The 2010 Lexus ES 350 may be built on the same platform as the Toyota Camry, but its cabin appointments and ride are pure Lexus. Lacking any sporting character, the ES 350 serves as luxury transportation. In classic Lexus style, it is effortless to drive, with a wheel that turns easily and a smooth-shifting transmission. Wood trim, leather, and soft plastics line the interior.
Its luxury midsize sedan competition includes such cars as the Mercedes-Benz C-class and the Infiniti G37, but the front-wheel-drive ES 350 doesn't meet those cars' level of performance. A more suitable dance partner is the Lincoln MKZ.
The ES has always been a good-looking car, and the 2010 model incorporates an even sleeker exterior that sets it apart from the boring world of midsize sedans. The front of the car flows down towards the ground, and the rear roofline blends into the trunk in an almost-fastback style. A new glass roof allows a sunroof over the front seats and moonroof over the rear.
Having driven many Lexus models, the ES 350 proved entirely unsurprising on the road. A few Lexus models reach into the realm of performance, but all share a common comfort level and a distinct ease of driving. The wheel in the ES 350 turns with little effort, and the brakes and transmission allow for smooth operation.
Driving at slow speeds in the city or freeway speeds on an Interstate, the ES 350 flowed well over rough pavement. Using its conventional suspension, it strikes the right balance between softness and damping out the bumps, making sure no asphalt imperfection leaves a lasting impression in the cabin. There are cars with better rides, but the ES 350 dominates its class.
The six-speed automatic includes an entirely unnecessary Sport mode.
The 3.5-liter V-6 under the hood uses modern variable-valve timing for efficiency, but doesn't push into any new technological ground. Producing 272 horsepower and 254 pound-feet of torque, it contributes to the luxury feel of the ES 350 by supplying easy and quiet acceleration. Likewise, its associated six-speed automatic works in the background, shifting gears so subtly that you would be hard-pressed to guess the car's gear after an hour of driving.
Lexus reports particularly high fuel economy ratings for the ES 350, at 19 mpg city and 27 mpg highway, numbers that many other V-6-powered cars in its segment can't reach. But we didn't hit those highs in our review car, achieving a mere 21 mpg driving around town, on freeways, and a mountain highway.
Speaking of mountain highways, the transmission includes sport and manual modes, along with the standard drive setting. Don't be fooled, as these settings just come with the transmission, and aren't really suited to this particular car. The sport mode is not particularly aggressive, and the ES 350 is far from a sports car. A trip along a winding road in Northern California proved more scenic than exciting.
Mark Levinson sound
Befitting its luxury mission, our ES 350 came equipped with the optional adaptive cruise control, a technology just starting to trickle down from the top luxury segment. Not quite as capable as Mercedes-Benz's system, it won't bring the ES 350 to a full stop, instead turning itself off if speeds drop below about 30 mph. In use, we found it a little disconcerting that when a car cut in front of us, causing the radar to lose its lock, the cruise control let the ES 350 free wheel for a few seconds. In this situation, a discreet amount of braking would be better.
We enjoyed the audio from the Mark Levinson-branded stereo.
Another way Lexus secures its luxury reputation is with Mark Levinson sound systems. In the ES 350, this means 14 speakers and a 300-watt amp with surround-sound processing. In general, we've found Mark Levinson systems to be one of the best you can get in a nonexotic car, in close competition with Lincoln's THX systems.
That said, the system in the ES 350 fell a little short of what we heard in the Lexus GX 460. It is still excellent, but it didn't have quite the depth of that other system. The GX 460 gets more speakers and a more powerful amp, but it also has a much bigger cabin.
The audio system in the ES 350 produces a lot of detail, finding those elements in songs that get buried by lesser systems. It is also well-balanced, with highs that never sound shrill and bass that you can feel in your chest. We preferred listening in surround mode, as it gave the audio a more immersive character and produced better separation.
Our complaints about the ES 350 begin with the iPod integration. With a USB port in the console, we were able to plug an iPhone into the system, and the onscreen interface showed categories for artists, albums, genres, and songs. But when we tried to browse the music library, scrolling down through a list of albums, for example, the stereo immediately started to play whichever album appeared at the top of the list. It is an annoying little problem and something that should be an easy fix for Lexus.
Other audio sources include a six-CD/DVD changer and satellite radio. Although the navigation system is hard-drive-based, Lexus does not let you rip music to the drive.
The navigation system shows the weather forecast, courtesy of satellite radio.
The satellite radio is also the conduit for traffic information, which has become fairly common these days, but it also brings in weather, stock prices, and sports scores, a new feature for Lexus. The stock and sports functions require presetting specific ticker symbols or teams, after which the car will read the latest information if you touch the screen.
How the navigation system makes use of the traffic information is another complaint we have about the car. When first entering a destination, the system looks at the traffic data and routes around any serious problems, but it won't recalculate the route once under way for new traffic problems that emerge. We found this troublesome, especially when the car led us into several stop-and-go traffic situations. The navigation system does give a voice warning about traffic problems that crop up on the route, but there is no detour button.
As for the navigation system's general effectiveness, it works well. The maps are strictly 2D, but they look good. Along with the usual destination options, Lexus now includes its Enform telematics option. At the push of an onscreen button, the car will call up an Enform operator who can look up business addresses or Zagat-rated restaurants, and send the address to the car. You can also find a set of destinations on a PC, save them on the Lexus owners' Web site, and then download them to the car.
Our third major peeve about the ES 350 involves the navigation system's route guidance. When giving voice prompts for upcoming turns, it does not mute or pause the stereo. We spent quite a bit of time testing the stereo at volume, and were not able to hear the turn guidance or traffic alerts.
Interestingly, although Lexus has gone to its new indirect interface controller in the RX and HS models, it still uses a touch-screen in the ES 350.
The Bluetooth phone system is a high point in the ES 350's cabin tech. It not only presents a searchable contact list, downloaded from a paired phone, on the screen, but also lets you dial contacts by saying their names.
Many of the problems we found with the 2010 Lexus ES 350 dealt with the cabin tech interface design, faults which mitigated the exterior design we so liked in our final assessment of the car. The Mark Levinson audio system and Bluetooth phone system were both high points of the cabin tech. We like the navigation system, with its new Enform features, but would prefer richer maps and the ability to detour around bad traffic. The drivetrain tech is pretty average, breaking no new ground, but we do give it credit for producing good fuel economy and that comfortable Lexus ride.
|Model||2010 Lexus ES 350|
|Powertrain||3.5-liter V-6, Six-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||19 mpg city/27 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||21 mpg|
|Navigation||Hard-drive-based navigation with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible six-CD/DVD changer|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||USB drive, Bluetooth streaming audio, satellite radio, auxiliary input|
|Audio system||Mark Levinson 300 watt 14 speaker surround sound system|
|Driver aids||Adaptive cruise control, back-up camera|
|Price as tested||$44,848|