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2015 Lexus ES 350 Test Drive Review
Flawless refinement and upscale appointments stroke the sybarite with more finesse than ever, making the Lexus ES 350 the very definition of what most luxury sedan buyers want.
Plush, comfortable and everything you want in a luxury sedan, the 2015 Lexus ES 350 gets you to wherever you’re going in style and sophistication, and with all the bulletproof reliability for which the brand is known. Better still, this car is more engaging to drive than you might expect. But that doesn’t mean it’s a sport sedan by any stretch of the imagination.
Look and Feel
When Lexus debuted as Toyota’s luxury brand in 1989, the flagship LS model got all the headlines, but it was the less expensive ES model that would ultimately prevail as the most popular model. Not that first one, of course. People in the know had a smug chuckle at the expense of buyers who bought that first ES 250, as Lexus did little more than slap the Lexus logo on a Camry, tweak the exterior a bit and tart up the cabin with shiny strips of wood. Had it been up to the original ES to carry the newly minted Lexus badge to success, it likely would have failed.
Since then, the ES has come into its own. Yes, this latest sixth-generation version of the sedan still shares a platform with a more plebian Toyota, now riding the Avalon’s extended Camry underpinnings, but the ES 350’s flawless refinement and upscale appointments stroke the sybarite with more finesse than ever, making it the very definition of what most luxury sedan buyers want.
A sexy Lexy this is not. Although its exterior styling is appealing and broadly handsome, the Lexus ES is not particularly eye-catching or charismatic. Instead, this is a conservative, no-nonsense car designed for those who want to be cosseted but don’t want to garner a whole lot of attention.
Lexus offers this popular luxury sedan in ES 300h and ES 350 models, the former a gas-electric hybrid model commanding a near-$3,000 premium and covered in a separate overview. Also, in a bid to draw younger buyers to the ES, it is offered in a limited-production Crafted Line series that basically blacks out the exterior trim and is sold only with Ultra White paint and a 2-tone Cabernet and Black NuLuxe (leatherette) interior. It also includes a set of high-end duffel bags and a handful of upgrades not offered as standard equipment.
My test car for the week was the Lexus ES 350, wearing a base price of $38,475 including the destination charge of $925. My test car’s sticker price read $44,180, reflecting the additions of the Premium Package (upgraded wood trim, memory for the driver’s settings, power tilt/telescopic steering wheel), wood-and-leather steering-wheel and shift-knob trim, heated and ventilated front seats, a navigation system, Lexus Enform App Suite technology, front and rear parking sensors, and a set of snazzy 18-inch aluminum wheels.
While that’s an expected price for a nicely equipped luxury sedan, my ES 350’s equipment list nevertheless felt bereft of features you’d expect to find. For example, it had plush and convincing NuLuxe leatherette, not leather. It also lacked the available 15-speaker Mark Levinson Surround Sound audio system, panoramic sunroof, power rear sunshade and manual rear side sunshades, automatic high-beam headlights, rain-sensing wipers with de-icing feature and power-closing trunk. A blind-spot warning system with cross-traffic alert was missing in action, as well as a lane-departure warning system and adaptive cruise control with a pre-collision system. Install these features, and the ES 350 rises to more than $50,000.
Whether you’re cruising around town or merging onto highways, the ES 350’s 3.5-liter V6 is a model of refinement. While 268 hp may sound modest compared to other luxury sedans, it feels lively and delivers an unexpected thrill. Lexus claims a 0-to-60 acceleration time of 7.1 seconds, but independent publications have been able to shave up to a half-second off that time. So yeah, the ES 350 is surprisingly swift.
You don’t even need to change gears manually to extract maximum driver enjoyment. The well-matched 6-speed automatic transmission quickly chooses the correct gear and delivers the power to the car’s front wheels. After a week of driving, I got a respectable 22.1 mpg with the Drive Mode Select system in Normal mode the majority of the time. That’s short of the EPA-estimated 24-mpg-combined rating for this car, but the majority of my miles were conducted in the city, suburbs and heavy L.A. traffic.
If you’re looking for a capable back-road sport sedan, may I direct your attention to the excellent Lexus IS 350. While the ES 350 handles a twisty road better than might be expected, performance driving is not its forte despite the presence of a Sport driving mode, precise steering, stout braking components and my test car’s 18-inch aluminum wheels.
Rather, the Lexus ES 350 is tuned to provide a composed, peaceful ride on the types of highways and byways that most people travel most of the time, and at that it excels. In terms of driving dynamics in these environments, it feels like there’s a layer of butter coating the mechanicals, and most bumps are easily soaked up by the suspension, delivering a silent, plush commute. And isn’t that what everyone really wants?
Form and Function
Slip inside the ES 350’s cabin and you’ll see why people pay more for a luxury car. Everything is assembled with precision and care, and all the materials exude quality in terms of look and feel. Even the standard NuLuxe upholstery fooled me with its authentic feel, feeling just like high-end leather to me. Better yet, its perforations allow for both heating and ventilation. As a result, both front seats are supremely comfortable and provide myriad adjustments.
