2016 Lexus ES350

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Why does Lexus sell so many ES350s?'16 ES350 lead

Probably for the same reasons Toyota sells so many Camrys.

Oops! The cat just jetted out of the bag… .

Yes. It’s true. The ES350 and the Camry are related … in the same way that Eric and Julia Roberts are related.

One’s just a bit prettier than the other.   

But the two cars share the same qualities that make them both stars in their respective segments.

We’ll focus on the “Julia Roberts” version (that’d be the Lexus).

WHAT IT IS'16 ES350 interior 1

The ES350 is Lexus’s entry-level luxury sedan.

Interestingly, it’s not Lexus’ smallest sedan. (That would be the CT200h hybrid.)

Also interestingly, the ES350 has more backseat legroom (4.2 inches more) than Lexus’ largest, top-of-the-line luxury sedan – the $72,520 (to start) LS460.

Base price (loaded) is $38, 000 – or about half the price of a not-yet-loaded LS460.

But much more than half the car.

Especially relative to price-competitive entry-luxury rivals like the Cadillac ATS, the Audi A4 and Acura ILX, which are all smaller (especially in the back seat) and come standard with four cylinder engines … while the Lexus comes standard with a big V6.'16 ES350 side view

You might also cross-shop the Caddy XTS – which is also a nice, big car – with a big V6 standard. But which also comes standard with a nice, big sticker price, too ($44,660 to start).

There’s also the Hyundai Genesis sedan. It’s about the same price as the ES ($38,000 to start), has a big six – but a cramped back seat… relative to the ES.

WHAT’S NEW FOR 2016

The front end gets a “bolder” look (that’s Lexus, not me) and LED headlights are now standard equipment. The Enform suite of apps (Pandora, Yelp, iHeart and Lexus’ own Open Table restaurant reservation system) has been updated as well.

Pedestrian detection capability has been added to the optional collision-avoidance system.

Last year’s limited-edition Crafted package has been dropped – but a new “flaxen” upholstery/bamboo trim ensemble for the interior is available and some of the features that used to come only as part of a package, such as the panorama sunroof and the 15 speaker Mark Levinson audio system, can be added as individual options.

WHAT’S GOOD'16 ES350 back seats

More car for your coin – literally. The ES350 has much more backseat room than other brands’ comparably priced entry-luxury sedans. And more than several that are higher priced, like the Caddy XTS (and the Audi A6).

Standard V6 vs. price-competitive rivals’ standard fours.

Just the one already-loaded trim.

As blue chip a car as it gets; stellar reputation, low depreciation, high resale value.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

Camry kinship… if that bothers you.

Cadillac ATS is an attractive alternative that costs less even when ordered with AWD ($37,425) … if you can handle its much tighter back seat.

Caddy XTS has as much interior room – and offers AWD … if you handle its much higher MSRP.

UNDER THE HOOD'16 ES350 V6

All ES350s come standard with an engine type that’s either optional – or unavailable – in other similarly priced entry-luxury sedans: A 3.5 liter V6 (vs. a two-ish liter four in the others).

It makes 268 hp and is paired with a six-speed automatic and front-wheel-drive.

The ES350’s engine produces significantly more power than the standard four cylinder engines in cross-shops like the Cadillac ATS (2.5 liters, 202 hp), the Audi A4 (2.0 liters 220 hp), the Acura ILX (2.4 liters, 201 hp) and also stacks up solidly against most rivals’ optional engines (when there is one).'16 ES350 shift lever

Though not marketed as a luxury-sport sedan, the ES350 is among the quickest cars in this class. It is capable of making the run from zero to 60 in 6.4 seconds, a time bested only by the Caddy ATS equipped with its optional 3.6 liter (321 hp) V6, which is priced about $3k higher $41,340) than the ES.

A less powerful version of this engine (304 hp) is also standard in the larger – and more expensive – XTS.

In the bigger/heavier XTS, the 0-60 time is more sluggish: about 7.3 seconds.

The Cadillacs (and the Audis) are available with all-wheel-drive, however – a popular feature that’s not available with the ES. You can also buy an AWD-equipped ATS for less ($37,245) than you’d pay for a FWD ES350. But there is another price to be paid (details on that below) if you buy this Cadillac.'16 ES350 gauges

Gas mileage-wise, the ES350 rates slightly less than its four-cylinder’d competitors, but the difference is not huge. EPA says the ES350 is good for 21 city, 31 highway. The base-engined (2.5 liter) ATS rates 21 city, 33 highway. The FWD (and four cylinder-only) A4 clocks in at 24 city, 32 highway.

Sport-minded buyers may be swayed by the availability of a manual transmission in both the ATS and the Audi A4.

But the Lexus makes its appeal on different grounds altogether.    

ON THE ROAD'16 ES350 road 1

This Lexus is the only entry-luxury sedan that’s not also a compact-sized sedan. It doesn’t look (more on this below) or feel downsized.

It feels mid-sized … which it is.

It is also heavier (by several hundred pounds) than its price-equivalent, but compact-sized rivals like the Cadillac ATS and Audi A4.

More meat on the bones.

