that sleek roofline for the pleasure, and also for headroom that rear passengers found lacking.

If Lexus wanted to jump on the four-door coupe bandwagon started by the Germans, this would be a good place to start.

The standard powertrain setup includes a direct-injected V-6 that sings to the tune of 302 hp, channelling that power to the front wheels through an eight-speed automatic with paddle shifters. Lexus calls the transmission “Direct Shift,” a term that until now I’ve only known to describe dual-clutch setups, which this is not. The transmission does offer a wider range of conditions where the torque converter is “locked,” which enhances performance and fuel economy, but we’ll chalk that name up to a marketing decision.

The abundant power doesn’t mean much if the car can’t handle, but this one can. It’s built on Toyota’s GA-K platform, which also underpins the Camry, Avalon and RAV4.

I don’t know what magic Lexus engineers achieved, or maybe the company finally realizes that most of its customers don’t mind a firmer ride if it means better control of body motions, but there’s nothing floaty about this new ES.

To say power from the V-6 is plentiful is a bit of an understatement; more than 300 horses being channelled to the front wheels was certainly entertaining during our late-winter test drive. It all happens in silence, though, and the smoothness of the six-pot makes us remember why these are so much better than the turbo-fours powering many rides in this price range.

If there’s one downside to the whole experience, it’s the level of isolation between the driver and the road. Now, I’m not going to go on about how the driver should feel at one with the road in a car like this, but during the cold and slippery week I had the car, it was almost impossible to tell when wheelspin was occurring, aside from the flashing light on the dash telling me the traction control system was getting a workout. No sound from the engine or tires, no feel through the steering wheel or seat of the pants to let me know it was slick out there.

Standard goodies on the $45,000 ES 350 include radar cruise control, lane centring, Apple Carplay, 10-speaker audio, heated and ventilated front seats, power moonroof, LED lights and selectable drive modes.

The $48,800 Premium adds a heated steering wheel, parking sensors, rain-sensing wipers, blind-spot detection and rear cross-traffic alert.

There are several steps in between, including the first application of the F Sport trim to the ES series, but we’re going to jump straight to our tester’s Ultra Luxury package, which carries a $10,700 premium over the Premium. That adds a fantastic 17-speaker Mark Levinson audio system, wireless Qi device charging, a panoramic roof, premium semi-aniline leather, power trunk, bird’s-eye monitor, ambient lighting and a few other goodies.

The ES is unique in that it pushes the envelope for front-drive luxury sedans; the Buick Lacrosse may be its closest competitor. For a sportier approach, there are the Acura TLX and Volvo S60, both of which are available with all-wheel drive, which is likely to be a draw for Canadian customers. And then there’s Toyota’s own Avalon, which overlaps the lower half of the ES lineup in terms of pricing.

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The ES 350’s cabin features a 12.3-inch centre display screen controlled by the Lexus Remote Touch interface.

The ES 350’s cabin features a 12.3-inch centre display screen controlled by the Lexus Remote Touch interface.

Photos by LexusThe Lexus ES 350’s premium place in the market is reinforced by many of its features, from the sleek profile of its greenhouse to the impressive detail of its LED lighting treatments.

Photos by Lexus

The Lexus ES 350’s premium place in the market is reinforced by many of its features, from the sleek profile of its greenhouse to the impressive detail of its LED lighting treatments.