While the ES has traditionally served as an entry-level model for Lexus, this latest iteration is anything but. Now built on a long-wheelbase platform, the rear seat is positively cavernous, with big, wide-opening rear doors to facilitate easy entry and exit. Although they can make for some hairy moments in crowded parking lots when careless children attempt to throw them open, the design definitely made it easier for my aging mom to get into and out of the car. Once seated, three adults will find plenty of room to stretch out, especially when the front seats aren’t positioned all the way back. This is a great car to have if you find yourself toting rear passengers on a frequent basis.
Visibility is excellent thanks to big side mirrors and slim roof pillars. I didn’t even miss the lack of a blind-spot warning system all that much. Another thing I liked about the ES 350 is that it offers lots of knobs and buttons that are clearly marked and logically located, making the ES easy to use. For features contained within the display screen, the ES 350’s haptic feedback mouse-style controller proves intuitive, in my opinion one of the better ones in the field.
Pop the ES 350’s trunk to find 15.2 cubic feet of cargo space. That might not sound accommodating, but Lexus provides a large, flat load space shaped to fit plenty of gear.
Lexus calls its suite of infotainment services the Enform App Suite. Simply connect your smartphone via Bluetooth, and you’ll be able to perform numerous functions right on the car’s display screen, all powered by apps you’ve downloaded to your phone ahead of time.
Voice-recognition technology and the mouse-style controller provide access to local listings and live radio nationwide, and facilitate placing restaurant reservations or buying movie tickets. Through Lexus Enform Destinations service, you can get 24-hour assistance from a live agent who can help you with whatever you might require, and you can search for, save and upload destinations to the car from the comfort of your home or office.
New for 2015, the Lexus Enform Remote mobile app lets you start the engine and check how much gas you have left right from your phone. That way, the ES 350 will be at the proper temperature by the time you get in the car, and you’ll know if you need to visit a gas station or not. Oh, and if you’ve lost the car in a crowded parking lot, this new app helps you find it.
Unfortunately, my test car lacked the lush Mark Levinson 15-speaker premium sound system, an available option that is absolutely worthwhile for any audiophile.
Lexus didn’t equip my test car with the ES 350’s available safety technologies, either. Aside from a standard reversing camera and optional front and rear parking sensors, as well as Safety Connect service that gets help to the ES 350 as soon as is possible following a collision, my $44,000 ES 350 was bereft of safety-related upgrades.
Among the items missing were a blind-spot warning system, a cross-traffic alert system, and a lane-departure warning system. Personally, their omission didn’t matter, but lots of luxury sedan buyers might expect such technology at this price point. That’s a perfect example of the trade-offs commonly associated with selecting a luxury brand over a mainstream one. In this case, you get a premium nameplate, but less actual equipment compared to a Toyota.
Lexus also offers Dynamic Radar Cruise Control with a Pre-Collision System for the ES 350, which is designed to help a driver avoid a collision. If one occurs anyway, rest assured knowing that the Lexus ES protects occupants with a 5-star overall crash-test rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has yet to officially rate the 2015 ES 350 as this review is written, but last year’s structurally identical model earned a Top Safety Pick designation.
If there is an area in which Lexus can improve the ES 350, it is in terms of cost effectiveness. Based on a Toyota Avalon platform, and equipped with the same drivetrain as the Toyota, one might think the cost savings associated with such an approach would allow Lexus to better equip an ES 350 priced at nearly $45,000. Still, even when you add all the extras, the ES 350 leaves off where something like a Mercedes-Benz E350 starts.
Value ratings from ALG and Consumer Reports don’t improve the picture. The former gives the ES 350 an average rating for depreciation over time, and the latter reports that it expects ES owners to spend more than average owning and maintaining this vehicle. Maybe it makes more sense to pick up a nice, lightly used ES coming off lease.
Where Lexus clearly delivers is with regard to quality and long-term dependability, and given the amount of time I spent trudging around in traffic, real-world fuel economy hits the mark. If you’re the type who buys a car and keeps it for a good long time, the ES 350 makes all kinds of sense. And you’ll be swaddled in comfort during all those years of ownership.
Liz Kim has worked within the world of cars for 15 years, at various points reviewing and writing about, or analyzing and marketing, everything automotive. It’s no wonder that she married a fellow automotive journalist. Liz can be found examining and assessing the latest vehicles when she’s not busy keeping the peace between, and the schedule for, her two young daughters.
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2015 Lexus ES 350 Top Comparisons
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Looking for a Used ES 350 in your area?
CarGurus has 4,763 nationwide ES 350 listings starting at $3,981.
Lexus ES 350 Questions
Who pays for safety, cost for a safety? I was told over $500 for a safety not a certificate. Is a UVIP needed and who pays?
I got hit by a deer and my Lexus was totaled. What should I get for it from the insurance Co.?
My car is CPO and has the ULTRA LUXURY PACKAGE which is not listed. It just states OVERPRICED. This is deceptive!