If the grille gets any larger, there won’t be a bumper.
Certain reputations are hard to shake. Big, soft and meant to coddle, Lexus’ vehicles are often seen as cars for the older sort — the orthotic inserts of the luxury automotive industry, if you will. With a sharper underlying chassis and a new F Sport trim, the midsize Lexus ES does a good job showing that Toyota’s fancier sibling is moving in a younger direction, but it still has work left to do.
LikeImproved stylingSoft or sharp when desiredTop-notch build quality
Don’t LikeF Sport trim is a little gimmickyInfotainment remains awful
For the youths
Reinventing yourself occasionally requires starting again from the ground up, and that’s what Lexus did with the ES. For this new generation, which landed in the 2019 model year, the ES rides on Toyota’s TNGA platform, a do-it-all modular chassis underpinning new Toyota vehicles large and small. Loaded with high-strength steels and modern engineering know-how, TNGA has given a wide swath of Toyota vehicles new life through improved handling and composure.
You can definitely feel this upgrade without trying very hard. Even a quick drive to the store in the Lexus ES 350 F Sport and you’ll notice much more cohesion in how the car moves, eschewing some of the loosey-goosey handling present in its forebear. In F Sport guise, my tester rocks the optional adaptive variable suspension, which stiffens the car up in sportier modes, accessed by a sort-of-oddly-placed mode knob jutting out from the dashboard atop the gauge cluster.
Surprisingly (to me, at least), it’s impressive how dramatically the ES 350’s character changes in this new generation. Flipping that mode dial produces actual, tangible variation in the car. In Sport, the suspension gains stiffness, giving me enough confidence to actually chuck the thing around. Sport S+ mode takes things even further, adding more weight to the variable (but still numb) steering while further tightening the dampers and even piping in some “sound enhancement.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say it transforms into a sports car, since it’s still a massive sedan with front-wheel drive, but this car does provide some youthful appeal in a way that no other Lexus ES ever has.
Younger buyers also appreciate a bit of flash, and don’t worry, Lexus has come through there, albeit in more traditional Lexus fashion. The ES 350 F Sport carries a few unique exterior touches to help differentiate it from more pedestrian trims, like a blacked-out grille, darker taillights, a trunk-lid spoiler and angrier lower fasciae, and it all looks pretty good. The interior picked it up, though; the ES no longer looks stodgy and dated, thanks to a vastly improved design inside that makes better use of interesting angles. My tester takes things a step further with dramatic red leather on the center console, door panels and seats. It’s a bold strategy — and an even bolder color choice in a typically conservative car — so credit where it’s due for taking a little risk. One part of its roots that Lexus didn’t abandon, though, is its adherence to build quality, which remains top-notch.
You know what else young buyers like? The latest in-car tech. Want to know where the ES 350 partially fails in its mission? You guessed it, and like every other Lexus of late, the blame is placed solely on the infotainment system. An 8-inch screen is standard, unless you opt for factory navigation, which boosts the screen size to 12.3 inches. No matter what, the underlying tech stinks. The touchpad has never been intuitive or engaging to use, snapping to each menu item awkwardly as you drag a finger aimlessly in the hopes that you’ll maybe find the setting you want in the morass of poorly arranged menus. It’s distracting. That said, a Wi-Fi hotspot and Apple CarPlay are standard (Android Auto is, too, on cars built after October 2019), so there are some silver linings on this hulking, ever-present tech cloud. Just slap a fancier skin on Toyota’s vastly superior Entune hardware and call it a day already.
Lexus’ mish-mash approach to switchgear and telematics might frustrate some, as well. Take the climate controls, for example: While nearly every HVAC function has a physical button under the screen for easy access, something simple like syncing the climate zones together requires a multistep dive through the menus using that godawful touchpad. At least the heated-and-ventilated seat controls are still buttons.
