by Gabe Beita Kiser
Don’t listen to those people who try to stifle dreams by saying that a liberal arts degrees, theater arts degrees, or plain old art degrees are useless. Those types of education offer a variety of practical applications however vague they may be. On the other hand, interior design psychology is a highly specialized degree and trying to count the number of uses that sort of education turns into a bit of a head scratcher. At least that’s what I thought until I set foot inside the 2016 Lexus ES 350.
It is no secret that the way a place looks to the eye has a big influence on the mood of the observer, and that’s something Lexus knew well before it sat down to design the ES 350’s interior. Just ask yourself, would you rather live in Beverly Hills or in the dilapidated auto factories that remain in Detroit? Well, don’t answer that, you get the point. And so does Lexus, which is why the automaker has spent part of its budget snapping up interior design graduates to craft a cabin that absorbs both driver and passengers and elevates them to the clouds. Entering the ES 350 is an experience in itself. The polite dings emitting from the speakers after waking the engine with the push button start calmly say, “Sit down, kick off you loafers.”
Flaxen leather with honey bamboo trim coats the interior, making for a cozy cabin gorgeous enough to slow the pulse and induce a state of tranquility. I’d go as far as saying that the warm cafe leather with wood and brown trim colors had the potential to de-stress a wall-street executive, making it a wonderful companion for a warm quiet weekend playing the role of shuttle driver between city and beach. I decided to do just that with the Lexus since it was nice out and the ES 350's insides had me in a good mood. With the cabin not too small, not to large, cozy for four and comfortable at five, the headache of city traffic was easily dispelled in the passing lane with the 3.5-liter V6.
A full 268 horsepower makes it to the front wheels after being sorted through a six-speed automatic. No paddle shifters here, but if you’re looking for those, you’re missing the point. The engine can pull the roomy sedan to 60 mph from a dead stop in 5.8 seconds, but like a waiter with loaded trays at a busy high-class restaurant, the urgency of an ES 350 with a matted throttle feels quick and polite but clumsy. Don't expect to see the EPA estimated 19 mpg repeating this as we only averaged 15.7. In terms of character, Lexus has garnered a reputation for building bulletproof cars that last an eternity and do wonderful impressions of sensory deprivation tanks. That latter aspect of Lexus culture is what turns the enthusiasts away, and rightfully so.
No self-respecting gearhead is happy with a ride that glides through bumps like a plane splits fluffy cotton clouds or features body roll that makes it feel like the tires are planted on a mattress full of marshmallows. Coincidentally, that’s exactly how the ES 350 behaves in the corners. Any changes in G force are felt through the insane body roll and quick turns of the steering wheel from the center position to full lock is only met with the squealing protest of the front tires. The tradeoff is that potholes are dispelled with little more than a subdued “whumph” and the overall result is a compete disconnect with the outside world. Naturally, this only bodes well for luxury-seekers that don’t care about the driving experience.
Once I pushed away any hopes of having fun on twisty roads, I settled into the painless existence that is the life of a Lexus ES 350 owner. With Godspeed and all 15 Mark Levinson speakers humming acoustic courtesy of Bluetooth, I cut across the morning fog with the heated steering wheel and heated seats warming my soul before a visit to the beach. Driving up the picturesque Great Highway, I never once had to experience the inconvenience of a lurchy relationship between the transition and engine. Parking it near the tourist trap that is Sutro Baths, I was able to get a better idea of the exterior. While the crisscross spindle grille dispels some of the ES 350’s mom car image, part of that remains in the bulky body.
The rest of the car exudes raw functionality with spacious interior room and a trunk large enough to tote around multiple corpses for dumping in your local river. Instead of loosely draping the utilitarian platform with leather and soft-touch goodies, Lexus builds them into the car piece by piece, or at least that’s how it felt. Every component inside, from the buttons to the dashboard and trunk, felt as if it was solid, built to last, yet soft to the touch and lacking in abrasive ruggedness. Even the infotainment system, an atrocious creation in most Lexus vehicles, feels more intuitive and seems to work with the driver rather than against them. My current endeavors in a Lexus GS confirm that the infotainment competence is a model-specific phenomenon.
The system inside the GS is another that would earn my fist through its screen on extended trips, but not the one in the ES. Having driven both cars almost back to back, it’s apparent that there really is a difference between the two despite them having nearly identical hardware. Looking at the big picture, it’s hard to think of a car that’s easier to own, especially with a base price of only $38,000. Loaded with the aforementioned sound system, a power rear sunshade, a navigation system, annoying but useful parking assistants, a luxury package, and some semi-autonomous drive systems including radar cruise control and steering assist, the price ballooned to $46,679. Its under $50,000 price makes the ES 350 a fair bargain compared to its competition.
Still, the differences between the ES 350 and competitors like the BMW 5 Series and Mercedes E-Class remain. The ES 350 is perfectly suitable for those who see driving as a chore and want a car that will help subdue any of its displeasures, but to us enthusiasts, it’s akin to staying in on a Friday night while all of your closest friends are out formulating their life’s best experiences. Would I ever own one? Not ever. In my eyes, life is too short to drive dull cars. But as I’ve learned in the past, dull cars, like the successful accountant with an ironclad reputation, are not always a bad thing. Especially when they do their jobs so well that a fraudulent banker (or skirmish driver) can feel as relaxed as if they were meditating in a sauna.