The Lexus ES (Executive Sedan) has long undercut traditional luxury cars, providing a quiet, smooth ride with strong power from a well-tuned V6 engine. Adding to the charm of the ES has been reasonable pricing, excellent customer service, and strong reliability.
The current ES model adds stronger performance, thanks both to new technologies and to a larger engine, the same 272 horsepower V6 that’s used in the Camry.
The 3.5 liter V6 has dual variable valve technology, which adjusts both timing and lift of the intake valves, and timing of the exhaust valves. The result is an engine that has an unusually broad torque curve, so it doesn't need to be revved high but breathes well when it is; and which produces good gas mileage and smooth idling, without sacrificing power. The engine is unusually quiet, and makes little fuss as it revs up. The idle is smooth and luxury-car quiet, inside and out.
The transmission kicks down rapidly and has a responsive, tight feel, but the engine is still a “revver.” That said, if you want acceleration, it’s only a brief downshift away. Drive normally, and the powertrain is practically invisible, with the nearly silent engine and near-perfect shifts; drive aggressively, and the ES350 will give up some of its polish and send you hurtling forward without qualms. Acceleration is not V8-instant but it’s close. Sixty miles per hour comes up in 6.8 seconds, yet the ES350 feels faster than the LS460 which does 0-60 in about 5.4 seconds. In all, the ES350 ends up being more fun than the LS, precisely because it is less polished. That’s not to say that the ES350 is unrefined; the ES is probably the smoothest, quietest car in its class, with its primary competition coming from the Toyota Avalon.
Cornering felt fairly lively; the ES is not Lexus’ indicated sporty car (that’s the GS), but it did take turns quite well, without fuss, and acceleration was quite good with no need to think about passing power. There was a little torque steer under full throttle but nothing dangerous or disquieting. The ride was nicely damped down, with bumps handled well while road feel was still transmitted. Severe shocks were dampened but still felt, while the LS magically eliminated them.
Air conditioning was strong and had no apparent impact on power; the automatic mode favored higher fan speeds than necessary, and with the navigation system lowering the fan took more attention than it should (that's not an issue without the nav system). The fan was fairly noisy on high speeds, quiet on low speeds; and the air conditioning was strong enough to keep the fan on low speeds most of the time. The center fan vents could not be shut off, and it was hard to redirect air away from either front passenger. On the lighter side, our test car had heated/cooled front seats, a boon in summertime.
The ES 350 now includes a standard keyless ignition system which eliminates the key for a big black key fob in a leather case. The doors instantly unlock when you touch the door handle, and lock when you press a button that's on every door; the car starts itself when you press the Engine Start button (no need to hold it until the engine catches). If the battery fails, you can open the door using a hidden mechanical key, and start the car by touching the fob against the start button. In a rare failure of ergonomics, there's no shelf or ledge to hold the key in plain sight if you don't happen to have it in your pocket or purse.
Controls were generally conventional, aside from the keyless ignition. The cruise control was the standard Denso unit with an extra stalk; if you get the adaptive (laser-guided) system which maintains a set distance between your car and the next car in front, it's a little more complicated, but still easy to use. Gas cap and trunk lid release buttons were in clear sight, and backlit, on the dashboard, as is the mirror control. Window controls on the door are also lit at night, but the lock control is not; since the locks release when going into Park, this is probably not a problem. The steering wheel had radio controls (volume up/down and radio station preselect or track up/down) on one side, and phone/trip computer displays on the other. The trip computer rotated between outside temperature, distance to empty, average mileage (for the tank and since reset), current mileage, and average speed. Outside temperature showed on other displays, including average miles per gallon.
The gearshift indicator indicated manumatic mode with an S (for Sequential) and showed the gear only when in Sequential mode. For reasons we can’t possibly guess, the car always wanted to start in fourth gear when S is chosen, including from a full stop. We didn't use the sequential mode much; the standard automatic was nearly always in the desired gear, though sometimes it was a little slow to upshift and save a little gas. This brings us to gas mileage, which was quite good on the highway - around 28 mpg despite slowing and surging traffic. Around town we fell to around 20 mpg. The EPA estimates of 21 city, 30 highway are achievable and some drivers may even do better.
The optional navigation system on our car was similar to past Toyota systems, but seemed more responsive. It still routed us strangely at times, and seemed very stubborn when we changed routes, demanding on one occasion that we turn around and drive 20 miles out of the way to take the route it wanted us to, but there are times when it can be handy indeed, if only for its map feature. The display was easy to read and it allowed entry via faux-keyboard in alphabetical or QWERTY order. Climate control and radio operations were largely integrated, so setting radio presents meant pressing Audio, then holding a finger down on the station; once set, presets could be selected via the wheel or dashboard up/down key. Setting the vents and fan speed for the climate control was done solely via the nav system. It also allowed for changing the park-assist settings, provided a calendar and telephone control center, and included a maintenance log with separate settings for oil, brakes, tire rotation, and many other items, with three personalized settings. The navigation system stereo had excellent sound, albeit with somewhat boomy bass that could be dialed down.
