Road Test: 2019 Lexus ES 350

Those of us who grew up with the Lexus ES when it was nothing but a Camry twin know exactly what the term “badge engineering” is. But nearly 30 years later, the ES has evolved. While it may share the same assembly line (in Kentucky) and platform as the new Camry, that’s about where the similarities end.

Comfort, luxury, technology, and style are very apartment in the 2019 ES 350. With an exterior and interior design based primarily on the LS flagship, engineers embedded the same level of noise reduction and ride comfort that the LS offers. We’re seriously amazed to discover the V6 engine even running when at idle.

The windows slide up and down with a fluidity and silence that is astounding on its own. They’re all auto up/down, and reduce their speed slightly at either end, a luxurious touch.

The 2019 ES is longer, lower, and wider than the previous generation, lending itself to a lower center of gravity and more room all around.

The designer of the ES refers to the new car as provocative elegance, and we couldn’t agree more.

It starts up front with the latest iteration of the brand’s signature grille. It follows the path set forth by the LC coupe and LS flagship, yet adds individual cues that are unique to the ES like the vertical grille pattern and satin plated trim. That theme is repeated at each corner of the bumper to give the ES a wide, planted look that promotes strength and stability.

To complete the transformation of the front fascia, Kajino’s team gave the ES slim headlamps with distinctive “L” shaped marker lights. The triple beam headlights further refine the look with three compact LED projector units that illuminate the roadway incredibly.

In profile, the ES has a dynamic yet fluid shape that starts with the low hood line made possible by the GA- K platform. From there, the roofline remains low and sleek thanks to the relaxed A-pillar that flows smoothly to the sharply slanted C pillar. A long, uninterrupted shoulder line that extends from the top of the front wheel arch all the way to the corner of the trunk serves as a contrast to the smooth arc of the roofline and gives the ES a refined sense of sportiness.

The rear of the ES is clean and sharply chiseled, with LED taillamps that wrap around the quarter panels to provide a continuous styling line from any angle. The lights feature a distinctive three-dimensional, L- shaped design that gives each cluster an eye-catching depth. Finishing off the rear end is a lower valence that highlights the wide stance through the use of chrome exhaust finishers at each corner. On the F SPORT model, a trunk lid spoiler adds a tasteful hint of performance while dark accents along the taillights and lower valance are more subtle indications of its sporting nature.

A wide array of wheel designs adds the finishing touch to the 2019 ES.

Performance
The engineering team led by Yasuhiro Sakakibara was tasked with not only improving the performance of the ES, but transforming it. That required turning a sedan known primarily for comfort and quietness into one that is equally capable of delivering dynamic handling.

According to Sakakibara, this ES was built to deliver a fundamentally higher level of performance than any of its predecessors.

That foundation is the newly developed GA-K chassis. It’s an exceptionally rigid front-wheel drive chassis made from several grades of high-strength steel. The GA-K chassis also incorporates far more structural adhesives than the previous ES chassis as well as the addition of laser screw welds. A total of 785 inches of adhesive is used throughout the structure, more than twice the amount (324 in.) used previously.

Laser screw welding, a construction method shared with the LS sedan, is used in 120 locations throughout the GA-K chassis to further solidify the already robust structure. Additional measures are used to improve front-end stiffness including a strut tower brace, multiple reinforcement panels for the strut towers themselves and new radiator support braces.

Building an all-new structure also gave Sakakibara and his team the opportunity to address noise and vibrations at their source. Sound deadening insulation now covers 93% of the floor pan (up from 68%) while underbody covers and front fender liners further reduce road noise. The installation of performance dampeners is used to reduce vibrations on all Ultra Luxury and F SPORT models. The chassis-mounted dampers absorb even the smallest instances of frame compression and/or flex to keep them from generating any resonances that might generate interior cabin noise.

Suspension
With a solid base to build upon, Sakakibara’s team turned its efforts to designing a suspension that could be tuned to deliver both exceptional comfort and precise handling. The resulting design uses MacPherson struts in front and a trailing arm, multilink setup in back with stabilizer bars at each end.

Although the design of the front suspension is similar to the previous ES, several changes have been made to improve overall responsiveness. The angle of the strut itself has been revised to better align it with the load path from the lower control arm for improved ride quality while an increase in caster angle (+2 degrees) and caster trail (+0.3 in) help to improve straight-line stability. Newly developed Dynamic Control Shocks are capable of responding to even the smallest movements thanks to a non-overlapping auxiliary valve that allows damper oil to flow in either direction before entering the main valve.

The rear suspension design utilizes a trailing arm, multilink setup that also benefits from the responsiveness of the new Dynamic Control shocks. Higher placement of the trailing arm mounting point and a larger bushing size results in better ability to help dampen road irregularities. Wider spacing of the stabilizer bushing mounts also contributes to overall roll reduction.

