Oh, the slippery slope of “entry-level” luxury. While there is seemingly no limit to how much luxury can be added, modesty does not come easy to the more expensive automobiles. Especially now when some view over indulgent cars as the automotive equivalent of the scarlet letter. Why pay for an entry-level Lexus if it is trumped by a fully-optioned Toyota? The 2009 Lexus ES 350 puts that argument to rest.
If you are looking for a sports sedan, or even just a sporty sedan, you’d be better served looking elsewhere. Lexus has proven that they can build fast and capable performance vehicles, but the ES 350 is not it. Which is not to say that it is a bad performing car, far from it. It is apparent though that Lexus took great pains to make this car easy, and not exhilarating to drive.
At it’s heart, the ES 350 employs a 3.5-liter V-6 that drives the front wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission. Toyota engines are about as bullet proof as they come and this one is no different, turning out a solid 272 horsepower and 254 pounds-feet of torque. The transmission comes with a clutchless-manual mode that is largely unnecessary. While no one who has driven this car returns with complaints of power, they backhandedly summarize its performance as at best, “smooth” and in most cases boring. That’s what happens when you have engineered a car that almost completely divorces the driver from the stresses of noise and discomfort that comes with everyday driving. As Car and Driver simply concluded, the ES is “the automotive antidote to stress and road rage.” While a track-worthy sedan it is not, the ES 350 so effortlessly putters along that approaching triple digits is as relaxing as 30 mph. A careful watch on the speedometer is probably prudent.
Speaking of speed, the ES 350 hits 60 mph from 0 in a lithe 6.4 seconds. Via an electronically controlled sequential fuel injection, an optimal fuel mixture level creates a precise burn, higher output and lower emissions that is a substantial improvement over the previous generation engine.
As would be expected, the ride and handling are truly luxurious but not akin to competitors named 3-Series or A4. Let’s call it mature. While those two examples may feel the need to stretch their legs on some winding road to the beach, the ES 350 feels at home with a trip to the Symphony. In less poetic terms, it is front-wheel drive and with a distinct bias towards ride and not handling quality, the BMW and Audi seem in a different class. Additionally, the steering filters out most road feel. The suspension is of the four-wheel independent MacPherson strut-type that also comes with a speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion steering assembly, as well as stability and traction control systems. In addition to all-disc anti-lock brakes, other safety features predictably include driver and front-passenger knee airbags, side curtain airbags, side-impact airbags for the front seats, available rear side-impact airbags and Lexus’ Pre-Collision System. Also available is an Adaptive Front Lighting System that allows the headlights to swivel when rounding curves.
The improvements in engine technology has a nice result when it comes to fuel efficiency. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the ES delivers 19 miles per gallon in the city and 27 on the highway. Not a bad result given the substantial feel and size of the car.
Of all of the mainstream luxury lines, Lexus is perhaps the most anonymous to look at. Whereas a Cadillac, a Mercedes or an Audi all have their own particular “look,” Lexus just looks….plain. If anything, it looks like a Camry, which isn’t a particularly kind thing to say. At the very least it is not offensive to look at, and for many who are most interested in quality and comfort, as opposed to status, the ES 350 may fit the bill. One thing that is of an extremely high quality is fit and finish, both inside and out. Manufactured tolerances at Lexus are at the very highest in the entire industry and on full display in the aerodynamic body lines of the ES 350.
If the outside is dull, the ES more than makes up for it with arguably the most luxurious interior in the entry-level luxury car class. In most opinions, it is certainly the quietest. As standard, the interior comes with a real walnut trim and a leather-trimmed steering wheel and shifter, moonroof, 17-inch alloy wheels and dual exhaust tips.
The electronics, like automatic dual zone climate control, and a trip computer are happily easy to use for those that find the driver interface units from Audi or BMW to be unnecessarily confusing. Particularly at this price point, the cabin of the ES is one of the nicest with ten-way leather seats, surrounded by wood trim, padded surfaces, and grained panels. It is also more spacious than the competition providing 42.2 inches of legroom up front and 35.9 inches of rear legroom. With over 14 cubic feet of space, the trunk of the ES has a pass-through opening to the rear seats.
An optional panorama glass roof that extends the length of the car is further provides a spacious feeling. Another feature high on reviewers list is the standard eight-speaker stereo offers high-quality sound, that is only bested by the available Navigation System/Mark Levinson Surround Sound Audio System Package that equips the ES with a 14-speaker, 300-watt stereo. As an added benefit, this package adds voice-activated DVD navigation system that includes a back-up camera and Bluetooth technology.
Starting at $34,470, most would agree that the ES is not overpriced, and in fact, most new car buyers will find they are able to get into the sedan even more cheaply with dealers offering several thousand dollars worth of discounts.
Those looking to compare the Lexus ES 350 would be wise to evaluate the car next to other luxury-leaning, as opposed to sports-leaning, models including the Acura TL and Lincoln MKZ. Cars that we also like, by the way. While that may make the choice hard, it won’t make any choice bad.