Completely redesigned inside and out for the 2013 model year, the Lexus ES 350 looks to differentiate itself from its predecessors by becoming a much sportier ride.
In order to do this, Toyota made a seriously major change: It replaced its entire platform. Prior to the introduction of this sixth generation ES, the luxury sedan had ridden on the Toyota Camry platform. This current version, however, has been outfitted with the underpinnings currently being used by the new Toyota Avalon -- a car that the Japanese automaker has adamantly maintained is now much more sporty and engaging to drive.
The people at Toyota have their work cut out for them. For years, the ES has taken on a reputation as a comfortable and capable, albeit somewhat boring and uninspiring vehicle. And competing with perennial favorites in the sporty-sedan arena like the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class doesn't make things any easier.
But, interestingly, the big news for the ES is not that it has been engineered with a new platform. It's that the ES now comes in two different forms: The ES 350 and the ES 300h. The ES 350 is outfitted with a conventional naturally aspirated 3.5L V6 engine, while the ES 300h comes with a new hybrid powertrain. After all, gas prices have made fuel economy the name of the game and luxury cars are no longer exempt from having to adhere to this trend.
So can Lexus convince the masses that its entry luxury car -- in both forms -- has departed from its reputation and become a seriously engaging vehicle to drive? And does it deliver the fuel economy that buyers are now demanding? I headed up to Portland, Oregon to find out.
The ES 350 starts at $36,100, not including the $895 destination charge. Opting for the ES 300h hybrid will cost $38,850.
Key Specs (ES 350/ES 300h)
-3.5L V6 engine/2.4L I4 engine
-268 hp, 248 lb-ft torque/200 hp, NA torque
-6-speed automatic transmission/CVT
-19 mpg City, 28 mpg Highway/40 mpg City, 39 mpg Highway
What We Like
Michael: Lexus is known for making some of the best interiors in the industry and the ES 350 continues this tradition. Every time I'm slated to drive a Lexus I get excited because I know that plush leather, soft surfaces, a super quiet ride and a very functional infotainment system await me. ES buyers will get to experience all of these attributes.
I think the Lexus Enform infotainment system is just fantastic. It's functional, informative and easy to use. Sure, it takes a minute to get used to using a joystick instead of a touchscreen, but the reality is that having the control at your fingertips is much, much better than having to constantly lean forward and mash a button. Using the joystick is simply much more intuitive, as the infotainment functions more like the computers we are used to using and actually reduces driver distraction. Instead of re-shifting one's body and actively searching for the button to hit, the driver can stay in the same position and operate the navigation with minimal time spent with their eyes away from the road.
All in all, this is truly a luxury driving experience.
Finally, I'm generally not a big hybrid fan, but the ES 300h is actually quite good – which isn't really surprising considering Toyota makes some of the best hybrid cars in the industry. It's one of the more engaging hybrids that I've driven – not sporty, but engaging. Assuming that it gets the fuel economy numbers that we've heard, this is a great buy for the green-conscious professional.
Autoblog: The engine and power delivery are perhaps the best parts about the whole driving experience, even though the ES weighs in at a full 310 pounds heavier than a Camry SE with the same engine. There's ample grunt off the line – you'll hit 60 miles per hour in 7.1 seconds – and the six-speed automatic is quite the smooth operator. The engine even sounds good when you're winding it up, and despite being geared to achieve maximum efficiency, the automatic 'box isn't afraid to kick down a notch or two for passing.
What We Don't Like
Michael: There's no question that the ES is a much sportier vehicle now. But is it sporty enough to take the buyers that are looking for a ride that gets the blood flowing away from BMW, Mercedes or Infiniti? I think the answer is "no."
The reality is that I just never felt like I was truly at one with this car like I do when I'm driving a 3 Series. The suspension is a little too cushy, the brakes are a little too numb and the steering simply isn't as crisp as I really wanted it to be.
Sure, the ES is fun to drive, but it's definitely not quite there. Considering the hype that we in the industry endured prior to the actual launch of this vehicle, I feel letdown.
Autoblog: That all-important steering feel was our biggest letdown. Lexus has employed an electronic power assisted rack and the steering ratio has been quickened from 16.1:1 to 14.8:1, but all this means is that the steering is no longer completely devoid of any responsiveness whatsoever. On-center feel was completely numb with excessive play in the wheel, and while we did feel a bit of dialed-in feedback in Sport mode, it was a far cry from being even remotely engaging. The steering either feels non-communicative or downright fake. Take your pick.
The 2013 Lexus ES isn't quite a fun-to-drive luxury car. What it is, however, is a capable and comfortable sedan that has, in fact, much improved in its driving dynamics over past generations. Its interior is one of the best in its class and its new, more aggressive is styling sharp and distinctive.
At the end of the day, if a friend or family member wanted me to recommend a luxury car that's a blast to drive, the ES wouldn't make it on my list. But if they did want an affordable, comfortable car to make the commute, I wouldn't hesitate to point them toward this one.
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