About 10 years ago, if you were to describe the Lexus brand one would probably keep it short and say something like it produced “nice luxury cars that are very reliable.” It’s noble that the marque has that in its corner, but it became apparent that its approach wouldn’t continue to age well.
Why? Well, buyers’ preferences started to shift.
You see, having conservative interior and exterior designs simply wasn’t cutting it anymore. In addition, Lexus’ competitors improved their customer service departments to meet Lexus’ legendary efforts.
Buyers made it loud and clear: They wanted sportier offerings in both car and sport-utility vehicle form factors. Toyota’s luxury division responded. That led to the launch of the 2008 IS F, which was a 400-plus horsepower sport sedan. This marked a schism for the L brand.
I remember attending the New York Auto Show where I noticed one side of the floor boasted all hybrid vehicles that were painted a certain color. The other half? All vehicles equipped with Lexus’ F Sport packages and they were all painted another shade. It was like yin and yang.
Since then, this ethos has permeated the Lexus brand. And, it’s a good thing. Across the board, Lexus’ vehicles have adapted more aggressive styling and the company’s once staid vehicles now have some panache that was sorely needed.
There’s no better example than the all-new Lexus ES.
Years ago, the ES was the very definition of “beige.” It lacked personality; its design was akin to a bar of soap and it wasn’t an especially great product. But, it sold brilliantly. If buyer’s preferences didn’t change, Lexus probably would have stuck to its trusty formula.
When I saw the all-new ES350 F Sport for the first time, I knew I had to drive one. It didn’t look like a rebodied Toyota Camry any more. It looked more upscale and in line with Lexus’ flagship sedan, the LS. Boasting a large front spindle grille, it commands your attention – even if it is polarizing. Equipped with a more aggressive look, a larger wheel and tire package, a trunk lid lip spoiler and bolder paint options, this ES certainly isn’t your aunt’s or grandmother’s.
Getting more acquainted behind the three-spoke sport steering wheel, I found the ES350’s cockpit refreshing. The sport seats hug you in all the right places without being too aggressive, the touch points (e.g., steering wheel, shifter, door panels, etc.) are all trimmed with materials that feel great and its massive, 12-inch infotainment screen is a welcome addition. There’s room in all directions and the rear seat has acres of leg room. This is a nice change of pace from the cramped confines of its sibling, the IS.
But with the good, comes the bad. Although the infotainment screen is properly sized, its software really needs to be revised from a user experience perspective – using the touch pad and mouse is extremely annoying more than 50 percent of the time. And the instrument panel that shifts at the touch of a button, which is inspired by the company’s LFA supercar, is getting a bit tired. There are so many ways to visualize this information; it’s time to move away from the 2012 LFA that’s now about 8 years old.
Powering up the ES350 F Sport, you’re not greeted with an exhaust note that creates a ruckus. Instead, it’s just like any other ES. That’s because Lexus hasn’t changed essentially anything in the F Sport from a powertrain point of view. This means you get the same 3.5-liter V6 that produces 302-horsepower and 267 lb.-ft. of torque as in other, non-hybrid ES variants.
Power is adequate but it won’t blow your doors off. Zero to 60 happens in a sedate 6.6 seconds. Coupled with this motor is an eight-speed automatic transmission that’s clearly engineered for comfort over speed – this isn’t a bad thing. Shifts aren’t particularly noticeable as the ES swaps cogs around town.
One thing I hope Lexus does spend some time adjusting in its next-gen six-cylinder is its sound. This is an area Lexus has always let fall by the wayside with exception of its magnificent V10-equipped LFA and V8-powered F models. The V6 in the ES reminds me of a sewing machine and when you throttle it, there’s no symphony. If you’re in a six-cylinder Audi, BMW or Mercedes, there’s a certain quality to the aural experience. This is going to become more important as eight-cylinder motors sunset and six-cylinders become the luxury alternative to four-cylinder powerplants.
Fuel economy is OK in F Sport trim. During my time meandering mostly sweeping country roads I achieved 22-24 mpg. If you’re seeking something more respectable, you should check out the ES300h, which is the alternative ES hybrid. While you will sacrifice the sporting intentions of the F trimmed ES, you will be very happy at the pump. That’s because you won’t be there as often. During my time with the ES300h I chalked up 48 mpg, which is a staggering figure for a luxury sedan.
Back to the F Sport. Flicking the driving mode dial into Sport and Sport+ dials up the motoring experience a bit. By adjusting the weight of the steering, engine’s responsiveness, shift patterns and firmness of the ride, I was surprised at just how adaptable the ES350 F Sport was. On country roads, it feels more at home in Sport or Sport+ at speed; however, don’t get it twisted. The ES350 F Sport is not a sports car. When pushed to its limits, the front-wheel drive ES pushes wide and loses confidence.
Around town and left in Normal mode though, the ES handles pockmarked roads with ease and grace. It’s actually astounding how comfortable the ride is for its relatively low $52,000 price point (as tested). From my experience, it exceeds the likes of the BMW 5-Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class. That’s high praise given those vehicles typically sell for north of $65,000 depending on the engine and options selected.
To me, that’s the beauty of the ES350 F Sport.
It single-handedly outclasses other vehicles from luxury automakers at a more affordable price. Sure, its styling is polarizing and it’s a front-wheel drive vehicle, but if you’re not pretending you’re at the racetrack, the latter won’t be particularly noticed. Having just driven the all-new BMW 330i and walking away disappointed due to its rough ride and lack of refinement in regards to interior trimming, there’s no question in my mind the ES350 F Sport is deserving of consideration. And that extends to proper executive sedans like the BMW 5-Series and Mercedes E-Class.
As the ES is quite spacious, it now is an alternative to larger luxury options. It really boils down to several things. First, you aren’t bothered by the styling of Lexus’ controversial front grille. Second, you can deal with the operation of its infotainment. And lastly, you’re open to a front-wheel drive vehicle.
Although I am mighty impressed by the ES350 F Sport, I’d hold out for an all-wheel drive variant to show up. Then this would be a rather easy decision.
By Richard Posluszny