This isn’t my first encounter with the Lexus ES. Last year, I tested the 2015 ES300h hybrid, and admittedly I wasn’t too kind to it. Now, it’s time to review the gas-only 2016 Lexus ES350. The question is, how much of a difference does an engine make?
Outside, the non-hybrid is really not any different than the hybrid, although the ES did get a slight facelift for 2016, with an updated front fascia and LED headlights. The ES is based on the Toyota Avalon, and although the two cars are extraordinarily similar, the ES350 is definitely the looker of the family.
Although it has been criticized for being bland, the ES350 could be better described as simple, elegant and tasteful. It might not be flashy or ostentatious, but it doesn’t need to be. It doesn’t need creases, bulges, plunging character lines or any other gimmicks that other companies – even Lexus themselves – try to pass off as style. It may not be striking and turn heads like a Jaguar, but like I said last year, the ES’s beauty reveals itself slowly, over time. The Camry heritage does show through, especially in the rear taillights, but the Camry is a good looking sedan, too, so it doesn’t detract from the overall styling.
The workmanship is flawless. Panel gaps are tight and consistent. The paint is inches deep, and is a rich, metallic blue that Lexus calls Nightfall Mica. This is the third Toyota product I’ve tested that was painted in some shade of blue, and I have to say, Toyota does blue really well. I said that last year’s silver car looked like “liquid metal,” and although the blue paint doesn’t give the same look, it does have the same level of quality that makes it look like the panels aren’t painted blue, but are actually blue all the way through.
It’s the kind of car that you keep looking back at once you get out of it and that you enjoy looking at as you walk toward it. The ES350 is a very pretty car.
The interior, however, is still compromised. Since it’s never a good idea to waste resources, I reposted the photo of the Avalon interior versus the ES interior I used for the hybrid review, because the same complaints remain. Lexus chose style over functionality with the ES. Instead of the logically placed touch screen, the large cell phone cubby with optional Qi charger, and large, accessible cupholders like in the Avalon, the ES has a recessed, non-touch screen, two small cupholders with retractable lids, and the Remote Touch controller.
About that controller. First off, it takes up too much space, with most of that space taken up by the leather-covered wrist rest. The second is that the tactile joystick, which changes its layout based on what’s on the screen, is not easy to use and it’s not very accurate. Skip the Remote Touch, though, and you get a more conventional rotary dial, but the housing is about the same size so you don’t get any console real estate back.
However, after spending another week in an ES, I think I’m starting to get it. The Avalon and the ES are targeted at different groups. The clientele that Lexus is trying to reach with the ES is more, shall we say, refined. They don’t care about having a place for both their grande latte and their BPA-free water bottle while wirelessly charging their smartphone. That’s what the Avalon is for – Toyota designed the latest generation Avalon to target 40-something professionals, although whether they succeeded is another matter. The ES is not designed for them, it’s designed for those who value style, luxury, and image.
One thing the ES has going for it is that, because the interior was designed with style over substance, it is rather stylish. With all the standard wood and leather combinations, plus the optional wood grains on top of that, a buyer can personalize the interior of their ES more than an Avalon buyer. The word “bespoke” gets thrown around a lot in luxury car circles, but the ES can almost be called that, which is a pretty big accomplishment for a mass-produced luxury car.
The infotainment system is typical Toyota, meaning it works well and is intuitive but it looks like the interface and software are due for a serious upgrade. It might be called Enform instead of Entune, and some of the menus may look a little different, but it’s obviously the same system with a few cosmetic tweaks. Hopefully Toyota is hard at work on a replacement, one that includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
The ES350 is powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 268 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque. It is so much better of a powerplant than the hybrid that it transforms the ES into a completely different car. The V-6 is sweet, motivating the large sedan with authority. Lexus claims a 0-60 time of 7.1 seconds, but I’ve seen other tests on the Internet that show a much faster time. Whatever it is, it felt surprisingly quick and didn’t fail to put a smile on my face every time I mashed the throttle.
Let’s take a moment to show some respect to the 2GR-FE V-6 engine. Sure, Toyota puts it in almost everything, but it’s a great little engine. Chances are it won’t last into the next generation, as it will invariably be replaced with a smaller-displacement turbocharged engine for sake of fuel efficiency, so this may be one of the last chances to get an ES powered by this venerable engine.
The engine’s motive power is sent to the front wheels through an excellent six-speed automatic. It proves that transmissions don’t need any more than six gears to be flexible and efficient. It shifts smoothly and effortlessly and complements the V-6’s torque curve.
Ride and Handling
The ES has always been skewed to the luxury side of the ride/handling compromise, and as such it’s not really targeted to driving enthusiasts. However, I’m a driving enthusiast, and I very much enjoyed driving the ES. It might not be high strung or stiffly sprung as to feel every dimple in the road, but it’s still fun to drive in its own way. Sometimes it’s nice to drive a relaxing car, especially after a long day at work.