In a luxury sedan, this is desirable. The others may be sportier-feeling, which is a function of lightness and smallness. But what’s unusual about the ES – at its price point – is its “big car” serenity. It swallows speed bumps and potholes like a baleen whale absorbs krill. The big fish just swims on, unperturbed.

There is also the big V6 to take into account.'16 ES350 dash detail

Again, another point of commonality with luxury sedans that aren’t entry-level luxury sedans – and a point of departure vs. those that are.

The industry has done impressive things with four cylinder engines – but even when turbo’d, they are still four cylinder engines. And four cylinder engines are what you typically find under the hoods of economy cars. Because that’s the point. Economy.

Adding a turbo adds on-demand power.

But a V6 is always powerful.

And, prestigious.'16 ES350 road 4

There is a certain separation – coach vs. business class – when you’ve got a V6 and the other guy has a four. A six is also (usually) inherently smoother because it’s inherently balanced; a four is not. Fours need counterbalancing – and their exhaust note is rarely what you’d call luxurious. It’s just the nature of the thing.

Anecdotally, I think Toyota under-rates the output of the ES350’s 3.5 V6. The car just pulls too authoritatively for me to buy the 268 hp rating. You do the math (NHRA bracket racing math) and tell me whether 268 hp can propel 3,571 pounds of ES350 (that’s empty, incidentally) to 60 in the low sixes.

I’d say something’s rotten in Denmark…  except this smells good to me.'16 ES350 road 2

Also good – in terms of peace of mind – is the known long-haul reliability of the ES’s V6 vs. the not-yet-known long-haul reliability of the new crop of turbocharged fours. They’re more stressed (being force-fed) and more complex (more things to potentially crap out on you, probably post warranty). Maybe not. The automakers selling turbo fours claim they’re designed to last, that issues such as cooking the turbos to death via overheating and lack of adequate lubrication (especially post shut-down) have been resolved. But only time – years on the road, in real-world driving – will tell.

Also: The hype notwithstanding, the real-world gas mileage of these little fours is not much better than what you’d get with a bigger (but not turbo’d) six, as in the ES.

Just in the way of food for thought.'16 ES350 drive modes

There are three driver-selectable modes for the six-speed automatic. These are Normal, Eco and Sport. In Sport, the gauge backlighting turns red, throttle response is sharper, the transmission’s shift programming becomes noticeably more aggressive and the normally very light power steering becomes a little more weighted. In a straight line, the ES is not easy meat. It’ll run with – and outrun – several luxury-sport sedans, including the base-engined Caddy CTS.

In the corners, the ES is slightly less adroit than the overtly sporty smaller/lighter numbers like the A4 and the ATS. But that doesn’t mean it comes unglued early or easily. It only means it takes a bit more work to keep your line when you’re operating at speeds well in excess of legality – laterally.

As in any new car, the ES350’s cornering limits are higher than most driver’s skills – or nerve. Don’t believe for a minute that you can’t take the ES around a curve posted 35 at 55 with one finger on the wheel and not even approaching tire squeal.

You can – in anything new.   '16 ES350 cornering

The relevant distinction is how the car behaves when driven normally – legally. What you’ll discover, if you test drive the ES vs. the price-equivalent entry-level competition, is that the ES’s longer wheelbase (111 inches – closer to the wheelbase of a Caddy CTS rather than a Caddy ATS) and more relaxed 17 inch (vs. the more typical 18 and even 19-inch) wheels hoofed with gentle-riding all-season tires rather than stiff-sidewall “sport” tires makes the Lexus pretty much unique among its putative brethren.

It is actually hard to find a luxury sedan at this price point. At least, one that’s also luxury-badged.'16 ES350 badge detail

The Toyota Avalon is very nice; so is the Chevy Impala.

And the Nissan Maxima, too.

But as nice as they are, they haven’t got the cachet (or the uptown dealer experience) that Lexus does.

And that cachet – plus the rest – will cost you more at other luxury-brand stores.   

See, for instance, what Caddy asks for an XTS.

Or Audi for an A6.

AT THE CURB'16 ES350 curb 1

As touched on already, the ES350 is entry-level for a Lexus – but large relative to the entry-level competition. It is 193.3 inches long, bumper to bumper – and rides on a 111 inch wheelbase. A Cadillac ATS is about almost a foot shorter overall (182.8) and the next-up Cadillac (in size and price), the CTS, is only  slightly longer (195.5 inches) than the ES350.

You’ve got to move up to an XTS (in the Cadillac line) to get bigger.

But outside size – though it gives a car presence – is one thing. It’s inside size that’s the true measure of a luxury car.

The Lexus has more backseat room than every car in its price range – and more than many cars well outside its price range, too.'16 ES350 side view

40 inches – vs. 33.5 for the ATS (and 35.4 for the CTS). The Acura ILX has 34 inches of back seat legroom; the Audi A4, 35.2 inches (the A6 is barely better, just 37.4 inches).

Even Lexus’ top-of-the-line full-size sedan – the LS460 – has only 35.8 inches of backseat legroom.

Shoulder room is also Trump-like (or Trump would approve): 57 inches up front and 55 in the rear. As opposed to 55.2 up front and 53.9 in back in the skinny minny ATS.