Is all this enough to produce a dramatic shift in appeal, though? The ES 350 F Sport carries a price tag aimed more toward the young at heart than the actually young, with a starting price just under $45,000 and my tester ringing in at $53,950 after destination. There are a lot of actually sporty cars in that price range, including some SUVs, and many of them don’t have years of geriatric-friendly baggage to eschew as part of a reinvention. To me, it seems more like a play to scoop up middle-management-type buyers who want to remind the world (and themselves) that they still have a fun side, consumers who might otherwise gravitate to sharper cars like the Mercedes-Benz E-Class or Volvo S90.
The ES 350’s interior will no longer put you to sleep — but it’s not like the leather isn’t comfortable enough to support that.
For the olds
Despite the ES 350’s thorough de-aging process, this sedan remains relatively old-fashioned, which means there’s still plenty of appeal to keep buyers of prior ES models in the fold.
Even though there are vast improvements in the way the ES 350 handles, especially in F Sport guise, it remains a soft, comfy cruiser at heart. Keep the car in Comfort mode, and it’s going to be the same predictable luxury sedan as it always is, soaking up bumps and transferring little jostling to the cabin. The ES 350’s 3.5-liter, naturally-aspirated V6 now puts out 302 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque, and while it feels a smidge more sprightly, the lack of a turbocharger means torque takes time to accumulate as the rev counter rises, leading to an underwhelming experience — not a problem when you never intend to depress the accelerator more than an inch or two.
At an EPA-estimated 22 miles per gallon city and 31 mpg highway, the ES 350 F Sport is also pretty frugal, although it loses a couple mpg in its sportier suit. This frugality is thanks in part to a new eight-speed automatic transmission that likes to live in the fuel-efficiency sweet spot when left to its own devices. The gearbox’s shifts are unobtrusive, if a bit pokey, keeping smoothness at the forefront of the ES 350’s driving dynamics.
Cast this system into the sea and be done with it.
One thing older buyers might not like about the ES 350 F Sport, though, is the noise. I’m not talking about engine noise — I’m referring to wind and road noise, which crops up more often than I’ve come to expect from the eerily quiet interiors Lexus is used to building, something I’m sure longtime Lexus buyers will notice.
Safety will always be a key component in purchasing decisions, and to that end, the ES will absolutely delight owners. Every Lexus ES comes standard with Lexus Safety System+ 2.0, a cadre of active and passive safety systems including automatic emergency braking, full-speed adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, lane-departure warning and automatic high beams. Everything’s content to hang out in the background until needed, and when it does pop into the forefront (like, say, when you drift too close to the white line), the tech doesn’t catch the driver by surprise with any ham-fisted movements, as they are smart and predictable in their operation. If you want blind spot monitoring, though, you have to shell out $1,065 for a package that includes active parking assist and rear cross-traffic alert.
Down to brass tacks
The 2020 Lexus ES remains but one fish in a relatively large pool. It may have the price advantage over similarly sized luxury competitors like the Mercedes-Benz E-Class and BMW 5 Series, but those cars are also much sharper when pushed, even without bringing the AMG and M divisions into the mix. The Acura RLX won’t exist for much longer, and it never really felt cohesive in the way the ES does. There is, however, strong Japanese competition from the Infiniti Q50, at least in the dynamics department — Infiniti’s telematics situation is about as sad as Lexus’. The Volvo S90 is also a much more interesting choice in the driving department, and it’s a little easier on the eyes, even though its design is a few years old now. There’s also the Toyota Avalon, which is more or less the same car, except with a massive grille and Toyota badges; I haven’t driven it, but colleagues say it’s a bit more engaging than the Lexus.
Lexus has definitely come a long way with the 2020 ES 350 F Sport. It’s more interesting than ever, but in the process of trying to reposition its appeal, it loses a bit of what made it such a popular choice in the first place. It’s not dramatic enough of a shift to alienate its core demographic entirely, as the basic underlying idea of what constitutes a Lexus sedan is still there — and its sales numbers are still trouncing rivals — but I’m left wondering whether or not Lexus did enough to truly make a difference in the long run.