This new ES 350 makes six-figure luxury cars look silly.
In an effort to ditch its reputation as the number one brand for retired people in Boca Raton, Florida, Lexus injected its lineup with edgy styling, loads of F Sport variants, and rear-wheel-drive platforms to challenge the likes of BMW and Mercedes-Benz. The IS was built to target the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C-Class, the GS was designed as a rival for the 5 Series and E-Class, and the LS has long since been an affordable alternative to the 7 Series and S-Class.
Then there's the ES. The Lexus ES has always been an oddball in the lineup due to its humble front-wheel-drive layout. When it debuted back in 1989, it was based on the Toyota Camry and continued this trend until the sixth generation model moved to the Avalon platform for the 2013 model year.
My mom owned a 2016 ES 350 and I can tell you from experience it was certainly no sports sedan. Now Lexus has introduced an all-new seventh-generation ES for the 2019 model year and although it is still based on the Avalon platform, this new model is more than meets the eye.
As soon as you walk up to the new ES, it becomes apparent Lexus threw away everything that was wrong with the previous generation model. On several occasions, I found myself questioning whether it was an ES or an LS because the two cars look so similar. This is great news for anyone who owns and ES but a slight gut punch for anyone who paid the premium for an LS. Some people may still not be fans of the signature Lexus spindle grille but I've come to accept it as a reality - the ES is handsome, period.
Even though this is the first ES to be available with an F Sport version, I asked Lexus to send a non-F Sport model to see how much the car has been improved over the last generation without resorting to any tricks. My tester wore a stunning shade of Sunlight Green Metalic, which (as you can see from the pictures) looks different depending on the level of light. The color reminds me of the green on the old ES 330 and should be worth your consideration.
Lexus didn't get too fancy with what sits under the hood but the old recipe has been doctored with some extra spice. The 3.5-liter V6 engine now produces 302 horsepower and 267 lb-ft of torque going out to the front wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission. This is the same engine found in the Toyota Camry and Avalon where it produces one fewer horsepower, though the powertrain does feel smoother in the ES. If you care, this potent V6 is powerful enough to launch the 3,600-pound sedan to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds (half a second quicker than the outgoing model) while maintaining rather good 22/26/33 mpg ratings for city/highway/combined.
If you care more about fuel economy than effortless passing power, Lexus also sells the ES 300h with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder mated to a hybrid system developing 215 hp. The sprint to 60 mph is slower at 8.8 seconds but fuel economy rises significantly to 43-mpg in the city and 45-mpg on the highway. It is worth noting the F Sport model doesn't add any power to the 3.5-liter V6 and only includes changes to the appearance and suspension.
As with the exterior, the ES is almost unrecognizable from the outgoing generation. The old car's cheap wood and mismatched surfaces are long gone and stylish new materials have taken their place. Interior ergonomics are excellent, with clever nods to practicality like a convenient slot to place your phone in the center console. The Lexus Enform infotainment system still ranks among the worst due to its distracting touchpad controller but this one at least features Apple CarPlay and an optional 12.3-inch multimedia display - an eight-inch screen is standard - with clear resolution. There are also plenty of physical buttons to control the radio, climate, and heated/ventilated seats without having to fuss around on the touchpad.
My tester included an optional head-up display for $500, which further reduced the need to use the Enform infotainment system. This new generation ES has ditched the old-fashioned analog gauges in favor of a sporty-looking digital instrument cluster, which changes based on drive modes.
The interior does feel properly luxurious for its price point but falls short on the ultra-premium vibe given off by more expensive, European rivals. If you poke around the interior, you will find a few spots where the ES feels cheap, such as the shifter (which feels like the one found on the Toyota CH-R). These cheap spots are few and far between, however, so they do not detract from the overall luxury experience.
One area where the ES does disappoint is with its seats. Even with the 14-way semi-aniline leather driver seat on this top trim Ultra Luxury model, I struggled to get comfortable. I found myself wishing for a softer seatback and seat bottom as well as more bolstering, which is found on the sportier F Sport seats.
