In its equivalent world of breakfast foods, the Lexus ES350 is unquestionably the pancake. While its siblings may offer more interesting textures, flavors and consistencies – a generally more exciting culinary experience – the four-door ES is designed with 'indistinct' as its middle name. Its objective is to please just about every entry-level luxury buyer once it ends up on their plate.
Even after a complete redesign for the 2013 model year, the sixth-generation Lexus ES350 emerges every bit as family-friendly and non-polarizing as its predecessors. It is the everyman's luxury sedan, offering attractive pricing and a satisfying fill of amenities and features with the sweetness of a long warranty and polished customer service to back things up.
As a result of its overall wholesomeness and demeanor, the ES350 sells like hotcakes, too. Last year, 56,158 customers took delivery, thus allowing the five-passenger sedan to continue its reign as the highest sales volume Lexus passenger car (it outsells the bigger LS nearly seven-to-one).
To learn more about the all-new ES, and take our own taste of its goodness, we recently spent a week with the midsize luxury sedan in Southern California.
It is no secret that the Lexus ES has always shared platforms with the Toyota Camry. Even though there is nothing particular amiss with that arrangement – it has served the automaker well for more than two decades – the relationship with Toyota's volume family vehicle has forced the Lexus to consistently assume a soft and gentle demeanor reinforced by its transverse-mounted V6 and front-wheel drive powertrain. For five consecutive generations, the ES has been well accepted as a gussied-up Camry with a stronger guarantee and white-glove dealer treatment.
But things have changed rather significantly for 2013. The automaker has introduced an all-new ES model on a larger platform that's not shared directly with the Camry this time, but built on an extended version shared with the Toyota Avalon. The longer wheelbase (increased about 1.8 inches) pushes out the exterior dimensions only marginally (about an inch in overall length), but it does wonders for interior room and passenger comfort. Lexus says rear headroom is increased by 0.8 inches, knee room is increased by 2.8 inches and second row legroom is lengthened by 4.1 inches. Plus, there is even more space below the front two seats to give rear passengers much-appreciated toe room.
Before diving into the styling and cabin appointments, let's take a look under the hood and at its underpinnings.
The engine is carried over to the new platform with only a few tweaks. The gasoline-only ES350 (Lexus is also offering a hybrid gasoline-electric variant this year) features a naturally aspirated 3.5-liter V6 sending its power to the front wheels through an electronically controlled six-speed automatic transmission. The engine is rated at 268 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 248 pound-feet of torque at 4,700 rpm. It isn't a rocketship, but a 0-60 time of about seven seconds is more than adequate for this segment. Thanks to revised gearing compared to last year's model (a slightly taller final drive), the EPA rates the 2013 Lexus ES350 at 21 mpg city and 31 mpg highway on regular unleaded fuel. That's an improvement of about 10 percent over its predecessor.
A 0-60 time of about seven seconds is more than adequate for this segment.
The suspension is comprised of MacPherson struts up front and dual-link MacPherson struts in the rear, while the level of damping is fixed. The steering is traditional rack-and-pinion, now with electric assist, and there are disc brakes at all four corners. Standard wheels are 17-inch alloys, but our test model was fitted with optional 18-inch wheels wrapped in 225/45VR18 Michelin Primacy MXM4 all-season tires. The curb weight of the ES350 is 3,549 pounds, with 61-percent of its mass over the front wheels.
Last year's ES350 looks lifeless when compared side-by-side to this year's all-new sedan. Sculpted with an aggressive, almost sporty appearance, the new ES has adopted the brand's signature spindle grille up front. Overall, the presentation is good... but therein lays a problem. Unfortunately, and we pointed this out in our first drive, it looks far too much like the GS sedan – even we would be hard-pressed to tell the two apart at a distance (a spotter's guide says the front headlights of the GS are slightly more angular and the ES is missing the GS's front lower fascia brake intakes).
Unfortunately, it looks far too much like the GS sedan.
Our test model, wearing Deep Sea Mica paint over Parchment leather with Espresso Bird's Eye Maple wood trim, started with a base price of $36,100. Lexus had packed on its Ultra Luxury package (for another $11,180) that included just about every amenity and convenience known to the automotive industry. The comprehensive list included upgraded semi-aniline perforated leather, blind spot monitor, panorama moonroof, manual rear door window sunshades, Mark Levinson premium audio, Pre-Collision System (PCS) with Dynamic Radar cruise control, power trunk, heated steering wheel and more. With the $895 delivery fee included, our bottom line came in at $48,175.
Inside the cabin, the ES also seems to mimic the GS theme. But this time, thankfully, it isn't straight plagiarism. While both have a modern angular appearance, the ES appears to be warmer and more inviting, with artfully crafted wood trim splashed strategically throughout. In terms of ergonomics, we prefer the mildly more traditional ES over the GS, as its controls are more familiar (more legible display on the climate controls) and more logical (a small wheel controls seat heating/cooling), though both the GS and ES seem to share the same basic three-spoke steering wheel (although the ES lacks paddle shifters).
Overall, the passenger compartment is very comfortable. The driver and front seat occupant enjoy 10-way power-adjustable climate-controlled seats, and rear occupants will be pleased with generous legroom – everyone we toted around raved about ingress/egress, outward visibility and overall comfort (most also liked the glare-reducing manual sunshades on the doors, but kids preferred them down so they could see out). Physical appearance aside, the increased rear legroom is the most pronounced improvement on the 2013 model.
Increased rear leg room is the most pronounced improvement on the 2013 model.
Despite its GS-like appearance, the ES350 is still the softy of the Lexus sedan family. Its mission is to provide a comfortable ride, and no amount of flogging is going to change its mind. The brakes are fine, as long as they are not overworked, and the steering is communicative, as long as one is not seeking road feel. Overall, the sedan is very comfortable – yet there is an obvious absence of driving engagement.
To spice things up ever so slightly, the automaker has fitted its new ES350 with a Drive Mode Select feature. The system primarily alters the electronically controlled transmission, throttle mapping and climate control systems for its three modes: Normal, Eco and Sport. Consider Normal mode, the default setting, as baseline. Sport mode will quicken the throttle response (but doesn't deliver any more power) and hold the engine longer in gear, while Eco mode does just the opposite. Even though playing around with the settings was entertaining, we left everything in Normal configuration and were most content.
Despite all of the drive-enhancing improvements, don't get the impression that the ES350 has suddenly been transformed into a track rat – the luxury tuned sedan still much prefers cruising from Los Angeles to San Francisco on mellow US 101 than taking the more challenging Highway 1.
We test a fleet of vehicles each year, and nearly all have some standout quality, benchmark or idiosyncrasy that burns a memory in our conscience – the ES350 is one of the few that doesn't. Not to say it is vanilla in execution, as that is not the case. Rather, it is another one of the many attempts by Lexus to remove the driver from the annoyances and inconveniences of driving. That isn't a flaw, it is a programmed characteristic. The bottom line is that this completely redesigned luxury sedan is better than its predecessor in just about every measurement, but it is also every bit as indistinguishable.