Luxury automakers constantly assault you with advertisements, claiming that it's never been easier to nestle into the lap of luxury. With base models offering ridiculously attractive pricing, it all seems rather attainable. But let me tell you -- what you get for that advertised price ain't always exactly luxurious, and it might make more sense to avoid going with a premium badge altogether.
Thus is the conundrum with the 2016 Lexus ES 350, equipped as my review model was, which is to say not terribly well. It represents the least expensive way to pick up any new Lexus sedan, but at $38,000 before taxes and delivery, it's tough to make the value argument when you're staring down non-luxury vehicles that can arrive on your driveway with much of its ride quality and way more luxury and safety options and doo-dads for much less money.
A little refresh
This ES 350 should look a little different from the hundreds of others you've seen on the road since waking up this morning. For 2016, Toyota updated its midsize luxury sedan's exterior with slightly tweaked front and rear fasciae and some new wheel designs. It's a very conservative update for a very conservative car, falling far short of the aggressive styling seen on other new Lexus models, like the NX and RX. In fact, all its sedans are playing catch-up to the crossovers, which is a pretty good metaphor for the state of the auto industry.
Inside, the steering wheel is slimmer and sportier looking, there's a new in-cluster display and there are new "Enter" buttons on either side of the take-it-or-leave-it infotainment system controller. The interior remains on the conservative side of handsome, although harder plastics creep up the lower you look. The cabin leather is comfortable to the touch, and screen-averse buyers will love the panoply of physical switchgear for radio and HVAC controls.
That pesky tech
Lexus' infotainment system is definitely love-it-or-hate-it. Personally, I find the system's method of mouse-like cursor control to be just as easy to use as any touchscreen, although learning how it works can be difficult, as it's not like any other system on the market -- even Toyota's.
Devoid of options as my tester was, I didn't get any connected services that couldn't be utilized through the satellite radio connection. I had weather updates, but otherwise, my technological experience was quite limited. There are two USB ports up front, however, which is a nice touch, although low current means a slow charge on larger, newer phones.
The satellite-radio antenna is the worst of any car I've ever driven, cutting out at random, far away from tree cover or overpasses. Occasionally, it took 30 seconds or so to find a station's signal, and when it did, I got a minute of music followed by more seeking. Over my week with the car, it never worked correctly.
The in-cluster screen works as it does on any other Lexus or Toyota product, placing pertinent info (fuel economy, navigation directions when applicable, audio data) in the driver's line of sight. It's easy to adjust using steering wheel controls, and I found that it cut down on my center-stack screen glancing to a great degree.
Advanced driver-assistance systems are available, just not on my tester. For the curious, you can opt for a low-cost Lexus Safety System+ option, which gives you adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warning, automated emergency braking, lane-departure warning and automatic high beams.
At home on the highway, for the most part
If there's one part of the Lexus experience that stays true no matter the expense spared, it's the ride quality. Lexus has a track record of producing quiet, smooth on-road behavior that's tough for even the Germans to top, and it's no different on the base ES 350.
Thanks to thick glass and a few other factors, the ES 350's interior is damn quiet. There's a bit of wind noise around the A-pillars on the high end of highway speeds, but around town, it earns the "vault-like" trope upon which so many auto writers rely. Suspension tuning is predictably on the soft side, soaking up most bumps without vibrating the driver to pieces or sending booming sounds into the cabin.
The steering actually feels heavier than the last cushy Toyota I drove, a Camry XLE V-6. There's a bit more effort required in the ES, but most people will think it's just fine. You turn the wheel, and the vehicle turns in kind, no strong-arming required.
Its gentle demeanor is in spite of, not thanks to, its powertrain. It uses the same 3.5-liter, 268-horsepower V-6 as the Camry, mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. The combination feels less refined in this car. Perhaps my specific test model was on the tired side, but the transmission was clunky and slow coming out of Park. The engine will pull with a cute little growl, but on the whole, the process of gaining forward momentum feels on the laborious side.
Changing driving modes, of which there are three -- Eco, Normal and Sport -- doesn't do much. Eco neuters the shift strategy, shifting lower and requiring more effort to hustle down the road. Sport barely even makes the throttle sharper. Hell, it barely even raises the shift points compared to Normal. I left it in Normal most of the time, fuel economy be damned.
The EPA estimates for the ES 350 are 21 mpg city and 31 mpg highway. I achieved about that during my few hundred miles behind the wheel in a solid mix of city and highway driving. With a light foot and Eco mode engaged, I was able to see between 32 and 33 mpg on the highway, but no adjustment in driving mode or strategy could push me past 20 or 21 mpg in the city.
Down to brass tacks
There are plenty of things about this car that its target market will like. It looks OK, it gets decent fuel economy, it's comfortable and on the minimalist side of tech appointment. But those also spell the car's undoing when it's compared against other mid-size sedans.
Take the Avalon, for example, the Toyota upon which the ES is closely based. You can get an Avalon in Touring trim for about $1,000 less than the base ES, or about $2,000 more if you opt for the range-topping Limited trim. On top of more generous appointments, the Avalon's interior and exterior are both sharper than the ES, without being too flashy or becoming more difficult for older drivers.
You could also skip Toyota altogether. For example, a fully-loaded Maxima Platinum is about $2,000 more than the ES, or for $1,000 less than the ES, you can pick up a still-very-nice Maxima SL. The Maxima's continuously variable transmission is smoother and more efficient with the right driving style.
In fact, the ES 350 occupies a part of luxury segment that almost doesn't really exist anymore. There are more expensive luxury cars with larger engines and rear-wheel-based drivetrains (Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Hyundai Genesis), which aren't really great for comparison. With the exception of the Genesis, many of those cars start out $10,000 above the ES 350. The days of the mid- to full-size, front-wheel drive sedan are nearing an end.
In a bubble, the ES 350 is a fine car. It's anonymously handsome, it's quiet and it'll swallow up a road trip's worth of luggage and human cargo. If you're dead-set on escaping the "pedestrian" brands, it's fine. But you won't be maximizing bang for your buck. Frankly, when you reach north of $45,000 as you start ticking options boxes, there are so many good cars that it would be hard to recommend the ES 350 at all.