Rear seat occupants of the ES 350 will feel like they have just stepped into a six-figure limousine. With a 113-inch wheelbase, the ES provides 39.2-inches of rear-seat legroom, which is actually more than the 38.9-inches you get in the (supposedly) larger LS. It's also far more than you'll get one the pricier 5 Series and E-Class. If you're planning to do any driving for Uber Black, the ES is the ideal choice. With 16.7 cubic feet of storage, the ES has a larger trunk than the E-Class but it is smaller than the 5 Series. The rear seats also lack the ability to fold, which limits the ES as a cargo hauler.
The ES has always fared well as a luxury car but has fallen flat on its face in terms of driving characteristics. This is fine for people who couldn't care less about the difference between FWD and RWD but to driving enthusiasts, the ES has always been a letdown.
With this new generation, I am delighted to say, the ES is finally worth driving. There are still plenty of shortcomings due to the car's FWD architecture but so long as you don't push the ES beyond its limits, you probably won't notice. Even my mom, who is by no means a driving enthusiast, felt her old ES was too boring and switched to a sportier GS.
This new model still feels slightly limited when you decide to take a fast corner but remains dignified and composed under normal circumstances. As you'd expect, the ride comfort is silky smooth, making you question why anyone would spend twice as much for one of the RWD German cars or the pricier LS 500.
Even the drive modes diligently change the car's personality to suit the driver's needs. In normal mode, passing power is ample and the engine purrs along in the background without making its presence known. Eco mode strongly dials back throttle response, making the ES feel a bit sluggish as a sacrifice for better fuel economy. In Eco mode, it becomes nearly impossible to hear the V6, which is practically vibration free even at full throttle. Sport mode won't make you feel like you've just hopped into an AMG car, though it will cause the drivetrain to become more eager to downshift, making passing maneuvers even easier.
My test car also included optional 18-inch noise reducing wheels for $950, which further contributed to the ES's quiet cabin. My biggest complaint with the driving experience was the calibration of the paddle shifters on the transmission. While the ES has paddles, they aren't operated with a true manual mode. Instead, the paddles let you choose the highest gear, which the car will not exceed. I'd prefer Lexus simply not include paddle shifters instead of offering a disingenuous manual mode.
Lexus has become famed for its outstanding reliability and consistently ranks at or near the top in most reliability surveys. This 2019 ES 350 should be no exception to the rule, though I did experience one issue with the car's Bluetooth system. On more than one occasion, the car's stereo refused to play music from my phone. I also experienced a similar issue while driving a 2018 Toyota Camry. Aside from this minor complaint, the ES was perfect during my week of testing.
As always, the Lexus ES represents a serious bargain in the luxury sedan segment. The base ES 350 starts at $39,600 while the Luxury trim bumps it up to $42,255. Opting for the Luxury trim adds perforated leather, 14-way power driver's seat, wood trim, ambient lighting, heated and ventilated seats, seat memory, automatic wipers, and a power tilt-telescoping steering wheel. Stepping up to the Ultra Luxury trim, like my tester, costs $43,250 and adds perforated semi-aniline leather, a power-opening trunk with kick sensor, lateral performance dampers, and rear sunshades.
My tester also included a few options including blind spot monitoring, park assist, and 360-degree camera ($1,900), wireless charger ($75), noise-reducing 18-inch wheels ($950), triple beam LED headlights ($1,115), navigation and 17-speaker 1,800 watt Mark Levinson audio ($3,000), glass roof ($500), and heated steering wheel and windshield ($480). The as-test price of this green 2019 ES 350 was a palatable $53,742, though you could easily save money forgoing some of the pricer options.
It is also worth noting the equivalent ES 300h models are less than $2,000 more respectively and the sporty F Sport trim starts at $44,135.
The Lexus ES 350 has always been an intriguing luxury alternative that was great for people who just wanted something comfortable and would never attempt a silly, RWD burnout. While past ES models have always left something to be desired, this new one has completely changed my opinion. This seventh-generation ES represents one of the biggest leaps forward I have ever experienced moving from one generation to the next. If the automotive industry gave out a Most Improved Player award at the end of the year, this car would be a serious contender.
An equivalent Audi A6, BMW 5 Series, or Mercedes E-Class would likely cost around $20,000 more and only the Cadillac CTS and Genesis G80 can even come close to matching the Lexus ES 350 on value. Factoring in value and how big of an improvement Lexus has made for the 2019 model year, the ES 350 earns a ranking of Must Buy.