Last year, I may have been a little unkind when I reviewed the Toyota Camry. I still wonder if that was because the car we drove was a fully loaded version; the Camry is a utilitarian car, and something about one with a bright red leather interior just didn’t sit right.
After all, if you want a fancy Toyota, there’s an entire brand called Lexus who’s is just that. Which brings us to today’s car, the $43,135 2019 Lexus ES350 F Sport. It is, in essence, a fancy Camry. And while it doesn’t quite live up to the “F Sport” moniker, the end result is really quite good.
All-new architecture, you say?
The new ES is in fact the seventh generation of vehicle to wear the nameplate—that’s not bad going, considering the first ES only turned a wheel in 1989. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising given that the related Camry is now in its eighth iteration, though. And related they are; the Camry and ES both share the same modular Toyota New Global Architecture-K (or GA-K) as starting point, which also provides the building blocks for the Toyota Avalon and RAV4. The layout sticks to the tried-and-tested approach of a transverse engine and front- or all-wheel drive.
It’s a bigger car than the one it replaces, being both 2.6 inches (66mm) longer and 1.8 inches (46mm) wider now (L: 195.5 inches/4,966mm, W: 73.4 inches/1,864mm, H: 56.9 inches/1,445mm), and with the wheels closer to the corners that translates into a roomier interior. (The wheelbase is 2 inches/51mm longer at 113 inches/2,870mm.) According to the designer, Yasuo Kajino, the ES’ look is “provocative elegance.” Insert my usual disclaimer about the subjectivity of car design here, but to my eyes it wears its shape well—better than the Camry, which still evokes a late 1950s, and fins thing to me. Lexus’ current hourglass/cheese grater front grille will still challenge some, though. (If you pick the regular ES (starting at $39,600), or the hybrid (from $41,410), the interlocking Ls are replaced with plain old vertical bars, but neither was available on the press fleet yet so we were sent this one.)
Under the hood lives a 3.5L V6—2GR-FKS in Toyota-speak—that uses a combination of direct- and port-injection, variable valve timing and the ability to switch between the more efficient Atkinson cycle and the regular Otto cycle deepening on the demands of the driver. Peak power is now 302hp (225kW) at 6,600rpm, a 600 rev and 34hp/25kW increase on the old redline. Similarly, torque is now 267lb-ft (362Nm), a 19lb-ft/25Nm bump. That’s all sent to the front wheels via an eight-speed automatic transmission. There’s also a hybrid version—the ES300h which opts for a 2.5L four-cylinder gasoline engine and an electric motor that offer a combined 215hp/160kW, but we’ll have to wait for another day to test that variant.
Suspension is via MacPherson struts up front, and a multilink arrangement at the rear, and since this is the F Sport it also comes with adaptive dampers that take into account factors like G loading, vehicle speed, steering angle, yaw, and brake pressure to decide how to control body movement.
I’m here to say good things about the infotainment
As standard, all ESs come with an 8-inch display for the Lexus Multimedia infotainment system, but this gets swapped out for a 12.3-inch widescreen display if you opt for the navigation option. It’s probably worth doing so, because the bigger, brighter, sharper screen makes a world of difference. The UI will be familiar to anyone with experience of other recent Lexuses, but will feel like a big improvement over the system you find in something like a GS450h.
Apple CarPlay is present and correct, and looks amazing on the widescreen display. There’s no Android Auto but Alexa is included so the car will respond to natural language commands, including home-to-car and car-to-home functions. It’s still not a perfect system—interaction via the haptic feedback touchpad still feels clumsy compared to using a scroll wheel (like Mazda) or a trackpad (like the new Acura system), but perhaps with more than a week’s familiarity it becomes more natural.
