When it came time to choose a vehicle for another review, I asked my Toyota media relations friends to pick something that would be appropriate for a ninth-anniversary trip to Midtown Atlanta and to be featured in a Fourth of July parade.
They sent me the 2015 Lexus ES 350. They chose well.
Every time I review a new car, I compare it to some other car I’ve owned. The 2015 Toyota RAV4 compact SUV, for example, was pitted against the 2007 Chrysler Town & Country minivan my wife currently drives. The 2015 Toyota Sienna minivan was compared to… well, it was also pitted against my wife’s minivan, and so was the 2015 Lexus GX 460 mid-sized SUV.
In that overall contest, the Sienna took the prize by a long shot, yes, even over the more luxurious GX. When I began to review the ES 350 sedan, however, I had to dig a bit deeper.
I compared it to my old 1998 Pontiac Grand Prix GT. Remember the wide-track, “Wider is Better,” two-door coupe with dual exhaust and the 3.8-liter V-6 engine? That’s the car. That’s the one that generated nearly 200 horsepower and, to me, felt like a rocket taking off when I floored the gas pedal.
I bought my Grand Prix as a two-year-old car, but it would still scoot like a brand-new one, except by that time the brand-new Grand Prix models were rolling off the line with 240-hp engines. Still, 195 hp was plenty fast for me.
Fast forward to June 29, which is when my week with the ES 350 began. I rolled that afternoon out of the office parking lot and toward North Jeff Davis Drive. It’s a fancy car, but is it fast?
Turning left onto North Jeff Davis, I punched it. Yes, the ES 350 is quick.
It took me by surprise, actually, it was so quick. I was a few ticks past the posted limit of 35 within only a few seconds, so I eased up and had to be patient until I could reach open waters.
A little bit later, I floored it at a red-green light in a 55 mph zone, and it seemed to reach 60 almost as quick as it had earlier reached 40.
I learned later that Edmonds.com clocked the ES 350 spanning 0-60 in 6.5 seconds. That’s fast. That’s faster than you really need to get to 60. The fastest sports cars only get there two seconds or so quicker.
My Grand Prix wasn’t nearly that fast, even though it had a 0.3-liter larger engine. The ES 350’s 3.5-liter engine delivers 268 hp, but it also has suspension and gearing that make the most of that horsepower, and the result is something like driving a make-your-own-track roller coaster.
I’ve not driven it yet, but the Lexus RC 350, which is a sportier cousin to the ES 350 and also has a 3.5-liter engine in its base model, offers 306 hp and can reach 60 mph in only 5.9 seconds. But most people don’t need that kind of speed, and the RC is more expensive and is only available as a coupe, so let’s get back to why the ES is such a stand-out.
As soon as I clapped eyes on the ES 350, with its bright metallic silver finish and mirror-like alloy wheels, I looked forward to taking it to Atlantic Station later in the week. It just looks like it belongs amid the posh and privileged.
When you sit in the leather seats and grip the wood and leather steering wheel, you feel like you are the posh and privileged. Okay, at least privileged.
By now, I’m getting used to all of the Toyota and Lexus models having great sound systems, climate control features, and great cabin layouts, and the ES 350 gives you all of that and then some. But the ES 350 has something different than the others that takes a little getting used to: The center-console mouse-like device that is used to control the computer apps.
In the other vehicles, normally you have a close-to-hand touchscreen monitor that gives you access to everything from your musical selections to fuel economy information to the weather. In the ES 350, the monitor is not touchscreen, so you use this mousy pointer thing to move your cursor around the screen.
If you test drive one of these cars, sit there in the parking space for a minute or two and access this system when you can give it your full attention because, once you’re rolling, it is a bit distracting until you get used to it.
I’ve read a lot of criticism of Lexus for putting this feature in the ES 350 in the first place, but after a few days of driving it, I not only got used to the controller, but I also grew fond of it. Here’s the deal: The only other option would be for Lexus to make the monitor in this car touchscreen capable, and then, because the monitor is so far into the dash, you’d be leaning forward to access it.