A new rack-assist type Electric Power Steering (EPS) system is used to deliver a more precise steering feel. Unlike the previous ES which used a steering-column-mounted assist motor, the new EPS setup mounts the assist motor directly on the steering rack which returns more precise feedback to the steering wheel. The new layout also allows for additional adjustability of the steering wheel itself with 1.2-inches of additional tilt and 1.6-inches of additional telescoping range.

All versions of the ES offer a Drive Mode Select system that allows the driver to tailor the car’s settings to varying road conditions. Modes include Eco, Normal and Sport.

In Eco mode, fuel consumption is prioritized by reducing the engine responses to the throttle and suppressing the use of the climate control system. Sport mode quickens throttle responses, changes the transmission shift program and alters the steering assist for added control.

More Power and Efficiency Through Technology
All ES 350s are powered by a 3.5-liter V6 (2GR-FKS) that is designed to deliver effortless acceleration along with impressive efficiency. The latest V6 now features the D-4S fuel injection system which uses high-pressure injectors to deliver fuel directly into the combustion chamber along with a low-pressure system that delivers fuel to the intake ports. Together with the addition of Variable Valve Timing- intelligence Wide (VVTi-W) for the intake valves, the engine is capable of operating on either the traditional Otto cycle during sporty driving or the more efficient Atkinson cycle when power demand is low.

Multiple upgrades to reciprocating parts along with a redline increase from 6,200 rpm to 6,600 rpm results in a total of 302 horsepower at 6,600 rpm and 267 lb-ft of torque at 4,700 rpm. Both numbers are up significantly (+34hp, +19 lb-ft) compared to the previous V6. Fuel efficiency is up, too, with preliminary manufacturer estimates of 22 mpg city, 33 mpg highway and 26 mpg in combined driving.

To complement the power of the updated V6, an all-new 8-speed Direct Shift automatic transmission is used on all ES 350s. The newly developed transmission uses an ultra-thin torque converter and a multi- plate lock up clutch to maintain a direct connection in almost all driving situations. The result is an automatic transmission that has the direct feel of a dual clutch design along with the off-the-line smoothness of a traditional torque converter automatic.

Although the transmission’s shift programs can be altered through the Drive Mode Select system, it also uses AI Shift Control at all times to align the transmission’s shift points with the driver’s intentions.

By constantly monitoring the vehicle speed and the throttle position, the AI Shift Control system can shift early during relaxing driving or hold gears longer when it contributes to a more engaged and predictable feel. A related system called Direct Connected Downshift allows the transmission to skip gears when large throttle openings are detected such as when making a passing maneuver on the highway.

Inside
All Lexus interiors are designed to blend a driver-centric cockpit with spacious and comfortable areas for the passengers. This concept was introduced in the LC coupe, refined in the LS sedan and now expanded to the ES. Lexus calls this concept “Seat in Control,” a simple idea that says, from the moment you get in, all the controls you need are within reach and all the information you want is in plain view. Armrests slide comfortably under your elbows and buttons can be pushed without taking your hands off the wheel.

In the ES, the idea is taken a step further by placing all the main information displays within the driver’s line of sight. This includes the ultra-sharp LCD instrument panel that features a large analog tachometer, digital speedometer and easy-to-read multi-information display. Standard models use a 7-inch screen. Hit a button on the steering wheel and the ring slides over to open up more space for the multi- information display on the left side of the screen.

Another means to reduce driver distraction is the optional head-up display that projects relevant vehicle information onto the windshield. Fully adjustable to suit the driver’s preferred parameters, the color display offers the largest viewable area in the luxury class. In addition to basic functionality like speed, fuel level and shift position, the heads-up display is also capable of showing of speed limit signs, lane keeping assist warnings and navigation directions.

If additional information is needed, the Lexus Multimedia System sits high on the dashboard in a position that minimizes distraction. Measuring eight inches wide on standard models and 12.3-inches wide with the available Navigation package, the Electro Multi Vision (EMV) display features crisp, easy-to-read graphics and a revised menu system. The optional navigation system blends on-board information with cloud-based data for the most accurate directions possible. The updated Remote Touch Interface (RTI) pad now has more usable surface area and vibration feedback to make it easier to use.

What the driver sees is also enhanced by what he or she feels, as the driving position in the ES has been refined with a more natural steering wheel angle, revised pedal positions and standard 10-way power adjustable front seats. The steering wheel itself is borrowed directly from the LS and features an ergonomically shaped rim and optional wood trim and heating elements. Heated seats are also available for the driver and front passenger along with a new suction-type ventilation system that provides improved cooling in hot weather.

Rear seat passenger comfort has long been a hallmark of the ES and the seventh-generation model builds on that legacy by maintaining its expansive accommodations. Despite the sleek roofline, headroom has been increased slightly through the use of a lower hip point and a carefully configured headliner.

