Oh, the all-new 2019 Lexus ES350 is quiet. As I cruised down L.A.’s infamous 405 freeway—a.k.a. “the four or five miles per hour”—I was actually calm, relaxed, and utterly unperturbed. Yes, traffic was moving at highway speeds for once (I’d hit that magic sweet spot between 10:30 and 10:45 a.m.), but it was more than that. The lavishly outfitted ES350 Ultra Luxury edition I was driving was gliding along almost without effort. The 24-valve, 3.5-liter V-6 was performing its job with a mere murmur. Exterior traffic and wind noises were filtered away by impressive insulation, a super-rigid structure, and even noise-reducing 18-inch wheels ($950). The ride was creampuff genteel. Ahhhh. I even had the superb Mark Levinson Pureplay surround-sound audio system temporarily switched off. In Los Angeles, it’s not often that you get to enjoy the sound of silence.
Composed, efficient motoring is the primary mission of the new ES, and on that major directive it delivers brilliantly. While I’ve driven previous generations of the ES over the years (the 2019 model is generation seven), none have performed at this level of blissful refinement. Partly that’s due to an upgrade during the last redesign from being generally Camry-based to sharing more with the Avalon. But the new Toyota New Global Architecture that underpins this latest Lexus—as well as many Toyotas, including the Avalon—is a significant advance. Compared with the outgoing ES, the new version also stretches its dimensions in meaningful ways. Overall length is up 2.6 inches, the wheelbase is two inches longer, and the body has grown almost two inches in width. The resulting cabin is genuinely spacious, with abundant room for four adults, including class-leading legroom in back, decent space for five, and a respectable 17-cubic-foot trunk.
The new ES also exudes a luxury presence that previous generations lacked. The increased length and width—and a slightly lower roofline—help the 2019 edition look rich and expensive, more “flagship” than “affordable Lexus.” That drama is raised by an enlarged spindle grille up front. Love it or not, there’s no arguing that it’s bold. No previous ES could boast of making a statement. The 2019 can.
Inside, the ES—especially in Ultra Luxury trim—abounds with premium materials and amenities. Standard equipment includes keyless entry with pushbutton start/stop, dual-zone auto climate control, dynamic radar cruise with lane-departure alert, semi-Aniline leather seats (the driver’s chair is 14-way power-operated) with ventilation up front, a hands-free power-opening trunk, a power rear sunshade, and performance-tuned dampers. My test car also boasted blind-spot monitoring with parking assist and auto braking ($1,900), triple-beam LED headlights ($750), the 17-speaker Mark Levinson audio upgrade ($3,000, including a 12.3-inch multimedia display, Apple CarPlay, and Lexus Enform dynamic navigation), a panoramic glass roof ($500), and a heated wood and leather steering wheel ($480). The full sticker was just a tick over $53,000.
At that price the ES represents a solid value, given its room, rich set of conveniences, and sophisticated character. That said, I found the cabin awfully muted and almost somber, the entire space a sea of dark gray with little in the way of cheery accents or contrasting trim. Much of that, of course, simply owes to the way my test car was configured. Other available interior styles—such as tan-colored Flaxen leather with Matte Bamboo trim—are more engaging.
More troubling, though, is the infotainment system. It’s a mess. Despite the large center screen and a row of helpful hard buttons for quickly accessing audio inputs and changing tracks, the system is largely controlled via a touchpad on the center console. And while this pad is improved over versions I’ve used in previous Lexus models, it’s still subpar and difficult to use on the move. Its sensitivity means you’ll struggle to land on the menu or control you’re seeking, and you’ll likely take your eyes off the road in the process. One afternoon, my teenage daughter rode shotgun with me, and I charged her with all infotainment operations. Mind you, the girl plays a computer or smartphone like Paganini, but after a few minutes with the Lexus interface she was howling in frustration—and I was doing all the driving. You have to wonder how a grizzled Baby Boomer at the wheel is going to react when attempting to use this system.
On a far better note, the ES350’s powertrain is sublime. The new DOHC V-6 is a gem, subdued at low revs but growling nicely if you prod it, the 302 horses not excessive but plenty sturdy. The eight-speed automatic dances well, too. Lexus claims a zero-to-60-mph time of 6.6 seconds, but the ES feels a good bit quicker than that. There’s a Sport mode available plus paddle shifters behind the wheel that you can use to summon manual gearchanges, but I rarely used them, and I can’t see many buyers doing so, either. This new ES may hustle far better than any of its predecessors—really, despite the pliable ride it handles darn well if you push it—but that’s not what it was designed to do. Instead, leave it Normal, keep the transmission in Drive, and you’ll enjoy a driving experience that’s exceptionally polished and rarified, especially in this price range.
Any car that can insulate me from the unrelenting crowds and clamor of Los Angeles gets a thumbs-up in my book.
2019 Lexus ES350 Ultra Luxury Specifications
|ENGINE||3.5L DOHC 24-valve V-6; 302 hp @ 6,600 rpm, 267 lb-ft @ 4,700 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan|
|EPA MILEAGE||22/33 mpg (city/highway)|
|L x W x H||195.9 x 73.4 x 56.9 in|
|WEIGHT||3,800 lb (est)|
|0–60 MPH||6.6 sec (mfr)|
|TOP SPEED||135 mph (mfr)|