2011 Lexus ES 350 Expert Review:Autoblog
The entry-level luxury sedan segment doesn't command the enthusiast attention of, say, the ultra-premium luxury sports sedan. But if you ask automakers to choose between the two, we'd wager that most would rather have a best-in-class $35,000 sedan than a world-beating $70,000 sports tourer.
The reason? Very few fortunes are made selling a few thousand highfalutin' rocket launchers, but bottom lines can easily be bolstered or crippled based on the success or failure of a plush, high-volume cruiser. Luxury marques from Acura to Volvo have experienced varied levels of success at the low end of the luxury market, but few have enjoyed the consistent sales dominance of the Lexus ES. In the past decade, Toyota has cranked out over 600,000 copies in the U.S. alone, with another 650,000 units shipped around the world. And those sales have traditionally been overwhelmingly of the retail variety with little or no incentives. Not bad for what many consider a glorified Toyota Camry.
Enthusiasts take note: Lexus didn't reach such lofty sales levels with a rear-wheel-drive architecture or pavement-punishing quantities of horsepower. The road map to success for the ES has been simple: a soft, compliant ride; a pampering interior; and unmatched quality. The fifth-generation ES350 has built nicely on those attributes with smoother power, a quieter cabin and more technology. But the competition is still striving to overtake the ES in sales, so Lexus has gone and given its top-selling sedan a mid-cycle refresh for 2010. We spent a week in a Starfire Pearl ES350 to see if it still had the goods to remain a top option in the entry-level luxury segment.
Photos by Chris Shunk / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.
For 2010, Lexus has given the ES a bit of a rework, with a redesigned grille and lower bumper, new taillights and chrome-trimmed side moldings. On the inside, the ES received a raft of fresh standard features ranging from rain-sensing windshield wipers to rear seat-mounted side-impact airbags. On the technology front, the ES benefits from the same navigation system that resides in the dash of the new Lexus RX with upgraded VoiceBox speech recognition and Bluetooth streaming audio. These obviously aren't game-changing updates, but they're necessary to keep pace in one of the industry's most hotly contested segments.
The ES' mild exterior refresh has done little to alter our tester's overall cosmetics, but the new front fascia and taillights further differentiate the ES from the meat-and-potatoes Toyota Camry. And while the design of the ES doesn't often mingle with the words "groundbreaking," "stunning" or even "sleek," we'd counter with the claim that this sedan has somewhat successfully captured the understated elegance that many Americans look for in a entry-level premium vehicle.
The real barometer for success resides on the inside, where the ES has earned a solid reputation for its high-end luxury look and feel. Leather seating surfaces are buttery smooth and the touch points on the doors, center armrest and steering wheel are among the best you'll find in the $35,000 to $45,000 price range. The best materials were reserved for the door handles, as the supple, cushy pieces would be right at home in a Bentley or Maybach. Seats are supportive as well, and our tester arrived with heated and cooled throne to counter harsh weather during any of the four seasons, along with extended thigh support for the long-legged among us. The ES is whisper-quiet, too; a staple trait of nearly all Lexus products. That's good news unless you've got screaming children in the back seat – perhaps unlikely if you're an ES buyer. If that's the case, however, we recommend opening a window or cranking up the stereo.
Our tester rang in at $42,187 and came equipped with plenty of top-level amenities. Among the option boxes checked were navigation with backup camera ($2,465) and an ultra luxury package ($3,535), which includes a panoramic glass roof, 10-spoke 17-inch Liquid Graphite Finish alloy wheels, upgraded leather with double stitching and High Intensity Discharge headlamps. Those extras made the ES far more enjoyable on a daily basis without breaking the bank like some luxury add-on packages you'd find from the Lexus' competitors. On the down side, Lexus' new navigation system still doesn't match up to the best the market has to offer, though it is relatively easy to find one's way around its menus.
But while the ES still has a very nice interior, it's one area where this Lexus is beginning to show its age. For example, while the matte black dash still looks nice, its rubbery texture and limited give doesn't measure up to up-and-comers like the Buick LaCrosse or established competitors like the Acura TL.
The ES interior is under attack by an increasing number of competitors, but when it comes to driving, few can duplicate this sedan's supple ride. That's partly because most automakers wouldn't dare to tune their ride to "smooth as glass" mode, instead angling for more agile handling. Those marques are hoping to appeal to the under 60 crowd, but Lexus is smartly sticking to the formula that has made the ES a top seller. Don't get us wrong, though, we're not saying that this sedan has no skills. In fact, the ES has little issue dropping the accelerator to pass a portly crossover or SUV in the left lane, and not all luxury sedan buyers are looking for a BMW 3 Series beater. Unlike many well-mannered European sports sedans, the Lexus' steering is on the whipped cream side of light and doesn't have a ton of feel. On the other hand, braking is solid with adequate pedal feel. What the ES excels at is getting you to your destination in optimal comfort and with few disruptions from lousy roads. In other words, the ES is a cruiser with enough luxury and style to transport and pamper at the same time.
