2011 Lexus ES 350 Road Test

The 2011 Lexus ES 350 is a very good car, but is very good, good enough for your dollar?

What It Is/Who It's For
The Lexus ES 350 is the Zen garden of choice for Shriner's Club members who think they're too cool for a Buick.

Best Thing
The ES 350's butter smooth suspension is made of wispy puffs of cotton ball clouds and fuzzy tufts of baby bunny fur.

Worst Thing
Fact: Tranquilizer darts are made from the DNA of rabid ES 350 caught in the wild.

Snap Judgment
The Lexus ES 350 is automotive heaven for your fifth point of contact.


The 2013 Lexus ES was unveiled in April at the New York International Auto Show. It looks like a baby Lexus GS, the other "how long has it been since the last redesign?" Lexus sedan that was recently redesigned. With that in mind, and since we'll soon be driving it, we felt we ought to catch up on old times with the current, soon-to-be outgoing model, for a chat on the porch, to maybe sip some lemonade and reminisce about the good 'ol days when Lexus was atop the world and the Germans had their panties in a wad.

If you don't know, or you haven't noticed, the German automotive brands are on a roll. Finest cars in the industry, they are. For better or worse, not much has changed at Lexus--until next year's remodel, that is. Unfortunately for Lexus, though, the best we've been able to say is that its cars are nice, reliable, comfortable, and that they are practical and represent a good value. But those are the "nice personality" type of compliments, not the passion a luxury car should evoke. Still, the ES 350 is the best-selling vehicle in Lexus' lineup. It's always been the brand's bread and butter model, and for good reason. But is very good, good enough for your money? And, should you snap one up this summer on discount, or wait for the new model?

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

What We Drove

We drove a 2011 ES 350, which is not significantly different than the 2012 model. Standard features include a 268-hp 3.5-liter V-6, six-speed automatic transmission, 17-inch alloy wheels, and eight different airbags spanning front to rear, and left to right, including up and down (knees and curtains). Of course, the ES 350 also includes the federally mandated traction control, tire pressure monitor system, and anti-lock brakes. Additionally, Lexus upped the safety ante with stability control, electronic brake distribution, and brake assist.

Other features include push-button start/stop, a handsome leather-trimmed interior, fancy panorama moon roof, dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth and XM audio, and the nifty rear window power shade. Our test vehicle was handsomely equipped with the Ultra Luxury Package and the Navigation/Mark Levinson Premium Audio Package, and represents more than $7,500 in upgrades. With the Intuitive Parking Assist and backup camera, our options totaled $8,100 exactly for a grand total of $44,500 including delivery.

That's a lot of money, but that's also a lot of car.

The Commute

The Lexus ES 350 was made for commuting. When I think of my 90-mile roundtrip commute, these are the words that come to mind: harmonious, smooth, soft, relaxing, and dull. Like your favorite couch, it just begs to swallow your bodily mass. In that regard, it actually promotes a less stressful ride--if you can stay awake. I say this because, like a faithful dog, it just gives and gives and gives without any complaints.

If you want to drive it hard by mashing the gas and brakes and swerving in and out of traffic, the potent V-6 can handle the task. If you want to sink into the semi-aniline leather couch cushions bolstering your neck and back and drift into space, the feather-like suspension and butter-smooth automatic transmission will allow it. If, like me, you want to channel your road rage into another outlet, the Mark Levinson premium audio system has the power and clarity to shatter your eardrums.

Best of all, the ES 350 rates a very solid 27 mpg highway. Yes, most hybrids can do better, and some can double that figure. But if you don't want a hybrid and you like the sound of a sweet V-6 revving under the hood, the ES 350 is about as "sleeper" as it gets. Because despite the ES' vanilla exterior, its gaudy chrome trim, the fact that it is a rebadged Toyota Camry, and the stereotype and perception of the people you've seen driving them, the ES 350 is more exciting than a hybrid, and better than a Camry.

The Grocery Run

The Lexus ES 350 is ideal for hauling: kids (not too many), groceries (more than you think), and butts. Sometimes even at the same time. So, if your freezer box is low on Lean Cuisine Pesto Chicken with Bow Tie Pasta and Stouffer's Veal Parmigiana, you'll be surprised to learn that the Lexus ES 350's trunk can stow more than a month's worth of frozen meals, canned goods, and a year's worth of Bisquick and Canola Oil. It also has the depth for some foldable lawn chairs and a few soccer bags, though maybe nothing more than a few small potted plants on a Home Depot run.

