Since its introduction in 1989, five generations of the Lexus ES have been based on the Toyota Camry. The 2013 Lexus ES 350 is the first to break that Camry connection.
While some might question the wisdom of adding content and a few design and feature touches to a wildly popular family car and marketing it as a luxury car, the results show consumer are willing to pay extra for the exclusivity and recognition associated with a luxury brand.
The thinly disguised Camry, a.k.a. Lexus ES, has been the brand's best selling car since it was first introduced, with more than one million sold.
The sixth generation ES varies the equation, albeit slightly. It is based instead on the Toyota Avalon, although that car itself is a stretched Camry.
The extra length and wheelbase have resulted in a monstrous rear seat and added room in the trunk, features that are sure to appeal to the segment of the population that has embraced the ES. In addition, the new model gets an extra helping of luxury, technology and standard features.
More room and a bit of attitude
Lexus is associated with quality, reliability, a smooth and supple ride and a near silent interior. All of these traits have been retained. The design has always been subdued and the most popular colours beige or white, reflecting this conservative base. Restraint has been the byword.
But here the 2013 ES breaks the mold, displaying a bit of attitude, with a more aggressive stance and the brand’s optical-illusion “spindle” grille, which has become its signature feature.
The longer wheelbase has brought only a marginal increase in overall length – about 25 mm. But it has done wonders for rear seat room and comfort. The folks in back get 18 mm more headroom and 105 mm of additional legroom.
The front seat sits higher allowing more room beneath for big feet and front-seat occupants get a smidge more head- and shoulder-room. We can thank the emerging Chinese market to some extent for this additional rear seat space. People who purchase luxury cars in that country expect to be driven and place heavy emphasis on rear seat space and comfort.
Not only is there lots of room in the rear seat, getting in and out is a breeze and visibility is excellent. There is no driveline tunnel, resulting in a flat floor from door-to-door, further enhancing rear seat usefulness.
The rear seat backs don't fold for added cargo space. However, there is a pass-through provision for long items and the trunk itself is huge.
Warm and inviting
The interior is warm and inviting with a pleasant bend of wood and satin-metal trim. Up front, he driver and front passenger sit on 10-way power-adjustable climate-controlled (heated or cooled) seats, facing a long and flat instrument panel that stretches from door to door, with a row of contrasting stitching across the top.
Lexus says this stitching is done by one of only a dozen or so Takumi craftspeople capable of this work. Since it plans to sell more than 60,000 ES models in North America alone, these folks can probably plan on some overtime.
The company should be able to pay for that overtime using some of the money saved by substituting faux- leather NuLuxe for the standard seat covers instead of the real leather used previously.
Kudos for the interior lighting, both ambient and instrument related. There is nothing glaring or any single source obvious, yet when you need to touch or read something you can do so with ease.
The electroluminescent gauges are among the most legible in the industry regardless of outside lighting. Two large readouts flank a small configurable digital display, all easily seen through a thick tilt-and-telescope steering wheel with real wood top and bottom and padded grips on the sides, with heated elements inside.
A simple-to-operate console-mounted joystick or mouse-like device controls a wide variety of functions, including audio, HVAC, navigation and vehicle settings, all visible on a large (20-cm) LCD screen in the center of the instrument panel. You can also control the same functions by voice-command.
The ES 350 is exceptionally quiet on the road thanks to everything from acoustic glass and special seals to an improved coefficient of drag resulting from a myriad of small details, including little “stabilizing fins” on the doorframes, taillights and underbody covers. They're designed to pull the air tighter to the body as it passes over, creating vortices that help stabilize the car at speed.
The ES can be equipped with a wide variety of technologies, including blind spot monitoring with cross traffic alert, an extremely useful feature that looks for traffic and warns the driver when backing out of a parking spot. Thankfully, there is an off button for the lane departure warning system.
The electric power steering system gets a quicker ratio, meaning there's less hand-over-hand turning in tight parking situations, and the suspension has been tightened up with new springs, dampers and tuning. Still, very few, if any, Lexus ES drivers will choose to tackle the twisties with verve. Despite its new-found alacrity, it's no sports sedan.
The 3.5-litre V-6 engine used throughout the Toyota and Lexus lines is carried over unchanged in the ES. Producing 268 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque, it remains silky smooth and all but silent. Both of these traits are enhanced for 2013 thanks to a quartet of active-control engine mounts designed to reduce vibration.
There is more than enough power for a luxury family car with the ability to scoot from rest to 100 km/h in less than seven seconds.
The same six-speed automatic used in the outgoing model sends power to the front wheels. It has a three-mode “Drive Select” system that adjusts transmission, throttle response and steering effort through normal, Eco, and Sport modes.
Eco dulls throttle response and modifies the air-conditioning operation for efficiency while Sport quickens throttle response and increases steering effort by 20%. The system reverts to Normal mode every time the engine is started, and that is where it will probably be left by most drivers 99.9% of the time.
While the engine and transmission are unchanged, the 2013 ES 350 boasts a 10% reduction in its official NRCan highway fuel-consumption rating. Several factors contribute to that improvement: a reduced coefficient of drag, a 20-kg reduction in mass and a taller final drive ratio.
Combined fuel consumption over the course of my 500-km test period, including plenty of highway cruising, averaged an impressive 8.8L/100km.
After a complete redesign, the 2013 Lexus ES 350 is better than its predecessor in just about every measure.