Review: Lexus ES 350 gets lost between old and new

Robert Duffer
Chicago Tribune
For 2019 Lexus’ ES 350 is longer, lower and wider, with sportier performance.

Has Lexus lost its way? This is the question I kept coming back to in the redesigned 2019 Lexus ES 350 midsize sedan. The seventh-generation ES 350 is a quiet, sophisticated ride, but the technology hasn’t kept up with the modern competition.

It has grown longer (2.6 inches), wider (1.8 inches) and a bit lower; the wheelbase has been stretched by 2 inches to give it a low and wide athletic stance. The giant trapezoidal grille looks good on this sedan, as does the LED light signature.

The more sporting profile aims to avoid the fate of Buick late in the last century. The quiet cabin, familiar technology (read: outdated), muted mechanics and venerable reliability made these old faithfuls the chosen vehicle of older drivers. But Lexus knows older drivers don’t buy as many new vehicles. In the last decade, Lexus has energized new buyers with more daring designs, sexier ad campaigns and an infusion of performance, from the gorgeous LC500 sports coupe to the F Sport packages offered now on seemingly every Lexus, from the tried and true RX350 crossover to the LS full-size sedan.

Lexus graces the ES with more performance, as well. The midsize sedan gets a modified suspension on a more rigid front-wheel drive chassis that both improves noise reduction and provides more responsive handling in the Ultra Luxury trim we tested with a sticker price of $50,434 (base price: $43,150).

The new electric steering system is designed for more feedback, and the latest V-6 with the new eight-speed automatic transmission increases horsepower from 268 to 302, with torque rising to 267 pound-feet (up from 248).

It drives fine. It won’t take your breath away but also won’t leave ES buyers hungry for more. Additionally, fuel efficiency is up 2 mpg to 26 mpg combined despite a modest weight gain.

The problem with the ES 350, more than it being a sedan, is the competition. From the Mazda6 to the Jaguar XE and the Tesla Model 3 — the best-selling luxury car of 2018 — the competitors do a better job of balancing refinement, performance and technology, which is the Achilles heel of Lexus.

The touchpad has gotten better, the available 12.3-inch display ($3,000 as part of the navigation package) is clear, voice commands are reliable and the 7-inch display in the instrument cluster simplifies everything. All the modern conveniences are there, but are laid out in such a way that you don’t want to use them.

Surely, owners will get used to it. But after a week with ES, my criticism of Lexus vehicles is still the same: It feels like “Pong” in a “Call of Duty” world.

Part of it is the mishmash layout of classic square buttons, odd round buttons and the presence of a CD player, with heated seat buttons above it. Then audio circles above that. These tiny space oddities can be pushed in or popped out to scan or change audio source. You can do that from the touchpad and from the steering wheel controls, as well. But the steering wheel controls are another incongruity. Volume control is on the left side, under the controls for vehicle info, which includes audio access. But the tuning buttons are on the right side, under the controls for cruise control and other advanced driver assistance systems.

From design to functionality, the ES feels like a grandfather tasked his grandsons to come up with the best multimedia display, then when they presented their systems, he said, benevolently but stupidly, you all win, then jammed them all in there. Apple CarPlay is available.