In addition to updated infotainment, the ES350 comes with a full ADAS suite, called Lexus Safety System+ 2.0. That bundles together forward collision warning/automatic emergency braking with day and low-light pedestrian detection, day cyclist detection, adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, adaptive headlights, rear cross-traffic alert and braking, blind spot monitoring, and parking assist. You’d never confuse the lane keep assist with something like Cadillac’s Super Cruise or Tesla’s Autopilot, but otherwise it’s a perfectly fine suite of driver aids. The backup camera does let the side down a little, as it looks horribly cheap and low-resolution when feeding the 12.3-inch screen.
That interior trim looks interesting—what’s its story?
Over the years, Lexus has gotten rather avant-garde when it comes to interior design. While the ES isn’t as extravagant as the flagship LS or LC vehicles, its cabin provides the dramatic look that Kajino’s team was going for. I particularly like the “Hadori aluminum” trim, which has a 3D texture that’s inspired by the sword polishing of the same name. I even didn’t mind the Circuit Red leather seats and panels, which is darker shade than the bright red leather that graced the Camry XSE we drove early last year.
As already mentioned, the new ES is a bigger car than the one it replaces, and majority of that growth is used to good effect on the inside. While not quite TARDIS-like, it’s a very roomy cabin, particularly in the back where there appears to be acres of legroom. (In fact there’s 39.2 inches/ mm of legroom for backseat passengers, and 42.4 inches/ mm in the front.)
Because I’m easily impressed by the little things, my joy was sparked by the various storage solutions it offers you. Next to the front cupholder—which lives underneath a flip up cover, there’s a handy slot to put your smartphone, as well as USB and line-in audio ports. And the cubby between the front seats, which is voluminous enough to hold a regular-sized iPad, has a hinge that allows it to open from either side. Like I said, I am impressed by the little things. Back seat passengers get two extra USB ports, and the trunk is a useful 16.7 cubic feet (479L).
Both driver and front passenger get to ride in 10-way power seats (standard across all ESs), and you’d have to be a pretty odd shape not to find a comfortable driving position. The steering wheel, borrowed from the LS, contains the requisite splattering of multifunction controls—and aluminum shift paddles since this is an F Sport—but suffers from an overly thick rim. But generally the ergonomics are sound, and I do like the two rotary controllers that sprout like an owl’s ear tufts from either side of the main instrument binnacle.
The main instrument display is an 8-inch TFT (7-inch in the non F Sport ESs) that brings to mind the LCD dash from the marque’s V10 LFA supercar. I particularly liked the way it reconfigures itself (including moving a physical ring) when you switch between different drive modes. You do that with the right-hand rotary controller, and can pick from Eco, Normal, Sport S, Sport+, and Custom. Eco does what it suggests, remapping the accelerator pedal in favor of fuel efficiency rather than throttle response. Sport S sharpens throttle response via the accelerator pedal as well as changing the transmission’s shift points, and Sport+ does all that plus sharpening the steering and adaptive dampers as well.
I won’t lie, it never feels like a particularly sporty car to drive, despite the F Sport badges. Zero to 60mph takes 6.6 seconds, according to Lexus, and the ES’ curb weight of 3,649lbs (1,655kg) isn’t particularly heavy for the class, but you never find yourself thinking “self, I need to take this thing to the Nürburgring to find out how well it goes.”
For day-to-day driving though, it acquits itself most respectably. The EPA rates the F Sport at 25mpg combined (22 city, 31 highway), which sounds about right. The regular ES350 is a little better (26/22/33mpg), but if the thought of melting glaciers and more freak weather sounds bad, go for the ES300h. That one will do 44mpg combined (43 city, 45 highway), and after a little less than three years the fuel saving will have offset the extra $1,810 of the asking price.
Even the cheapest ES will cost you a bit more than the most expensive Camry (the most I could option one of those was to about $38,000), but if you want a plush FWD sedan from the Toyota empire, the ES is the one to go for. (Again, I remain convinced the best Camrys are the stripped out, cheap ones.) Opting for the F Sport probably isn’t necessary unless you must have the Hadori interior, otherwise the hybrid is probably the pick of the bunch. Just don’t forget to option the better infotainment screen.