Hedonism, performance aplenty in Lexus ES 350

The Lexus ES 350 is a front-driver with plenty of power. The handling is a reasonable compromise for an easy ride.
The Lexus ES 350 is a front-driver with plenty of power. The handling is a reasonable compromise for an easy ride.
Posted: April 24, 2011

I've been doing groundbreaking research into the socioeconomic ramifications of brain transplants. At the moment, I am about to place the cerebral cortex of a green and thrifty Prius owner into the skull cavity of a hedge fund manager whose Lexus LX 570 gets 12 m.p.g.

But I will suspend this scientific work to conduct a more layman-accessible inquiry into the nature of the 2011 Lexus ES 350.

The ES 350 is Lexus' best-selling car and least expensive midsize sedan, although the test car's base price of $35,525 and as-tested tag of $44,000 didn't strike this impoverished ink-stained wretch as a sale at J.C. Penney.

The ES 350 is that rarest of Lexusmobiles: a front-driver. It is front drive because it is based on the same platform used in the Toyota Camry. Indeed, it uses virtually the same structure and mechanicals employed in a Camry V-6. The differences are styling, interior design, and a longer litany of standard amenities.

There is, by the way, nothing wrong with recycling the same hardware. It's called "commonality," and it's a tactic used throughout the industry to save development and manufacturing money. The trick is to adequately differentiate your version of the shared machinery - and the Lexus designers have certainly succeeded at that.

Armed with a 3.5-liter 268-horsepower V-6 that takes it from 0 to 60 in well under seven seconds, the ES 350 qualifies as a lively playmate at stoplights.

But that's about all she wrote in the Book of Performance, because the ES 350 isn't intended to increase adrenalin excretion among boy racers. Its core mission is comfort and quietude, not getting through a road course at the speed of light. To this end, it employs a rather relaxed suspension and relatively high-aspect tires to achieve a comfortable ride.

(Tire "aspect" is the relation of sidewall height to tread width. The ES 350's tires have an aspect of "55," which means the tire's height is 55 percent of its width. A performance-oriented car could use a tire aspect as low as "35.")

Obviously, the ES 350's higher sidewall translates into a more cushiony ride than you'd get from a lower-aspect performance tire. What you wouldn't get is the narrower sidewall's greater resistance to distortion during cornering, which enhances handling. Because of the ES's ride bias, it does display some body lean during hard cornering. But it is hardly excessive.

And the trade-off in ride quality is considerable. The ES 350's soft ride and ample sound insulation make it an exceptional highway cruiser and a comfortable comrade during the commuter crush.

This is a car at its best on I-95, where it leaves you feeling calm and cosseted as it gobbles up the miles.

The ES 350 was redesigned in 2007, and it has spent the intervening years receiving annual tweaks. Chief among the 2011 revisions are the engine mapping changes that lop four horsepower off its rating (from 272 to 268) to allow the use of regular gas.

Besides keeping costs down by using regular fuel, the ES 350 isn't real thirsty. EPA mileage ratings of 19 city and 27 highway aren't shabby for a midsize luxury sedan.

The ES 350's styling is at once civil and anonymous. The interior is more memorable, not to mention rich and inviting.

The opulence quotient in the tester was taken to an even higher plane by two expensive packages: the $3,535 "Ultra Luxury Package" and the $4,065 "Navigation/Mark Levinson Premium Audio Package." The former did things like replace the standard leather seat trim with perforated, semi-aniline leather, and toss in items like a wood-and-leather steering wheel and a power rear sunshade.

While the ES 350's list of standard and optional goodies is as long as Paul Bunyan's inseam, the drivetrain choices are not. They consist of the V-6 and a silky six-speed automatic gearbox, period.

But enough of this, I must get back to my research. After I finish the car-owner transplant, I will place the brain of a tea-party hamburger flipper into the body of a liberal sous chef . . .


2011 Lexus ES 350

Base price: $35,525

As tested: $44,000

Standard equipment: The complete luxury gospel according to St. Hedonism.

Options: The luxury gospel to the third power.

Fuel economy: 19 city and 27 highway.

Engine performance: Lively.

Handling: Adequate.

Ride quality: Superb.

Styling: Zzzzzz.

Warranty: Four Years/50,000 miles bumper to bumper.

The Ben Key: Four Bens, excellent; Three Bens, good; Two Bens, fair; One Ben, poor.

Contact columnist Al Haas

at alhaasauto@aol.com.


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