It’s no secret that for the past few decades, automakers have been sharing platforms between several vehicles, and even across brands. This newest global platform from Toyota underpins the Camry, Avalon and even the RAV4. This newest iteration, the Lexus ES 350 shares the most lineage with the Toyota Avalon, which is already a nice choice for a large luxury sedan. But for not much more money, you can step up to the Lexus version, and it may just be worth it. Let’s highlight the difference and see.
First of all, just like the Camry and Avalon, power is directed to the front wheels only, and is provided by a 3.5-Liter V6 with, in this case, 302hp. Not sure what Lexus did to squeeze out that extra single horsepower, but more importantly the transmission programming is more direct and sporty. That makes more of a difference in the driving dynamics, making the Lexus feel more willing to accelerate when prompted. Putting that much horsepower through the front wheels on such a large, heavy sedan, can cause problems but is managed well here by the electronic driver aids. When pushed, however, especially under hard acceleration from slower corners, you can definitely tell the front tires are struggling.
The exterior looks are dominated by the ever growing Lexus front grille, in this case measuring an intense 57” diagonally. I know that they are going for a powerful, imposing look, but the dominant feature takes away from the softer, more elegant lines of the rest of the car. In profile, there’s a lot of energy and interest in the sweeping body lines. The result is that in profile this looks like a more reserved, elegant sedan.
On the inside, the materials chosen are also a step up from the Toyota version. Nice leather inserts and softer materials are present, and the dash binnacle is reminiscent of the ‘frankenstein’ design from the excellent LC 500. It also has a the same really cool sliding round LCD display, which moves to the side to display other information beneath. Unfortunately, even though there’s a lot more space in the cluster, the screen isn’t that big. And the trick, slick and motorized screen is surrounded by clunky warning lights telling you which safety systems are on. This is a pet-peeve with many Toyota and Lexus vehicles, as these lights look like they were plucked straight from a 1998 Tercel. Bad design choice, Lexus.
The large center-mounted LCD display unfortunately is marred by a couple of these dated warning lights for the passenger airbag, and by the clunky and hard-to-use control system with a central trackpad. Sounding and feeling more like an arcade game or slot machine, similarly it’s a crap-shoot as to what button you’re going to actually press on screen. Toyota and Lexus need to ditch this system as soon as possible and focus on touchscreen technology. As with all our personal electronics, an intuitive touchscreen is the best interface for these vehicle systems.
Speaking of systems, the Lexus is graced with every sort of active safety feature you can imagine, from lane assist, emergency braking, radar cruise, automatic high beams, blind spot monitors and on and on. All of the systems are adjustable for sensitivity, and work quite well. It’s in stark contrast to the clunky control system and inconsistent displays. However, starting at under $40k, it’s a lot of sedan and a lot of luxury for the money. If you can handle the front-wheel drive dynamics, it’s a great value for a big sedan like this. There are tons of room in the back, and creature comforts back there as well. In fact, this might be the best value for a new car you can use for Uber Black car service. It’s got a luxury feel with an attainable price. Our test vehicle didn’t even push over $50k, which feels like a great value.
With a silky smooth V6 engine and a luxurious and spacious interior, the ES 350 delivers on the promise of what buyers expect from a Lexus luxury sedan. It does so with an accessible price tag and lots of creature comforts. Some misses with design and infotainment system control take away from the overall effect, but for the price it’s hard not to recommend at least giving the ‘little’ big Lexus a look. If you need more, there’s always the LS series!