2019 Lexus ES 350 F Sport
3.5-liter DOHC V6 (302 horsepower @ 6,600 rpm; 267 lb-ft @ 4,700 rpm)
Eight-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
22 city / 31 highway / 25 combined (EPA Rating, MPG)
10.9 city, 7.5 highway, 9.4 combined. (NRCan Rating, L/100km)
18.1 (observed mileage, MPG)
Base Price: $45,160 (U.S) / $50,975 (Canada)
As Tested: $50,810 (U.S.) / $56,975 (Canada)
Prices include $1,025 destination charge in the United States and $2,175 for freight, PDI, and A/C tax in Canada and, because of cross-border equipment differences, can’t be directly compared.
First impressions have a way of biting you in the ass. After seeing the trailer for the first time, I declared with absolute conviction that a movie about a slow-witted Southerner who blunders his way through a tumultuous period in American history would leave theatre seats as empty as store shelves before a Category 5 hurricane. Alas, Forrest Gump was not the colossal flop I predicted.
Nor was the suddenly sportified Lexus ES 350 that appeared in my driveway the embarrassing wannabe I envisioned after learning my tester wasn’t the basic ES 350. (Testers are rarely ever basic, sadly.) All new for 2019, Lexus’s most conservative passenger car gains not just a version of the new TNGA platform shared with the equally new Toyota Avalon, but also the F Sport badge found elsewhere in the Lexus lineup.
While dressing up traditional sedans seems to be a compulsion at Toyota these days, this ES 350 F Sport, red leather and all, managed to throw a number of assumptions back in my face. Some … but not all.
Oh yes. I was prepared, based on past experiences with new Toyota products, to find the seats comfortable, interior volume and power sufficient, the eight-speed a hunter (but not always a gatherer), and handling far better suited for boulevard cruising than impromptu hooning. And, in many respects, right I was.
For those who don’t follow such things, the F Sport badge brings 19-inch wheels shod in 40-series rubber, additional drive modes, tuned suspension (there’s a new rear multi-link setup on all ES trims, with available adaptive dampers reserved for F-Sport buyers), a trunklid spoiler, plus various other add-ons, not the least of which is the optional red perforated leather adorning the seats and various interior surfaces. Who is this ES kidding, I thought — there’s a declining number of sedans in which motoring enthusiasts like to get their kicks, and the ES most definitely ain’t one of them.
Another prediction was that everything that makes this sedan an F Sport would cancel out — or at least water down — the model’s otherwise pleasing attributes. Like the upcoming TRD Camry and Avalon, Toyota didn’t discover new ponies for this specific trim, though the returning powerplant for all non-hybrid ES models did. The 3.5-liter V6 now generates 302 hp and 267 lb-ft of torque, up from 268 hp and 248 lb-ft. Toyota’s Direct Shift eight-speed automatic (a unit I bitched about in the supposedly sporty Avalon XSE) handles the cog juggling.
But something weird happened after picking up the car. After a couple of brief, wintry stints behind the wheel (weather was an absolute pisser the week I had the thing) I realized the seventh-generation sedan was a solid piece of work. Nor, I should add, was it an embarrassment. It just wasn’t a sports sedan, though I had already gathered that.
Mercifully, and unlike the Camry TRD, Lexus remembered that ES sedans came from the factory with a certain ingrained dignity, so the luxury division decided to preserve it. Outwardly, the car’s go-fast trappings are subtle. The spoiler is a low-profile affair, and the attractive 19-inchers come dressed in a pleasing shade of graphite. Amidst all the desperation in the sedan segment, Lexus remembered who really buys this thing — and it isn’t your boss’s 26-year-old punk son.
As for the design, well, Lexus isn’t giving up on that spindle grille. The entire face is a collection of barbs fired towards a point eight inches distant from the front badge; good or bad, you make the choice. It’s distinctive, at least. Again, mercifully, Lexus confined the drama to the nose and rear — a modest amount of creasing separates this car’s flanks from that of its staid and slab-sided predecessor, but the beltline remains flat and formal. The IS is still your go-to for overwrought styling.
Overall, the new ES stretches an extra 2.6 inches stem to stern, with most of that new length residing between the axles. Rear-seat occupants rejoice. It’s wider, too, by nearly two inches, and two-tenths of an inch lower.