Any good cruiser needs a strong powertrain to provide effortless acceleration, and our tester's 3.5-liter V6 with 272-horsepower and 252 pound-feet of torque definitely fits the bill. Lexus claims a trip from zero to 60 mph takes all of 6.8 seconds, which is more than enough pull for the typical ES buyer. We have no doubt that this number is authentic, but it just never feels like you're hitting 60 that quickly. That's a good thing, though, considering the type of car buyer who tends to opt for an ES. The EPA tells us that driving the ES around town will net you about 18 miles per gallon, while highway driving will bring you up to 27 mpg. We actually scored on the high side here, with a combined 24 mpg, putting ES efficiency toward the top of the premium mid-size fuel-sipping spectrum.
Though performance-oriented luxury sleds usually get the most press, we can see why scads of upmarket sedan shoppers like the ES. Our tester proved to be a competent 'fix it and forget it' daily commuter with enough of the technology and luxury amenities that customers want. But while the ES is a very good vehicle, there are some blemishes in its armor. For starters, perusing Edmunds' sales data suggests that on average, customers pay about $4,000 under MSRP. That's not very Lexus-like, and it's perhaps indicative of the car's advancing age, refresh or no. Further, the Buick LaCrosse, the vehicle most often compared to the ES thanks to some pointed marketing by General Motors, has outsold its L-badged adversary every month in 2010 while accomplishing this feat with an average transaction price that's within $1,000 of a comparably equipped ES. The ES also failed to score a top-three slot in the 2010 J.D. Power Initial Quality Study, losing some of its once-unassailable quality luster by finishing behind the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Acura TL and Cadillac CTS.
We still see the ES as a competent competitor in the lazy lux segment, but it's also clear that this Lexus is no longer the cream of the crop. Its cabin isn't a class leader, its exterior styling is getting stale and perceived quality has ebbed. Lucky for Lexus, though, there are still plenty of loyal ES fans that love their squishy sedans and coddling dealers. But with a recent high-profile shift in public perception, Lexus can't afford to let the ES rest on its laurels for much longer.
Photos by Chris Shunk / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.
New Car Test Drive
Smooth luxury sedan easy to live with.
The Lexus ES 350 is smooth, quiet, sophisticated, competent, and comfortable. It doesn't have the firm ride or quick responses of a German sports sedan, so you can safely sip a cappuccino on the way to work. The ride is smooth and even, the engine is velvety and powerful, the 6-speed automatic transmission is flawless, the comfort is supreme, the trip is quiet, everything works the way it's supposed to, the total experience is superb.
The ES 350 is quick and responsive, benefiting from a silky V6 engine that makes 268 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque. Lexus says the ES 350 can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 7.0 seconds, a solid performance. The ES 350 uses front-wheel drive.
Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 19/27 mpg City/Highway. Regular gas (87 octane) is recommended by Lexus for 2011 whereas previously Premium was recommended. The change reduces power slightly, horsepower by about 1.5 percent, torque by about 2 percent. The ES 350 is certified to the Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle II, or ULEV II, standard.
There are no significant changes for 2011. For 2010, there were substantial changes, including revised styling, a revised interior, and technology upgrades. The ES was last redesigned for the 2007 model year.
The 2011 Lexus ES 350 ($35,525) comes with leather seating surfaces and trim, 10-way power front seats; power tilt-and-telescope steering wheel; dual-zone automatic climate control; power glass sunroof; eight-speaker AM/FM/6CD, XM Satellite Radio, and MP3/iPod input jack; programmable SmartAccess keyless entry; and all the other amenities one would expect. Tires are P215/55R17 all-season radials on 17-inch split five-spoke alloy wheels.
Option packages: The Lexus Premium Audio with Navigation ($2,465) includes Bluetooth, HDD Navigation with touch-screen, rear-view camera, Lexus Enform with Destination Assist, eDestination and Safety Connect, Lexus Insider, voice command casual language recognition, XM NavTraffic and NavWeather, and XM Sports/Stocks. The Navigation System/Mark Levinson Audio Package ($4,065) includes all the features of the Premium Audio with Navigation, and adds Mark Levinson Premium Surround Sound Audio with DVD Audio/Video, 14 speakers, and 5.1-channel playback.
The Ultra-Luxury Package ($3,535) includes 10-spoke alloy wheels, black and saddle interior with double-contrast stitching for seats and trim, High Intensity Discharge headlamps with Adaptive Front Lighting, a panorama glass roof, power rear sunshade, semi-aniline interior, and wood and leather-trimmed steering wheel and shift knob.