The ES does have a sport mode, and it does change the demeanor of the car somewhat. The steering, which is usually fingertip-light, tightens up a bit with more effort. Sport mode also stops the “eco” setting from kicking on and it also holds gears a little longer. It doesn’t turn the ES into a BMW, but it adds just a little bit of sportiness for those who want it. The steering is much like the steering in the Camry, which is to say it’s accurate but not as communicative as it could be.
Ride is stellar, however. It soaks up bumps and expansion joints with nary a hiccup. It is a fantastic road trip car as it could burn highway miles without breaking a sweat. Extensive sound deadening adds to the serenity of the ES’s cabin.
Since the ES is based on the long-wheelbase Avalon, interior space is prodigious. Front seat head, leg and shoulder room can accommodate the largest Americans. The back seat is big enough that the ES could perform limousine duty. If room equals luxury, then the ES is one of the most luxurious cars in its price range.
The trunk is comparatively enormous. I took it on a large shopping trip and I was amazed at how much stuff I was able to put back there, including two large bags of dog food, two Sam’s Club-sized packs of paper products, and a week’s worth of groceries. And I still had room. This is one area where the non-hybrid shines over the hybrid. In the hybrid, part of the trunk was taken up by the battery pack, and it also took away the folding seat and the pass-through. The gas-only ES has all of that, so on the utility scale, it doesn’t get much better.
Obviously, the non-hybrid ES350 is not going to get as good of gas mileage as the hybrid, but it’s not bad. The ES350 is rated at 21 mpg city, 31 mpg highway, and 24 combined, but I managed to get 25.5 mpg in mixed, mostly city driving. And I wasn’t light on the throttle, either.
The hybrid I tested last year was rated at 40 mpg city, 39 mpg highway and 40 combined, but I got 32.9 mpg. It follows the pattern that seems to happen to me with every test car – I tend to meet or exceed the combined rating in gas-only cars, but I don’t come anywhere near the combined rating in hybrids.
Competition and Value
The base price of the ES350 is an even $38,000 before destination, but the test car had enough luxury options to push the price to $49,160 including $940 destination. The biggest contributor to that jump is the $3,500 Ultra Luxury package, which adds the wood interior, power memory seats for the driver and passenger, a power steering wheel, among others. Other big-buck options include the $2,650 navigation and Mark Levinson surround-sound system and the $1,015 Lexus Safety System + package. Go light on the options list, and you can get a well-equipped ES in the low $40s.
The ES model straddles the line between the entry-level IS and the mid-size GS. Its price is closer to the IS, but it has mid-size proportions, so from that perspective, it provides a lot of value. The IS and GS have front-engine/rear-drive architectures, so they are targeted at a different type of buyer. The front-drive ES is targeted at those who value luxury and interior space over handling and performance.
However, it still loses out on value to its sister, the Avalon, as it does exactly what the ES does for less money. It also has the more functional interior, although the ES is the prettier sister. The Lexus, though, has more prestige, and although I’m loath to admit it, it’s a reason why people buy Lexus over Toyota.
As far as other competition, the fact that the ES does straddle the line between entry- and mid-level luxury cars means that it doesn’t compete very well in either class. Compared to other mid-level luxury cars, it definitely provides value, but it’s not quite up to the standards of performance or luxury of class leaders like the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, the BMW 5-Series and the Audi A6.
Compared to entry-level luxury cars like the Mercedes-Benz C-Class or the BMW 3-Series, it also falls short, although it provides more interior space and, for lack of a better term, more bang for the buck.
It really is an odd duck – the IS is a better competitor in the entry-level class, and the GS is a better competitor in the mid-level class. However, the ES is a lot of car for the money, and it makes sense for those who are looking for the things the ES offers. Not checking the hybrid box on the options list makes it an even better value.
- Buy It,
- Lease It,
- Rent It,
- or Forget It,
The 2016 Lexus ES350 gets a Lease It!
The ES350 is a car that provides mid-level luxury car room at an entry-level luxury car price. It may not compete well in each category, but it does offer what cars in either class don’t, which are either entry-level priced or have mid-level interior space. Granted, so does the Toyota Avalon, but that car doesn’t have the prestige of the Lexus badge.
The ES350 is a good car. During my time with it, I found myself finding excuses to drive it, which only happens with the cars I like the best. It exudes an air of quiet competence that I’ve not felt since testing the Mercedes-Benz C300, so that’s one thing Lexus – and Toyota – got right. They managed to create a luxury brand and then back it up with actual luxury feel.
The numbers may point to a Lease It rating, but I wouldn’t mind spending my own money on it, if I had enough to cover the cost of entry. The V-6 really does transform the ES into a car worth owning. A lot of people must agree, too, because it’s Lexus’ best-selling car and second-best-selling vehicle after the RX crossover. It’s also outselling the Avalon by 6,000 sales.