Far less subtle is the interior, at least with the red leather. You get used to that in a hurry, though — to these eyes, the redesigned cabin is quite an attractive place to spend time. Comfortable, too. Firm and moderately bolstered sport seats offer good lower back and thigh support. Legroom and headroom abounds both front and aft — I didn’t come close to scraping my scalp in the rear seat, and I’m 6’4″. Surrounding you are soft-touch materials interspersed with long expanses of real aluminum trim that look great when contrasted with the two-tone leather. Occupants are greeted by a lengthy 12.3-inch infotainment screen offering a vivid display, and the sedan’s conventional shifter selects “D” without taking you on a confusing journey.
It’s all quite calming, really. That is, until it comes time to use the infotainment system’s touchpad controller. As my educational background contains zero courses in brain surgery, safecracking, or classical piano, moving that indicator across the screen often proved a chore. Sometimes the indicator would overshoot; other times, it stayed fixed in place. Meanwhile, your gaze is directed away the road. Radio lovers might miss the tuning knob that disappears for 2019. Also irksome is a drive mode selector placed on a knob protruding from the dashtop like a periscope handle. Being long of leg, this meant reaching.
Maybe it’s just my tired retinas, but the available 10.2-inch head-up display, while bright, left me feeling cross-eyed after every glance.
Is it even worth your time toggling the drive selector to Sport or Sport +? Well, you don’t need to. With this latest ES, burying your foot in default mode calls up a respectable — but not overwhelming — surge of power, often with a slight lag from the Direct Shift gearbox. This lag is most apparent if the hammer falls while coasting at moderate speeds in Normal or Eco mode; dialing up either sport mode drops you down a cog seemingly at all times, and locks out 7th and 8th. The intrusive hunting seen in past Lexus testers (ahem, RX 350) was thankfully absent.
I suppose those with a slight penchant for aggressive driving could leave it in Sport + their whole lives and go to town on the paddle shifters (throttle-blipping makes for speedier than expected, but still not DCT-like, downshifts). Or, perhaps they’d just leapfrog the ES in favor of something more engaging and purpose-built. Something rear-drive, with a bit more off-the-line punch.
For others, F Sport might be all the personalization they need.
Besides playing musical chairs with shift points, firming up the already weighty steering, and swapping the digital tach to a sportier layout, passing 5,000 rpm in Sport + turns the tach ring into a glowing orange pumpkin, complemented (in a manner of speaking) by artificially enhanced engine roar pumped into the cabin.
Oh, how I laughed the first time this happened.
Keep in mind that the F Sport does its mainstream luxury duty by keeping things peaceful at all other times. Minus those brief moments of autotuned enlightenment, engine and road noise is quite muted, and you can’t help but notice the windows seal shut like fresh rubber baffles on a Welrod pistol. Noise/vibration/harshness is slight, even in cold weather and on bad roads. Lexus deserves additional kudos for installing a meaty steering wheel that’s among the most comfortable I’ve ever grasped, and the new steering rack conspires with re-angled front struts to keep the car tracking almost eerily straight at high speeds.
While the new platform, rear suspension, and extra bracing lends the sedan an exceptionally solid road feel, it’s too bad Lexus didn’t dial in an extra helping of feedback for those holding the wheel. But is this what ES buyers really desire? Less cocooning? I’d hazard a guess and say … no. Suffice it to say Lexus struck a good balance here, leaving drivers feeling confident and in control in most motoring situations, and maybe a few outside the norm.
The car did surprise me in one key area. With big hoops at each corner and a suspension dialed towards sport, broken pavement didn’t upset the serenity nearly as much as I’d assumed. Cornering displays little in the way of wallow. True, I didn’t notice the adaptive dampers firming up in Sport + mode, but that’s probably because the car likes staying flat at all times. Perhaps a spin on a more serpentine road would bring it to the forefront.
Still, that’s not where you’ll find this sedan. Nor is it a place the car really compels you to seek out.
Ultimately, the new ES is a vehicle that doesn’t hand over its plushness or competency in favor of satisfying the mature buyer who likes playing Dad-left-me-his-car-let’s-crank-this-bitch once in a while. To do so would be a dereliction of duty. Instead, the F Sport trim simply adds a touch of spice to an improved dish, and looks good doing it.
[Images: Steph Willems/The Truth About Cars]