Other options include wood and leather shift knob ($330), heated and ventilated front seats ($640), Intuitive Park Assist ($500), High Intensity Discharge headlamps ($815), and the Lexus Pre-Collision System ($1,500). Additional options and accessories are available.
Safety features that come standard on the ES 350 include dual front airbags, dual front knee airbags, front and rear side-impact airbags (for torso protection), curtain airbags (for head protection), electronic stability control, traction control, antilock brakes (ABS), electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), brake assist, and a tire-pressure monitor. A two-chamber passenger airbag is designed to stop the passenger's upper body and torso with minimal facial contact and neck stress on deployment. The optional Pre-Collision System includes a radar-based cruise control that automatically maintains a preset distance between the ES 350 and the car ahead. If the system senses an imminent collision, it retracts all the outboard seatbelts and initializes the brake system for full panic-braking power.
The ES 350 form seems to emanate from the grille and flow back over the car in unbroken lines. The look includes a wind-tunnel-proven drag coefficient of just 0.28, making the ES 350 inherently quiet and fuel-efficient.
The 2010 revisions enhanced the image of sleek, elegant, luxurious, and very well detailed. There's quite a bit of sculpting of metal going on along the sides, lending a lot of visual interest without making it seem overly detailed or finicky. It has the look of a high-end car.
Over time, the ES 350 has grown to where it is now a full-fledged luxury sedan, both in size and content. And it has an upscale look that is entirely appropriate for its market segment. Part of this is helped by its relatively long wheelbase, which adds to its impressive stance.
About the only exterior customizing you can do other than paint and wheels is a choice of forward lighting, from standard projector beam to optional High Intensity Discharge headlamps with an adaptive lighting function, which swings the headlamps through an arc of up to 15 degrees when turning. There are 10 exterior colors from which to choose, from fairly subdued tones to a quite bright red, which makes the ES 350 really stand out.
The Lexus ES 350 is roomy and comfortable, with ample headroom and legroom for both front and rear-seat passengers. Furthermore, its rear floor is flat and has plenty of room for feet under the backs of the front seats.
The interior of the ES 350 is superb, with good sightlines, hooded instruments and crisp graphics, 10-way power seats and standard tilt/telescope steering wheel. Fit and finish inside are exemplary.
The real wood trim is from a matched set that is serial-numbered for future replacement, if necessary. The thick, fat steering wheel is a pleasure to use. Interior wood trim is bird's-eye maple with black or gray leather, brown walnut with parchment leather.
The instrument panel and center stack are driver-centered, engaging and functional. The instruments are deeply tunneled, using white LED lighting and the Optitron electroluminescent displays that are part of all Lexus models, with their eye-pleasing startup routine. The trip computer monitors a dozen functions. The ES features push-button engine starting and the SmartAccess key fob.
2010 interior enhancements added more storage, new steering-wheel controls, and increased ease of use of various functions.
With 14.8 cubic feet of cargo space, there is enough room for a reasonable amount of luggage.
The ES 350 is well insulated; at cruising speeds, it's extremely quiet, in part due to its acoustic-control laminated windshield.
The Lexus ES 350 engine is silky smooth and comes paired with a 6-speed automatic. The 3.5-liter V6 is an all-aluminum, double overhead-cam engine with all the latest technologies.
Step on the gas pedal and the ES 350 is quick to respond. The engine is as smooth and quiet as you would expect, and the transmission operation is flawless, in automatic or manual mode, downshifting or upshifting. The engine and transmission are isolation-mounted with an electro-hydraulic system to cancel vibration at idle. Even with 2011's slight reduction in peak power due to the use of Regular gas instead of Premium, Lexus quotes a 0 to 60 mph time of 7.0 seconds, which we consider brisk performance and competitive in the segment.
Traction control and electronic stability control add to the driver's confidence. The front struts and multi-link rear suspension are both very well isolated from the rest of the car, making for a quiet, smooth ride, with good control of pitch and body roll during enthusiastic driving. We'd like a little more steering feel in corners and on the highway, but otherwise the speed-related power steering is good and solid.
The brakes are average in size for this class, but we saw no sign of brake fade after a hard workout. The ABS, traction control, and electronic stability control are programmed to intervene early to keep the car going in the intended direction.
A new brake override system was added in mid-2010, called Smart Stop, which automatically reduces engine power when the brake pedal and the accelerator pedal are applied simultaneously under certain driving conditions.
The Lexus ES 350 is smooth and quiet and comfortable. It's an easy car to live with and comes loaded with luxury and convenience features. We think it's a good choice among luxury sedans when comfort and ride quality are priorities.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Jim McCraw filed this report.
Lexus ES 350 ($35,525).
Options As Tested
Lexus ES 350 ($35,525).
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