Editor's note: This review was written in April 2014 about the 2014 Lexus ES 350. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2015, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
In a segment filled with sedans trying to be overly sporty and track-ready, the 2014 Lexus ES 350 recalls classic luxury with its smooth ride and cavernous backseat.
The ES 350 is uniquely positioned within Lexus' lineup: It's $520 more expensive than the small and sporty IS, and about $10,000 less expensive than the large and sporty GS sedan. Oddly enough, buying the more expensive car doesn't equal getting a roomier one, because Lexus switched the ES to the generously sized Toyota Avalon platform when it was redesigned for 2013, and backseat room grew by a considerable margin.
For 2014, Lexus allows ES 350 buyers to opt for attractive bamboo wood trim that was previously available only on the ES 300h hybrid; LED fog lights and heated and cooled seats in leatherette (imitation leather) are also new. Compare the 2013 with the 2014 here.
The ES 350 shares comfort-focused roots with fellow premium/luxury sedans like the Hyundai Genesis, Lincoln MKZ and Volvo S60; compare those with the ES 350 here.
Styling At a quick glance, it's easy to mistake the ES 350 for almost any sedan in Lexus' lineup. Lexus' modern design is stamped onto every sedan without too much differentiation, except size and some curves here and there. One standout similarity among them all is the hourglass, "spindle" grille. The design and grille work well on the ES 350's dynamic look that debuted with the 2013 redesign.
How It Drives Dynamic styling doesn't equal dynamic handling for the ES 350, and that's not a knock against the car. I can honestly say it's refreshing to drive a luxury sedan that's not trying to run faster laps than the next guy, which is what a lot of the spritely, compact sport sedans in the ES 350's price range are trying to do. The ES 350 cruises down the road like it's always on a leisurely Sunday stroll. Those looking for a combination of dynamic driving and comfort will find more to like in the pricier Lexus GS, which starts at $48,610 including destination charge.
The ES 350's comfortable suspension absorbs bumps well, and it takes virtually no effort to drive the car; its heavily boosted power steering requires only a single finger to turn the wheel. Driving the ES 350 at highway speeds isn't a completely isolated experience, however, as it is in Lexus' LS 460 flagship car or even the Hyundai Genesis sedan. Tire noise on harsh roads contributes to a noisier experience than the more prestigious Lexus and Hyundai sedans offer. You don't feel the bumps in the ES 350, you hear them.
The 268-horsepower V-6 is potent enough and sounds surprisingly muscular for what it is. The engine gives the traction control system a good workout by frequently overpowering the tires on dry roads – cold ones, at the time of testing. There wouldn't be as much drama, however, if the ES 350 had an optional all-wheel-drive system, as do competitors from Acura, Infiniti, BMW, Audi, Cadillac, Volvo, Mercedes and even the Lexus IS and GS. The ES 350 has front-wheel drive only.
A big advantage of the ES is its silky smooth V-6, which makes its full power and EPA gas-mileage estimates on regular fuel. Other potent V-6 or turbocharged four-cylinder engines often require pricey premium gasoline for their advertised power and fuel economy. The ES 350 runs at its peak on the cheap stuff. Gas mileage is also notable for a V-6, with ratings of 21/31/24 mpg city/highway/combined.
Interior Luxury-car prices are generally commensurate with their interior size: Buy the next step up and you'll get more room. Not so with the ES 350. The ES has almost as much room to sprawl out in the backseat as the LS 460 sedan, though the wider LS 460 has the advantage in making the backseat feel roomier, with almost two additional inches of width. The ES, however, has more rear legroom (40 inches) than the LS 460 (35.8 inches) and GS 350 (36.8 inches). Switching to the Toyota Avalon platform provided an additional 4.1 inches of rear legroom for the ES 350 versus the previous generation. Few luxury sedans provide that much backseat room for the money.
Up front, though, seating comfort and adjustability isn't as impressive. I didn't have the lower back support I prefer, and the seats didn't conform to my spine the same way as the ones in the GS 350 we tested at the same time did. The GS' front seats are more contoured than the ES 350's flat and wide ones.
The ES' interior quality is perfectly appropriate for the class, with nice touches of high-quality materials. This is where the ES 350 is a leap ahead of the current Genesis, though a redesigned 2015 Hyundai will debut sometime in 2014. I especially liked the ES 350's optional real bamboo wood trim, which adds an extra highlight to the inside. The bamboo trim is part of a $1,370 Luxury Package that also includes real-leather heated and cooled front seats, a power tilt/telescoping steering wheel and more.
While nice, some say the interior is busy. The bamboo and mix of other materials and textures put off some editors who took issue with what they deemed a quality inconsistency across the range of materials. I didn't find the spread as offensive.
Ergonomics & Electronics One of the stranger areas in what's an otherwise predictable technology experience is the ES 350's available Remote Touch navigation controller, a mouse-like controller for using the car's multimedia, navigation, phone and climate systems. Unlike a common rotary center control knob, the navigation controller has a mound-shaped palm rest and a finger pad on a gimbal used to skim through the various functions of the optional 8-inch navigation screen. I'm a fan of rarely having to lift a finger to work the system, though my experience seemed like a minority opinion around the water cooler.
Cargo & Storage The ES 350's 15.2 cubic feet of trunk space is more than the pricier GS 350's 14.3 cubic feet and similar to the MKZ's 15.4 cubic feet and the Genesis sedan's 15.9 cubic feet. Just like the Avalon, a small pass-through in the center of the rear seat is the only link between the cargo area and the interior space because the rear seats don't fold flat. The Genesis sedan's don't fold flat either, though the MKZ's do. We fit plenty of goods in the ES' trunk without a folding seat, however, including grocery bags, a stroller and golf clubs with no issues. In fact, it was easier to fit those items in the ES than the GS.
Up front, the center console is cluttered with items like the navigation controller and driving mode selector, so there wasn't much storage space for all the accessories I carry around: phone, wallet, keys, music player, etc. The limited space and presence of just one cupholder in the console left me stuffing items into the car's side pockets. It became even more difficult to find room for all the junk I carry from car to car when there was a passenger onboard with their storage needs.
Safety The 2014 ES 350 earned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's highest overall crash test rating of five stars. Over at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the ES 350 was missing out on Top Safety Pick status because the small-overlap frontal crash test hadn't been conducted at the time of this writing. The ES scored the agency's highest rating, good, in all other tests. A blind spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert is available for $500. If you add the navigation system, your car will also be equipped with Safety Connect and automatic collision notification, stolen vehicle location, an emergency assist button and roadside assistance. Click here to see a full list of safety features.
Value in Its Class The ES 350's starting price of $37,530 with destination includes imitation leather seating, a moonroof, dual climate control and the roominess of a much more expensive luxury car. With the blind spot monitor, navigation, high-intensity-discharge headlights, power rear sunshade and rain-sensing wipers, our total came to $43,605. The majority of new 2014s in Cars.com's national inventory are listed with an asking price of $40,000-$45,000, so our tester was right in line with the majority of what's available.
Even at $43,605, you'll be hard-pressed to find another luxury car with as much room and luxury on the inside as the ES 350.