In the backseat, there are three grandkid-approved LATCH points and enough soft-leather touches to re-skin a cow. That's important for the fifth-point of contact for your square dancing friends riding in the back. They'll probably remark at how comfortable and spacious it is in the rear, and they'd be right.

Around the parking lots, the ES 350 was a breeze to pilot thanks to its front-wheel drive and easy turn-in. And with an abundance of sensors and cameras and beeps and noises warning you not run over the shopping cart behind you, maneuvering into or out of a parking space was a breeze without any scratches or bumps. About the only problem we encountered at the Trader Joe's parking lot was remembering which of the twenty ES's was ours.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

The Weekend Fun

If you like to quilt; if your last car was a Saturn; if the car before that was a Buick LeSabre; if you love to scrapbook; if you volunteer to plan the yearly family reunion; if you are a certified public accountant; if you got more A's on your report card in high school than Friday night dates; if you are an AARP member, or are counting down the days until you can become a member; if you own a landline telephone; if you dream of cutting your bangs but are too afraid of change; if you still use an @aol.com email address; if you regularly host Tupperware parties; if you are right now considering trading in your Toyota Camry for the Lexus ES 350, we promise it will be the most exciting thing in your life.

With the Lexus ES 350, you can do lots of cool stuff on the weekend, like: deliver baked goods to your church group; fill the spacious trunk with Glad bags full of old clothes for the Salvation Army. That's because the ES 350 has four wheels that don't just roll on the ground, but seem to float above it. The bumpy bridges of Madison County are no match for the ES' finely-tuned suspension, and no sweltering heat wave can mess with the ES' automatic dual-zone climate control and ventilated front seats. For that Garrison Keillor sweet tooth of yours, the Lexus Enform with Mark Levinson hard disk drive audio infotainment system can practically store a year's worth of A Prairie Home Companion podcasts. Thanks to the ES' way-too-powerful, 268-hp 3.5-liter V-6, you can block the left lane on the freeway at slower than the speed limit quicker than your neighbor's conversion van.

Summary

The 2011 Lexus ES 350 is a very, very good car. It probably will do everything you need it to do, unless you need a truck, drive 200 miles a day and a hybrid makes more sense, or you have a family of six. Those reasons aside, we still wouldn't want it.

To recap, the Lexus ES 350 is: very comfortable, safe and well equipped; surprisingly spacious; and relatively fuel efficient without wanting for power. It is soft, and floaty, and plush, and very quiet. And those are all very great things to have in a consumer car, and especially one which is cluttered with kids and Little League equipment and groceries and a million other little everyday-life things.

But all great things have a "but," and like great butts, it's the hard-to-measure intangibles that form our opinions: The Lexus ES 350 is a fine car, but it has zero personality. There is no excitement, no desire, and for some, very little reward in driving something so polished that you'd rather soon forget it. For the money, we'd rather drive a car that is as good, if not less refined, but which offered something that could whet our appetite.

There are a number of factors that many consumers consider when purchasing a car. Regardless of the type, and the dollar amount, and the needs that it will accommodate, we believe that cars are less like appliances and more like relationships. With the current-model Lexus ES 350, we feel that our wandering eyes would eventually get the best of us, if even for the younger, hotter 2013 version due shortly.

Spec Box

Price as-tested: $44,935
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 19 mpg
EPA Highway: 27 mpg
EPA Combined: 22mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 407 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Excellent

Notebook Quotes

"Between the front tires hunting frantically for traction, the view from the skyward windshield, and the rapidly-moving mass that's gaining speed in a manner no FWD Lexus deserves to, it's a surprisingly thrilling (terrifying? Dangerous?) experience." -Blake Z. Rong, Associate Editor
"I didn't expect such a satisfying engine in a Lexus." -Matt Askari, Associate Editor
"The parking sensors at all four corners made maneuvering the ES up my tight driveway way too easy." -Jacob Brown, Associate Editor
"I hate the chrome trim. It attracts the worst fingerprints and looks incredibly messy ALL the time." -Jason Davis, Associate Editor

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