Due to the reconfigured rear suspension, cargo room has been increased over the previous model. The ES now boasts 16.7 cubic feet of trunk space along with additional underfloor side pockets for smaller items. The hybrid model also offers the same cargo dimensions since the battery pack is located underneath the rear seat. An optional hands-free trunk opener has also been added to make loading cargo easier than before. Interior storage has been improved as well with the addition of a more easily accessible dual hinge center console and door bins capable of holding 20oz. drink bottles or a 9.7-inch tablet.

In addition to the array of eye-catching paint colors available on the exterior of the ES, the interior features three color schemes, four types of trim and three different material options for the seats. The F SPORT model goes one step further with an exclusive Circuit Red color option that adds red seats and door panels for an even more dramatic look.

Along with the standard Striated Black trim, the ES offers three kinds of wood trim: Linear Dark Mocha, Linear Espresso and Matte Bamboo.

Tech
Staying connected has never been so important to ES owners, so there are now multiple ways to engage with technology in a safe and convenient manner. The new ES is the first Lexus product to offer Apple CarPlay phone functionality, enabling drivers to control their iPhones through the dashboard display screen or with Siri Eyes Free voice control. ES models with the optional 12.3-inch navigation display will offer CarPlay starting from launch, while the standard Lexus Multimedia display system will add CarPlay functionality starting with October production.

The ES is also Amazon Alexa-enabled. That functionality includes car-to-home and home-to-car commands, so owners who have Alexa enabled devices in their home can interact with their ES before they ever get behind the wheel.

A 10-speaker Pioneer audio system comes standard on all models while a 17-speaker Mark Levinson system is available as an option. Along with 1,800 watts of power, the Mark Levinson system also brings Clari-Fi technology to the cabin that helps boost the sound quality of low fidelity digital audio sources.

On board Wi-Fi powered by Verizon is also standard on the ES. Lexus Enform Safety Connect is offered for first 10 years of ownership with access to Lexus Enform response centers 24/7/365. With Lexus Enform Service Connect — also now complimentary for the first 10 years of ownership — the ES can send alerts for specific factory recommended maintenance, simultaneously alerting a preferred Lexus retailer if opted in. The MyLexusandBeyond mobile app can be used to set push-reminders and alerts for maintenance and service issues.

With Lexus Enform Remote, owners can remotely view and control certain aspects of the ES using a mobile app for iOS and Android devices. Functions include remote door lock/unlock; remote start/stop for the engine and climate control; vehicle finder, guest driver monitor and more. Navigation is accompanied by the Lexus Enform Dynamic Navigation with a three- year trial and complimentary Lexus Enform App Suite 2.0.

Safety Tech
One element of the ES that hasn’t been radically transformed is its dedication to safety. All versions of the seventh-generation ES feature Lexus Safety System+ 2.0 as standard equipment. Already one of the most sophisticated systems of its kind, LSS+ 2.0 adds new capabilities that further expand the scenarios and the range of speeds in which it is designed to provide additional safety to the driver and passengers.

An example of such a feature is daytime bicyclist detection which is part of an enhanced Pre-Collision System (PCS) that employs both a millimeter wave radar and a monocular camera sensor. Previously designed to detect a preceding vehicle or pedestrian, the Pre-Collision System now has the potential to detect a preceding bicyclist as well. PCS has also been enhanced to help detect a preceding pedestrian in certain low-light situations by increasing the camera’s sensitivity and dynamic range.

The previously available Lane Departure Assist (LDA) system remains an integral part of LSS+ 2.0. It’s designed to alert the driver when it senses that the vehicle is deviating from its lane with both audible and haptic alerts. It’s also capable of providing a certain amount of steering assist to help keep the car from deviating from its marked lane.

A new feature for LSS+ 2.0 is Lane Tracing Assist (LTA). Like the Lane Departure Assist system, the new Lane Tracing Assist system is designed to detect lane markings to determine lane position. If road markings are not detected, LTA is also capable, in certain conditions, of following the car ahead of it when used in conjunction with the All-Speed Range Dynamic Radar Cruise Control (DRCC) system.

An enhanced version of the All-Speed Range Dynamic Radar Cruise Control System uses a more advanced forward radar sensor that is designed to provide smoother acceleration and braking in heavy traffic. We found it worked superbly!

Also added is a new Road Sign Assist (RSA) feature designed to read certain road signs and display them on the multi-informational display or head-up display if equipped.

Summary Scorecard (1-10)
Ride and Handling 10
Braking 10
Powertrain and Fuel Economy 9
Noise 10
Headlights 10
Interior Fit and Finish 10
Seating 10
Visibility 9
Gauges and Controls 10
Infotainment 10
Crash-Avoidance 10
Total Score  98


Make: Lexus
Model: ES 350
Trim Level: Ultra Luxury
Engine: 3.5L V6
Transmission: 8-Speed Auto
Options: Nav/Mark Levinson Pkg, Parking Pkg, Triple Beam Headlights, Glass Roof, Head-Up Display, Heated Steering Wheel

Base Price: $43,250
As-Tested Price: $53,020

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