The stereo also had an auxiliary feed in the center console, an excellent place for it since an iPod can be kept there, out of sight; next to the audio jack was a power feed (cigarette-lighter style) to power the iPod. You could also use a different device, but with a Lexus, an iPod just seems right.
Though the door sills look high outside, visibility from inside was good, with the usual rear-pillar blind spot ameliorated by window glass where some cars put a money-saving plastic triangle. The mirrors were nicely sized, the headlights bright and well focused; our test car had the adaptive headlights that actually turned in the direction of the steering wheel, which made driving around turns safer and was interesting to watch as well. The trunk is a bit high and limits rear visibility, a problem solved both with the rear-view camera (only available with the nav system) and obstacle warning system.
Our test car did not have the dual-sunroof feature, but it did have a standard, oversized sunroof with a solid-feeling, smooth sunblocker. Two controls were provided, one for tilt and one for slide. The control console also included the dome light (standard bulb) and map lights (LED bulbs), and a sunglass tray.
Storage places were all over, including map pockets in both front doors and on the seatbacks (the retractable pullout kind, requiring too much force for kids to use); a small pocket to the left of the wheel; the ashtray and cupholders, complete with real-woodtrim cover; and the center console, a trick piece whose cover slid back on its tracks while the front piece slid down to increase accessibility without resorting to that cheap-seeming trick of simply having the cover flip over. The center cubby was nicely sized, not too big or too small, with a removable hanging tray for smaller items. The glove compartment was spacious enough to hold more than the huge volume showing how the car works (with a smaller quick-start guide), with an easy/open, easy-close door. We still wished for a place to keep keys in the open, and ended up using a cupholder. Cost cutting showed up in the passenger side of the interior, which was not as well-trimmed, with large expanses of blank plastic admittedly broken up by a curve here and chrome there; the door pockets were fixed in place, not foldouts; and some of the more unusual lights were missing.
Rear passengers had a flip-down armrest including dual cupholders; the armrest also served to hide the locking trunk pass-through, which allowed us to carry home an eight-foot pruner, and could also be used for skis and such; we still prefer folding rear seats. The trunk itself was quite large, and rear seat room was also capacious, with plenty of leg and shoulder room.
The 2007 Lexus ES 350 retails at $33,870, which includes a shocking number of standard features, beyond the 3.5 liter V6 and six-speed automatic. The silly features include dual exhaust with chrome tips, 17 inch alloy wheels with seven spokes, the keyless ignition and locks, automatic headlamps, sequential shifter, and LED interior lights.
Safety features included the usual dual front airbags, side airbags (two each for each side), seat-belt pretensioners with force limiters, repair and first aid kits, and theft deterrent system. To actually prevent accidents the ES includes a powerful rear defroster, auto-dimming inside rearview mirror, heated outside rearview mirrors, stability control, antilock brakes with ventilated front discs, traction control, electronic brakeforce distribution, tire pressure monitor, and front and rear stabilizer bars.
Luxury features included ten-way adjustable front seats, single-touch moonroof, automatic dual-zone climate control, six-disc CD player with automatic sound leveler and eight speakers, power windows with one-touch up/down control and pinch protection for each door, power/tilt telescoping steering wheel with audio controls, cruise, setting personalization, floor mats, and full lighting package, including floor lights.
Our test car was rather well optioned, running to nearly $44,000. The big ticket item was the luxury package, which really made our ES into a Lexus, at a cost of $5,380; that included the leather trim with memory front seats/mirrors, wood steering wheel, larger moonroof, heated and ventilated front seats, high-intensity discharge headlights that swivel to focus their light where you’re going, power rear sunshade (actually that showed up on the invoice but didn’t appear to be on the car), rear-seat side airbags, rain-sensing wipers, cellphone integration, and ten-spoke graphite wheels with full spare.
The next most expensive option was less worthwhile, in our opinion, at $4,050: it included the navigation system with rear camera, Mark Levinson audio package, and cassette player. Then the minor options were the $500 intuitive parking assist (warning beepers), and the combination of trunk mat, cargo net, and wheel locks, for $194. Of the options, we’d say the ones you really shouldn’t do without are the parking package, net-and-locks, and, following those and if you have the money, the luxury package. The navigation system remains a quandary and in the end we’d sooner use Google Maps and/or a cheap handheld system than give up so much control over the stereo and climate control; losing the rear view camera hurts, but with the beepers it’s not so bad.
Overall, the Lexus ES 350 is a bargain at the price, especially given the high resale values. Lexus claims it is faster and more luxurious than the original LS, proving that over a decade of progress has its rewards; that really isn’t as important as seeing how much better it is than many other vehicles that cost more, and in some cases far more. We seriously liked the ES, and it was a struggle to give this one back without getting one of our own.