Since its inception, Lexus has catered to two distinctly different customers with its entry-luxury sedans. On one hand, there’s the anti-Lexus: the IS Series. Lean, svelte and distinctly sporty, the IS makes very little concession to luxury and makes sure the driver is entertained and engaged when in motion.
And then there’s the ES. With its “elegant sedan”, Lexus hopes buyers view this as a budget version of its flagship LS sedan, and would rather not have folks draw similarities to the Toyota Avalon with which it shares its platform.
Toyota’s luxury brand would also prefer if the ES were regarded as a showcase of Lexus technology, but I would argue that it’s just the opposite — and this is not intended as a knock: those looking for traditional luxury in a mid-size sedan will likely find it in the ES.
Freshened for 2016, the ES 350 gains a higher level of family resemblance with its Lexus showroom neighbours by way of a bolder version of the brand’s signature “spindle” grille and LED light clusters, front and rear. And with the exception of a bit of embellishment in the front end, the subtly massaged styling of the ES is successful and should please existing customers.
While it does share its dirty bits with lesser Toyota models, there are meaningful differences that solidify the ES’s position as a more luxurious option.
Our tester’s Matador Red Mica paint was striking and possessed a depth no Toyota can match. Similarly, the stitched two-tone interior, which is primarily a light tan for the upholstery, lower dash, and doors, and dark brown for the upper dash, seat backs, and accents throughout, sets the Lexus apart. I like the overall look, but the fair-skinned hide in our 6,500-km-young tester was already showing evidence of the numerous blue jeans that have occupied the driver’s seat.
Powering the ES 350 is a carryover 268 horsepower 3.5-litre V-6. This is one of those rare occasions where the model designation bears some resemblance to engine displacement. And it is also a nod to the car’s role as the traditionalist in the Lexus lineup. A six-speed automatic and front-wheel drive seal the deal in that regard — no surprises of turbocharging, direct injection, torque-vectoring, or even automatic start-stop are hiding under the skin. As a result, this big six won’t win any specific output contests with only 76 hp per litre.
And the truth is, it works just fine. With a mill as smooth, torquey and refined as this one under the hood, it doesn’t matter that the slushbox has but six forward gears transferring power. Fewer gears means fewer shifts and a smoother experience — and that is possible when the engine is as flexible as this one. Thanks in large part to the broad torque curve that peaks at 248 pound-feet at 4,700 r.p.m.
All of this makes for a serene driving experience with plenty of power on tap when called upon. In town, at this time of year, that power can seem excessive. But thanks to the various drive modes — normal, sport, and eco — the eco mode is designed to minimize fuel consumption by retarding throttle response, upshifting early, and generally reducing torque to the front wheels. And those traits just happen to be useful when the going gets slick. Most of the time, though, I twisted the drive mode dial to the right for the more responsive sport mode as soon as I started the car.
Thankfully, our tester was shod with Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires so this front driver had no problems navigating the snowy streets in and around Winnipeg. And on the open road, that plentiful passing power was very useful indeed on the twisty two-lane section of Highway 1 just east of the Manitoba/Ontario border into Kenora. For me, power is part of the luxury equation and I have little tolerance for vehicles claiming some type of luxury but having trouble getting out of their own way.
The other part of the luxury equation, of course, is ride quality, and the ES has that pillowy softness some folks are looking for.
And all this is achieved with fuel consumption ratings of 11.4 litres per 100 kilomtres in the city and 7.6 highway. My own consumption under mixed conditions yielded a respectable average in the mid-nines.
All of this is not to say the ES 350 is devoid of modern technology, because when it comes to the latest in driver aids there are options aplenty, although more of these should be included in the ES 350’s $41,600 base price.
Spring the extra $4,700 for the Touring package and you’ll get a backup camera (that’s right, it’s not standard), a blind-spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert, and rain-sensing wipers. Our Touring tester was also equipped with a power rear sunshade, navigation, remote touch interface, a heated steering wheel, leather on the seats (as opposed to the standard NuLuxe leatherette), and a unique striated “Shimamoku” wood trim.
The navigation screen is set deep into the upper dash which helps reduce glare but precludes the use of a touch screen. Lexus has gone to its remote touch interface to handle user operation. It’s like a small mouse controller for a pointer that incorporates haptic feedback to provide detents specific to the active screen.
There are hard buttons for the climate system and an honest-to-goodness power/volume knob for audio operation, so commonly used functions have the preferred redundant controls.
The Lexus ES presents buyers with a more tailored approach than either the Toyota Avalon or Camry can offer. A loaded Camry may be 85 per cent of the starting price for an ES, but that premium provides value for those looking for a step up. The Avalon’s pricing is closer to the ES and offers the same stretched wheelbase, but it’s a cushier car that tends toward the traditional full-size sedan buyer.