So relax, sit back and get used to the strange, little interface thingy. You’ll get used to it. Eventually, I quite enjoyed the laid-back approach to navigating with the joystick mouse apparatus. With a little imagination, it becomes like playing a video game, and maybe that’s the point of the design.
It struck me, driving this car, that luxury car designers, especially when crafting entry-level vehicles, are actually, finally, thinking of my age group, the Gen Xers, when building these things.
Looking at some of the other models, including the RC 350, Lexus offers a center console-mounted touchpad controller for the app system. I’ll let you know what I think of that option once I get my hands on one.
When Joni and I rolled up to Atlanta on our anniversary, where we enjoyed a delicious meatball meal in the IKEA cafeteria (explanation to follow in Wednesday’s column), we made a list of qualities we enjoyed most about the ES 350.
The first big plus is the navigations system… again. I say this about all of Toyota’s cars, but in the ES 350 it seems that they have the balance just right. When the nice lady reminds you where and when to turn, it’s a pleasant voice that pronounces most streets correctly, and the volume is loud enough to be heard over whatever music is playing. And the split-screen navigation system allows you a lot of flexibility to multi-task or get multi-views of where you’re going.
Next is the vented seats. We enjoyed these in the GX 460, and really this may be one of my top-five favorite car features of all time. It really makes a difference in Atlanta’s summertime climate to be able to feel cool on your back when you’re getting in and out of the car a lot. It has literally saved me from having to change shirts in the middle of the day twice so far this year, and I’m only up to four weeks of car review time thus far, only two of which involved vented seats.
The third thing we loved about the ES 350 is all of the automatic monitoring and assisting going on that helps you get around in traffic and through the parking lots, which in Atlanta can be crazy. You’ve got the pretty-much-standard back-up cameras, which are unbelievably clear on this car; the blind-spot warning indicators; the cross-traffic alarm when backing; the parking assist function; and the lane-departure alert. All of this was useful on that one trip to Atlanta.
After a week of enjoying the high-tech gadgetry, it was difficult going back to our low-tech personal vehicles.
Cruising up Interstate 75 into Atlanta that afternoon, we put the ES 350’s quickness to the test by passing people who got in our way. We were hungry for those meatballs and lingonberry jam. (Again, more on that in Wednesday’s paper.) The precision handling and available horsepower when you’re already up to 70 mph was exhilerating. Tell this car where you want it to go, and it will get there quickly.
With all of the monitors going, this car will also tell you if it thinks you should stay in your lane and slow down. All good stuff in our book.
A few other extras we liked include the power telescopic steering wheel, the traditional clock in the dashboard, and the real-wood steering wheel and other cabin trim.
A luxury car should be as practical as it is beautiful if it is to be truly valuable, and they knock the ball out of the park with the ES 350. You get the sense driving it that you’re not just getting fluff that makes you look smart but that it might actually be smart to drive something like this, especially if you do a lot of driving and entertaining in urban areas.
The ES 350 is an entry-level luxury sedan, so it’s priced starting in the upper-$30K range. The sticker on the one we reviewed was $45,230.
And that brings me to my next point: It may be even smarter for some of you to consider the Lexus Certified Pre-Owned program. You’ll save thousands, and you still get a warranty good for up to 100,000 total miles or three years from your date of purchase. You also get 24-hour roadside assistance, a complimentary loaner car for warranty repairs that take over eight hours to complete, and the really cool Trip Interruption Service.
The Trip Interruption Service gives you up to three days of meals and lodging should the vehicle have mechanical troubles while you’re on the road, and they throw in up to five days of car rental fees.
A quick Internet search revealed several Certified Pre-Owned ES 350 sedans in the south Atlanta area for around half the price of the brand-new ones. For those of us with young children and more on the way, a bit of luxury, a lot of safety and a great warranty just became a more affordable possibility.