On the Road Review: Lexus ES350 F-Sport

On the last day of the Lexus’s visit, 3 inches of fresh snow proved that the season is definitely changing. Early darkness, icy roads and foreboding, gray skies do not generally make for happy motoring. More about this momentarily.

The midsize ES sedan series is the best-selling Lexus car, and has been for a long time. Last year, 2019, sales actually increased over the previous year, even while SUV sales numbers spiked across the industry. Lexus RX sales, the top-selling overall Lexus model as well as the top luxury class SUV, outsells the ES by more than 2-1. 

Our Ultrasonic Blue Mica sample, in F-Sport trim with a luscious red-leather interior, is aimed at bringing down the average Lexus owner’s age from a high of 56 years old, to something more akin to Mercedes, at 51 years old. More about that too.

Lexus now has three models of the ES, with pricing starting at just over $40,000. The standard FWD sedan comes with the corporate 3.5-liter V-6 engine (302 hp) backed by an eight-speed automatic. The ESh hybrid model uses a 2.5-liter four-cylinder with electric motors (215 hp) to achieve a stellar 42-mpg rating. New for this year is a 2.5-liter model without the hybrid, but with optional AWD — the only ES so equipped. 

This creates conundrum number one. Exactly the same size as the Toyota Avalon, and only 2 inches longer between the wheels and 4 inches overall than the Camry, both of which offer AWD and hybrid models, too, can the value-conscious Toyota/Lexus consumer justify the leap to the Lexus badge?

Yes, they can, if you add up the pluses and compare them against the gripes or minuses.

First, the ES features a handsome interior. The red leather is fetching, the seats are very good and the ride is right up the alley of those buyers who, just maybe, used to long for Buicks. Which might explain the CD player. The spacing is generous, even in the trunk, the fuel economy stretches to the high 20s, while the huge center dash screen is bright, colorful and usefully integrated into the cabin. Power delivery is ample, and fluid. And the triple-beam LED headlamps were excellent. Plus, there is a wealth of the latest electronic driving aids, including HID-display, Amazon Alexa and paddle shifters, of course. All in, $53,820.

A smallish fuel tank partially negates the fuel economy level, our sample sedan was not particularly quiet on the highway, and the touchpad controller for the info/entertainment screen is cumbersome, at best, while drawing negative reactions every day I used the ES. The unlimited volume levels used by Toyota/Lexus’s sound systems (what ever happened to just 10 distinct volume grades?) plus the absence of a simple tuning knob for the stereo left me frustrated — and distracted. Small item storage is lacking as well.

And then the unexpected snowstorm came. Lacking the traction aid of winter tires or AWD, the Lexus slithered down the road more than it exercised control. There is no rear wiper, like a crossover/SUV features, and the low operating position of the sedan left me wishing for better visibility in traffic. Curiously, the ES with AWD is only available in a new entry-level model — not in the best-selling versions. 

Little of that may matter in Florida or Arizona, which are Lexus hotspots, where Lexus commands 60 percent owner loyalty — among the highest loyalty in the whole industry. 

Which brings us to the F-Sport trim. Special suspension tuning, 19-inch split-spoke alloy wheels, plus several appearance pieces do not make the ES a “sporty” five-passenger rival to the BMW 5-series, Audi A6 or the Cadillac CT5. And definitely don’t compare this to the new Genesis sedans, a brand playing the Lexus start-up philosophy from 1989 — efficient, value-conscious performance. Lacking the AWD hardware that increases handling and all-season performance is part of the difference, however the ES customer is probably not all that interested in maximum G-load cornering, or winning any stoplight Grand Prixs on the way to dinner. Besides, Lexus makes a midsize sedan aimed at those buyers, or will for a little while longer anyway — the GS series. 

Lexus has earned the space to build whatever it wants — it dominated American luxury sales for years, after pundits and rival automakers said it would never happen. It has made Infiniti and Acura’s car lines practically irrelevant in this segment. 

The ES is a fine example of what represents Lexus quality, reliability. It just feels like it should be a lot more than a posh Avalon.

Next week: Kia K5 GT

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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