You have to sit inside the ES – behind the wheel and in the back – to get a sense of how limo-like it is.

Or, pop the trunk. 15.2 cubic feet – vs. 10.4 for the ATS (and 13.7 for the CTS).'16 ES350 gauge close

Space isn’t everything, though. If it were, a UPS truck’s cargo hold would qualify as luxurious.

But a UPS truck is not kitted out like an ES350.

Which is kitted out very nicely.

If you’ve not been in a new luxury car lately, you should know that there is little meaningful difference, in terms of the feel/fit and finish of the materials used – and even the gadgets that are standard (and available) – between an “entry” luxury  model and the mid (and even top-of-the-line) models. 

Well, some brands’ entry-luxury models. 

The meaningful differences, for example, between an ES350 and an LS460 are that the LS is rear-wheel-drive and comes with a V8 while the ES is front-wheel-drive and comes with a V6.

And, of course, there is the price difference.   '16 ES350 rear quarter shot

That may be slightly exaggerated – but not by much. A “high end” luxury car like the LS might have a flat screen gauge cluster rather than analog, somewhat swankier trim plates, maybe the leather’s a bit more cush – and possibly the A pillars and roof are padded with velvety Alcantara suede or some such. But an “entry” luxury car like the ES is no downmarket disappointment. If anything, you feel as though you got value for your dollar. As opposed to just paying more dollars.

Take a look for yourself.

See what I mean.

THE REST'16 ES350 mouse

There’s one other thing the ES has – well, offers – that others don’t.

Lexus came up with a uniquely ergonomic way to access/control the vehicle’s infotainment systems such as the stereo, apps, scroll-through menus and so on. It’s called Remote Touch – and it consists of pad that’s contoured to fit the underside of your wrist and palm, with a drag/click mouse toward where your fingers naturally fall. There is just the right amount of drag built into the controller, such that it’s much more accurate while the vehicle is moving than the microwave oven-style flatscreen inputs (as in the ATS and other new Cadillac models). If it’s not your bag, it’s optional. The standard knob-type interface is also simple, not frustrating to use.

In a word – luxurious.'16 ES350 knobs

Other noteworthy options include an excellent 15-speaker Mark Levinson surround sound audio rig, Lane Departure Warning (with steering assist) and an updated version of the frontal collision system that includes a pedestrian detection feature. You can add a full-length panorama sunroof, heated steering wheel, side window privacy screens and a power driver’s seat cushion extender- pretty much check every box – and be out the door for well under what you’d pay for something like a base trim Mercedes E-Class or BMW 5 (both of which, by the way, have smaller – more cramped interiors).

THE BOTTOM LINE'16 ES350 last

Spend a week – or even an afternoon – driving around in an ES350 and you’ll understand why Lexus sells so many.

The amazing thing is that Lexus sells many of the ES350’s twice-as-expensive (but in many ways, not quite as nice) bigger (on the outside, but not inside) brother, the LS460.

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9 COMMENTS

  1. I’m not surprised you liked this car, Eric. It came right out throughout your article. These cars are right in the sweet spot for driving. Not too much one way or the other–sport or soft.

    I have an 08 ES350. The newer ones are better I’m sure, but I love the hell out of mine. I’ve never had a luxury car until the ES350. Now, I wouldn’t buy a Camry–which I had before the Lexus.

    I won’t buy a new car, but when this new model 350 gets a couple years on it, I think I’ll trade up. Just want one without lane departure assist. I hate that crap.

    • Yup!

      Probably, you guys can tell when I like a car 🙂

      And I very much like this one.

      Though not inexpensive, it’s not ridiculous. I’ve driven the ridiculous ones. The LS460, for instance. It’s a nice ride, but is it worth twice the ES350’s price? Sure, the V8 is sweet. But so is the ES’s V6. And the truth is you really can’t use the full potential/capability of either much, if ever. This is even more true of the V8.

      And the ES has what Hunter Thompson would have called a “King Hell” back seat that makes the puny back seat in the LS seem Motel 6-ish in comparison.

      Also, the LS sucks in the snow.

      The FWD ES is amazingly tenacious.

      • But, the RWD feels like a real car, not a rollerskate. I like the feel of the rear wheels doing the work. Plus, burnouts are much better in a RWD car.

  2. Re this: “Anecdotally, I think Toyota under-rates the output of the ES350’s 3.5 V6. The car just pulls too authoritatively for me to buy the 268 hp rating. You do the math (NHRA bracket racing math) and tell me whether 268 hp can propel 3,571 pounds of ES350 (that’s empty, incidentally) to 60 in the low sixes.”

    Nah, I’ve got that same engine in my car. It pulls strong through the low to mid-RPM range, but revving it up near the redline doesn’t give a lot more push than the mid-RPMs. Basically, I think Toyota declined to maximize peak HP, tuning it instead to give extra power throughout most of the powerband but a tad less at the peak — a broad powerband rather than a narrow, high peak. Which means in 99%+ of driving, you experience more push than if Toyota had to tried to maximize that peak number instead of functionality.

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