– Luxury interior features
– Lots of cabin space
– Comfortable highway cruiser
– Soft handling
– Above-average price
– Undefeatable stability control
Lexus has long been regarded the king of reliable luxury vehicles. Packing almost as much technology into their cars as the Germans, all while offering infinitely more reliability, has helped this Toyota-owned luxury division the sort of reputation that took the Europeans almost a century to build. The all-new ES 350 pushes the luxury envelope even further, though it admittedly remains allergic to sporting genes. We, of course, pushed it to the limit anyway.
The understated styling direction that Lexus has taken doesn’t look bad at all. The slab-sided look is a mixture of smooth curves and sharp edges, which all add up to a very attractive profile, and certainly better than the confused look of the old model. No one will mistake it for a super-expensive high-flyer, although judging by the interior, it deserves respect.
The cabin is a plush creation, lined with leather and wood, portraying a minimalist look betrayed only by the tastefully-cluttered touchscreen navigation. All materials are of class-leading quality, as we have come to expect from this Japanese company, though the central-console styling treatment, with the weird upper curve and the off-centre woodwork, requires some deliberation to fully accept. The cushy leather seats are comfortable, but have little bolstering. The ventilated front seats are electrically adjustable, with lumber support too, and there is no shortage of legroom or headroom in any seating position. Thoughtful touches include 2 covered cup holders in the front, 2 basic cup holders in the rear armrest, a huge glovebox free of the usual CD-changer junk, storage pockets in every door and under the central front armrest, and soft leather armrests on the doors too. A few more storage spaces in the centre console would’ve been appreciated, although it seems Toyota compensated for this with an obscenely large luggage trunk.
The gadgetry in this car is good enough to be among the best. The navigation system is thankfully touchscreen-controlled, so it is easier to type in destinations, while shortcut buttons along the sides of the screen provide quick access to other computer-controlled features, such as the a/c fan speed, the killer stereo and the trip computer. The screen requires a firm thumbing to get it to detect your inputs. The temperature for the very strong a/c can be set with separate buttons on the dash, but it can get annoying when you have to flick through screens for changing fan speeds. The rear a/c vents don’t have separate controls. A rare feature in the entry-luxury class that is found in the ES 350 is the reverse camera, which with the help of parking sensors makes sure that you never have any excuse for hitting shopping trolleys, lamp posts, cars, curbs or brats. Other features include Xenon headlights, an in-dash CD changer, numerous front and side airbags, an electric sunroof, and a keyless entry and start system that allows you to drive away with the key in your pocket. However, we could never get the luggage trunk to unlock with the remote key fob, for reasons unknown.
The ES 350 is certainly well-equipped for straight-line abuse. The silky new 3.5-litre corporate V6 packs 272 hp and 344 Nm in this guise, putting power down to the front wheels through a smooth six-speed automatic gearbox. This much juice in a front-wheel-drive car is never sensible, as side-to-side torque steer would be killer. So Lexus added a traction control and stability system that kills wheelspin as soon as there is a squeak from the front tyres under hard throttle. Sadly, the computerised nanny cannot be turned off, so 0-to-100 kph acceleration tests allow a time of only 7 seconds, when it could’ve been much faster with a smoky launch. Interestingly, the automatic can be shifted like a clutchless manual without computer interference, so it is possible to bounce off the rev limiter for delayed manual upshifts. Fuel economy is slightly better than average for a V6, drinking less petrol than a comparable Nissan V6 or a Chevrolet V6 in daily driving, with more power to boot.
The soft-driving Lexus shines on the highway, with well-damped bumps and an eerily muted engine. However, pick up speed and some wind noise starts to become audible, and the car bounces over unnatural lumps on the road with the grace of a chicken on water. Road noise is admirably eliminated though, and there is no harshness on any kind of surface even with the low profile tyres. High-speed cross-country cruising in comfort is a Lexus forte.
If you haven’t figured it out till now, the Lexus ES 350 is based on the Toyota Camry platform, and this became most apparent when we entered our first sharp corner. The body leaned away from the turn as we pushed harder, and the tyres started squealing, sending a shiver throughout the frame as the meaty tyres refused to give up grip and understeer became prominent. All these shenanigans were brought to a halt as the timely stability program kicked in and partially cut the power, slowing down the car enough to gather its composure. Grip is good from the low-profile rubber wrapping the 17-inch alloys, but they never get the chance to be pushed to the limit, as corners ultimately become moderate-speed affairs. Fairly sharp steering inputs are always met with light squeals from the tyres, with the required dose of body roll. Anyone wanting to use this Lexus as a sporting tool should think twice, as the stability program cannot be turned off, and even if it were possible, the replacement of a proper handbrake with a foot-operated pedal eliminates the chances of inducing controlled oversteer.
The brake pedal is weightless, but once mastered, the power of the ABS-assisted four-wheel disc brakes become impressively obvious. With computer hijinks and grip from the wide tyres also playing a part, the car can be brought to a halt very quickly in any situation. Braking distances are low enough to be comparable to that of a number of sports cars.
At first glance, the Lexus ES 350 appears pricey for a V6-powered front-wheel-drive midsize sedan, what with V8-powered American muscle and low-end German badges flooding the market. But this Japanese sedan offers so much more refined quality, operational efficiency and reliable gadgetry that it is enough to sway conservative consumers into loving this car over the cheap-plastic, gas-guzzling Americans and the smaller, overpriced Germans. After all, Toyota is on its way to becoming the largest car manufacturer in the world for a reason, and it has nothing to do with motorsports.