The 2017 Lexus ES 350 is about as safe a bet as you can make. Buyers will find expected amounts of luxuriousness, a perfectly plain but comfortable ride, and enough style to stand out without being polarizing. For 2017, a number of advanced safety features were added as standard equipment — for not much of a price increase.
The luxury landscape is changing now that Hyundai has launched Genesis as its own brand in the budget luxury space and the redesigned 2017 Buick LaCrosse benchmarked the ES 350's ride and handling — to great success. Compare the Lexus with the Genesis G80, LaCrosse and a more traditional compact luxury offering, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, here.
The ES 350 is good, but are its changes for 2017 enough to keep up with the competition?
Exterior & Styling
Lexus updated the ES 350 for 2016 with more defined front styling. That minor change hit all the right marks, giving the ES 350 more on-the-road presence, with a larger version of the hourglass grille, updated headlights, foglights and edgier styling. The ES 350’s last full redesign was for the 2013 model year.
How It Drives
Sportiness is not the ES 350’s strongest characteristic; in fact, it doesn’t do sport well at all. You may think that’s a knock against a car priced in a range that preaches sportiness (BMW 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Audi A4), but the ES 350’s casual ride quality is refreshing. Lexus hasn’t ruined the way the ES 350 cruises down the highway by trying to make it handle well. For those who want more of a fun-to-drive car in this price range, Lexus has its IS sedan.
The front-wheel-drive-only ES 350 has a 268-horsepower V-6 that’s also a no-frills experience; there’s no turbocharger or supercharger. Power comes on strong and is well-controlled by a crisp-shifting, six-speed automatic transmission. I prefer a well-built six-speed over a half-baked dual-clutch or eight-speed automatic transmission, but the ES 350’s EPA-estimated gas mileage isn’t very impressive. It’s rated just 21/30/24 mpg city/highway/combined, and that’s where small, turbocharged engines and more advanced transmissions help.
With a V-6 and eight-speed automatic, the front-wheel-drive LaCrosse is rated 21/31/25 mpg, while the rear-wheel-drive C300 with a turbo four-cylinder engine is rated 24/34/28 mpg. The ES 350’s V-6 is, however, one of the few luxury car engines to make its advertised horsepower and fuel economy on regular gas.
Where the ES 350 could improve is its noise level. The way the tires smack the road is loud and intrusive for a luxury car, and there’s off-putting road noise as the tires hum at highway speeds. Buick benchmarked the ES 350 while developing the LaCrosse’s ride, handling and interior sound levels, and I think the LaCrosse is the better-driving car any way you slice it. The rear- or all-wheel-drive Genesis G80 (formerly the Hyundai Genesis) is also ahead of the ES 350 in terms of ride quality.
As the saying goes, it’s what’s on the inside that counts, and the 2017 ES 350 maintains its credibility on the inside even five years after a complete redesign. The LaCrosse doesn’t offer the same level of luxuriousness, which is appropriate considering it starts at a much more affordable price. The G80 is the closer competitor, with high-quality materials similar to the ES — and even richer in some areas, like the door panels, seats and center console. But I’m partial to the ES’ design and more intricate style choices (some say it’s busy), as I think the G80’s interior looks too old-man-ish; the ES merely rides that way.
The ES’ full-size roominess is a strong asset considering most similarly priced luxury sedans are either compact or mid-size. There’s ample room throughout the ES; backseat room is spacious, and the seating position is comfortable, but I didn’t find the front seats overly plush, like the G80's, or as stylishly designed as the LaCrosse's. They’re just kind of there, without any distinction in comfort or style.
Ergonomics & Electronics
It’s about time Lexus rethinks its Remote Touch interface for controlling multimedia, navigation and radio functions. The mouse-style controller was a novelty at first, but after a few years of using it in various Lexus vehicles, I’ve had enough of the awkward interaction and cursor-driven menu system. It’s not easy to use while driving, and the big 8-inch screen isn’t a touchscreen. Of course, you wouldn’t want it to be, considering its position high atop the dashboard. Lexus added a back button for 2017, but it’s just a bandage on an ill-performing system.
A bright spot of the optional multimedia system is the stereo included in the stereo/navigation package. Lexus’ Mark Levinson stereos haven’t been consistent performers from car to car, but the ES’ version has great clarity and was pleasing to my ears when listening to high-quality music.
Cargo & Storage
The ES 350’s trunk is large and usable. At 15.2 cubic feet, it’s sized similarly to the LaCrosse (15 cubic feet) and G80 (15.3 cubic feet). It’s larger than most compact luxury sedans’, like the C-Class’ 12.6 cubic feet. There isn’t a folding backseat in the ES, however, and it’s not a typical option among similarly sized sedans. The LaCrosse has a folding backseat; the G80 doesn’t.
The ES' in-cabin storage isn’t great up front; there’s no space for a phone or pocket items other than the cupholders. It’s a similar story in the LaCrosse, but the G80 has a nifty area ahead of the gear selector for loose items.
The Lexus ES earned top crashworthiness ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. New for 2017, Lexus includes a hefty grouping of standard safety features, including forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control (at high speeds only) and lane departure prevention; blind spot warning is optional. A backup camera is also standard.
I specify “high speeds only” for the adaptive cruise control because, unlike some adaptive systems that can bring you all the way down to a stop then restart in traffic, the ES’ system can be activated only at speeds above 30 mph. It cancels once the ES slows below 25 mph.
The ES’ full-size roominess is a strong asset considering most similarly priced luxury sedans are either compact or mid-size.
Value in Its Class
With a starting price of $39,875 (all prices include destination charges), the ES 350 represents a good value for 2017. Pricing is up only $800 from 2016, and its standard safety features are impressive — plus there’s a standard moonroof and LED headlights. The size-to-dollar ratio is full-size roominess at mid-size pricing.
Our test car’s as-tested price of $46,058 is a fair representation of how to equip an ES 350, with one major exception: It didn’t have heated seats or a heated steering wheel, which I thought was blasphemy during winter in Chicago. If you do opt for the heated wheel, it only heats at the nine o'clock and three o’clock positions. The G80 has heated seats standard at its $42,350 starting price, and an Acura TLX does it at $32,950. In the ES, heated seats are available in a number of luxury and premium packages.
Even with an increasing number of competitors and the ES 350 getting up there in years since its last redesign, it manages to keep its place as a dependable go-to in the luxury market.