Lexus has a reputation for exacting quality standards and while the ES 350 may be as near to an entry-level car as Lexus has, it certainly doesn’t feel like it. We spent some time with an ES 350 F Sport recently and came away surprised. We didn’t have the highest hopes for the FWD sedan, no matter the F Sport designation. How can a FWD car have any honest street cred as a sporting model?
A quick walk-around shows the ES to be an attractive but somewhat inconspicuous car. The Ultrasonic Blue Mica paint attracts plenty of attention. We even received a few compliments on it. The styling is pure Lexus, from the cheese grater grill popping through the front body work to the chrome window surrounds, to the beautifully sculpted taillights.
The best design work, however, can be found inside. Amidst the sea of monochromatic black, it quickly became clear that this is the easiest set of Lexus controls to navigate. Everything was intuitive and easy to figure out. The touchscreen can be utilized by either touch, the control knob, or the Lexus touchpad on the center console.
The dash wraps around into the doors nicely and there are other lines wrapping through the dash and center console that keep things interesting. The seats are decently bolstered and both heated and ventilated. The shifter for the 8-speed automatic transmission is a simple lever that you pull back to select a gear. There’s nothing complicated for the sake of being different. There’s a set of shifter flaps behind the steering wheel but they’re really not effective enough to select over the automatic transmission.
The 3.5L V6 engine, rated at 302 hp and 267 lb-ft of torque, effectively moves the car down the road. While quiet, it makes decent noises when you step on it and the thrust pushes you back into your seat. The engine is smooth and vibration-free. The transmission shifts smoothly and softly, almost behind the scenes. Very seamless.
Our car had the F Sport package that adds some sporting touches. Besides the special 19” wheels, it comes with unique sportier bodywork touches that signify it as an F Sport ES. It also comes with an adaptive variable sport suspension that is comfortably firm but with the twist of a knob, firms up and gets even more sporting. Another twist of the knob electronically quickens the responses of the engine, the transmission, and the steering, providing a platform that feels a little more fun to drive than the base ES 350.
How is it to drive? It’s very comfortable to drive. The ride is silky smooth, like most Lexus models. I’m not sure how Lexus does it but the car just absorbs bumps and road imperfections so that you end up with a glasslike smoothness. The brakes hiding behind the 19” wheels are strong and haul the car down from speed with no fade. In F Sport mode, things feel sportier, but we found ourselves just enjoying the soft, comfortable ride. For a FWD car, it handled corners better than expected and when launching the car from a standstill, there wasn’t nearly as much FWD body movement as we expected to find. It’s no IS or RC, but for the money it does a pretty decent job of imparting a sense of sportiness.
The only disappointment we had was one to nearly all Lexus cars: road noise from the tires is much louder than in many of its competitors. In fact, we’ve found that even many entry-level cars have better insulation from road noise. It happens to be extra noticeable in a car that takes such pains to be so good at other things with a price tag like it has.
The ES 350 F Sport is a pleasant car to drive and look at. While it’s not really a performance car, it works hard to be playful. Where it succeeds most is in the smooth ride and the creature comforts. The 2019 model starts at $44,000. Our test model came in at nearly $55,000. Given Lexus reliability and resale values, that price seems reasonable.