The Lexus ES 350 is designed for comfort, with a soft ride and front-wheel drive, quite different from the firmer, rear-wheel-drive Lexus IS and GS sports sedans. This sixth-generation ES 350 isn’t that far mechanically removed from the Toyota Avalon, although it feels more sophisticated and refined.
The ES 350 is a midsize car, but its wheelbase is full-size, which translates into rear-seat room. We think the ES 350 may have the most comfortable cabin in its class, thanks to attention to detail.
It handles well with nicely weighted steering, and it rides well on a suspension that’s soft without being floaty.
The ES 350 uses a robust 3.5-liter V6 making 268 horsepower, mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. It’s a conservative, comfortable powertrain.
There’s also an ES 300h hybrid, using a 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine paired to an electric motor with generator. The Drive Select system offers Eco, Power and EV (all-electric) modes.
The 2017 Lexus ES offers previously optional safety technology as standard equipment. The 2017 ES comes standard with automatic emergency braking, lane-keep assist, intelligent high beam headlamps, and adaptive cruise control. It comes with 10 airbags, including full-length curtain airbags and rear seat side airbags. A blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert is optional.
The ES 350 gets an EPA-rated 21 City, 31 highway, 24 Combined miles per gallon; while the ES 300h rates 40 City, 39 Highway and 39 Combined mpg.
The IIHS gives it five stars overall in crash protection, and four stars for frontal impact. But they still give it a Top Safety Pick+ award, apparently because of the standard automatic emergency braking.
The 2017 Lexus ES 350 ($38,900) comes with the 268-hp V6, while the ES 300h ($41,820) features the hybrid powertrain. (Prices are MSRP and do not include destination charge.)
Standard equipment includes perforated NuLuxe leatherette upholstery, automatic climate control, keyless ignition, sunroof, HomeLink garage-door opener, 4.2-inch color info display, eight-speaker audio system with seven-inch screen, rearview camera, HD radio with traffic and weather data, Siri Eyes Free, Bluetooth streaming audio, USB/iPod connectivity, and satellite radio. For 2017 there is also an app that takes data from a smartphone to provide turn-by-turn navigation directions.
The Ultra Luxury Package lives up to its name, with gorgeous semi-aniline leather seats and exotic wood choices like bamboo. Lexus Safety Connect adds telematic services including roadside assistance, emergency assistance, a stolen vehicle locator, and automatic collision notification. More options include a hard-drive-based navigation system with voice command, Mark Levinson audio, upgraded leather and trims (or NuLuxe seats that can be heated and ventilated), and the next generation of infotainment system with apps.
Although the last redesign was 2014, the exterior was refreshed for 2016, with a larger chrome spindle grille, and more aggressive front fascia and LED headlamps.
It’s not dull like it used to be, but it’s not cohesive either. The front end looks like it was added on, which it was. The signature spindle grille is distinctive but not beautiful and chrome doesn’t make it more so.
The taillamps are L-shaped, and the tailpipes trapezoidal.
In some areas the Lexus ES sets the standard for interior quality in a midsize sedan, in particular the very comfortable front and rear seats, upscale materials, big infotainment, and space efficiency.
We think there’s too much matte-metallic trim, which can be solved with the luxury packages that replace the metallic-looking bits with wood trim.
The horizontal dash rides on a curvy instrument panel that wraps around the infotainment screen and optional navigation system with a visor so sunlight doesn’t erase the images. The dash and contoured panel make the cabin feel airy and elegant.
We don’t like the way the optional Remote Touch works with its complicated and awkward controller. Instead of a knob or touchscreen, this mouse-like controller moves a cursor on the screen, which is annoying, and worse, distracting. The 2017 ES adds a Back function, to more easily undo the frequent misdirection on account of confusion in the myriad of menus. At least the screen is large.
The ES comes standard with a 10-way power driver seat, while the available 12-way seat brings extendable lower cushions to support the thighs of long-legged drivers. In the rear there’s actual room for three adults. There’s a pass-through to the trunk, for things like skis.
On account of its battery pack, the ES300h hybrid doesn’t have this pass-through to its trunk, and the trunk is a bit smaller. The hybrid is also a bit louder in the cabin, with its four-cylinder engine that’s raspier than the smooth V6 in the ES350. Otherwise the dampening of road and wind noise is stellar.
The standard 268-horsepower V6 is used in many Toyota models, which takes off some Lexus luster but not any performance. The optional Drive Select system increases acceleration, but we found it to be just fine in Standard mode. The six-speed automatic works well, but it’s still down a couple of cogs compared to its competitors.
The ES 300h is surprisingly vivid, with acceleration that gets up and goes, and it offers 39 Combined miles per gallon. However, if you’re driving it to get up and go, you won’t get 39 mpg. Its standard Drive Select system has Eco, Power, and EV modes. Eco is for fuel mileage, Sport quickens the car’s response, and EV enables the car to travel short distances at low speeds without gas. It’s mostly good for parking lots.
Compared to other Lexus and Toyota hybrids, we could hear a bit more whine from the electrical components. But we think that’s only because the ES cabin is so well sound-proofed against other noises. That’s the Catch 22 that drives engineers crazy; the quieter you make a car, the more you hear lower decibel sounds you never heard before.
Many luxury sedans nowadays have rides that are firm. The ES350, though not a luxury sedan, isn’t among them. It rides softly. The standard wheels are 17-inch alloys, although the models we’ve tested have had 18-inch wheels. That makes the tire sidewalls narrower, to keep overall diameter the same, and narrower sidewalls mean a firmer ride, but the ES350 doesn’t seem to feel the effects.
Its driving dynamics are relaxed, offering a breath of fresh air from a segment where many cars have become sportier than many buyers want. Yet it can feel politely athletic when it’s called upon to be, with steering that’s firm but not heavy. It tracks straight and predictably.
The brake-pedal response on the ES 350 could use some improvement, however. It’s way too spongy, without the firmness that’s necessary for confidence. The ES 300h has the same problem only different, with its regenerative braking system that recovers energy. The transition just isn’t smooth.
The Lexus ES350 is a safe choice among near-luxury cars, with no surprises or doubts. Solid powertrain, excellent cabin, comfortable ride, decent handling. And it’s literally safe, with features that are standard in 2017. The ES300h hybrid is a worthy contender in the near-luxury hybrid field, with its excellent performance and fuel mileage.
Sam Moses contributed to this review, with staff reports from The Car Connection.