There was a time when the Lexus ES 350 stood for old school luxury.
When we first drove the ES 350 (XV40) when Toyota started operations for the Lexus brand in the country, we thought the car was a symbol of the understated. That car was neither flashy nor fancy, but it was handily the brand's strongest seller because it offered a car the size of a Merc E-Class with a ride serenity that far exceeds the German.
That was the idea of luxury of our dads; smooth, comfortable, quiet, and had plenty of that old school-style reddish brown wood trim. Local customers never cared that the front-wheel drive ES didn't have the driving excitement of something like the rear-drive BMW 5-Series; they had the option to get a chauffer so they can just enjoy the back seat.
Now in 2018, something tells me that Papa's got a brand new bag, as this Lexus ES 350 shows how far the model has come in such a short time, showing the accelerated evolution of the Lexus brand both in terms of luxury and driving performance.
When I first caught a glimpse of the ES as it was dropped off late in the evening, there's a certain air about it that's a little challenging to put to words. Call it aura or presence, as seeing the 2018 ES 350 -particularly with its LED lighting, its shape, and the shimmer of the paintwork even at night- pull up to my driveway elicits a feeling that its predecessors never really had. This was not the ES as we've known it to be.
There was a time when car enthusiasts and motoring journalists (i.e. us) noted that the ES was -to put it bluntly- a glorified Camry. That's a fair assessment at the time. The older ES (XV40 and preceding models) were all based on the Camry, but with more upscale features, materials, and refinements. The previous generation ES 350 changed all that as it now shares more in common with the much larger Toyota Avalon than the smaller Camry.
The next morning, with a cup of coffee in one hand, it's easier to see that the ES is far bigger than before. The previous model (XV60) was already quite a big car, but the new one is longer, now measuring just a shade under 5 meters long, and wider at nearly 1.9 meters. It actually makes me a little nervous that I could scuff up the immaculate paintwork in our kind of bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Walking up to the front, I noticed how the face was shaped so aggressively. The design guys at Lexus seem to have shed every single conservative itch in their minds, and designed the ES to cut through the air like a rifle's bullet. They appear to have oriented every detail, every line, crease or trim to aim at the focal point: the big L in the middle of that spindle grill.
As I finish that cup of coffee, it's clear that the ES has a coupe-like silhouette. You can see it in the sloping roofline which terminates with a very short rear deck. The ES 350 almost looks like a fastback, which we like, and they finished it off with a set of gorgeous windmill-like wheels that fill up those bulging wheelarches on the rear quarter panels.
There's a neat feeling when you open the driver's door; the elegance of the interior almost invites you to sit inside. Once settled in that comfortable driver's seat (which even has a motorized thigh support, somewhat like an ottoman), I notice that the ES has a bit of the DNA of the Lexus LC I drove before, especially with the dashboard, the beautiful ergonomic steering wheel and the digital gauge cluster.
There's an analog clock next to the a bigger 12.3-inch screen that serves as the display for many of the vehicles functions, controlled by the touchpad beside the gear selector. The big screen also seems to have confused Toyota's drivers when they dropped off the car... they thought it was a touchscreen like an iPad, judging by the many fingerprints on it.
Being an ES, the back seat is really the focal point (at least locally) despite the many features and buttons on the dash, the center stack, and the center tunnel. Here, you can cross your legs as your drive is managed by someone else. There is seating for five, but something tells me that ES customers will not bother with the middle seat.
Fold down the armrest and you'll see the audio, climate and convenience controls, along with dual cupholders. The backrests are also motorized and has 8 degrees of recline available so you can pick the angle that's most comfortable for you, And for maximum privacy, the rear windshield has a motorized sunshade, along with manual privacy shades on the rear windows, including the triangular little windows.
Boot space is bigger than its predecessor at 473 liters, and the trunk lid can be opened with a swipe (or kick) of your foot under the bumper. As expected, you can fit a set of golf clubs laterally, though there's no way to fit longer cargo longitudinally; the rear seats don't seem to fold down, or if they do, the controls are well and truly hidden. You can open a little door behind the center armrest if you want to access the back, though it's rather pointless, unless you put your bag within easy reach of it in the trunk.
I actually half expected the engine to be a straight-up carryover from the previous model, but no. The heart of the ES 350 is actually an improved engine, something Lexus calls the 3.5-liter 2GR-FXE V6 (previous: 3.5L 2GR-FE V6). It sounds the same, but there are some key improvements, like the new valve system called Dual VVT-iW; basically it stands for Variable Valve Timing Intelligent Wide.
The result of the upgrades are clear: the 2018 ES 350 now gets 300 horsepower and 357 Nm of torque, a marked improvement over the previous ES 350 which had 272 horsepower and 346 Nm of torque. And there's a new 8-speed automatic gearbox as well, an upgrade over the previous 6-speed auto.
As with its predecessors, the 2018 Lexus ES 350 has an inherent smoothness about it as it gets on the road. The gearbox (when driving in Normal mode) is perfect for daily city driving. The suspension takes on urban concrete and bumpy asphalt and dispatches them with ease, something owed greatly to the attention Lexus always pays to suppressing the rough stuff for their customers. The ES simply absorbs and glides as you make your way around the city, and then there's the silence in the cabin; leaving you undisturbed by noisy exhaust sounds.
Fuel economy wasn't really going to be fantastic; this is still a relatively big (read: heavy) luxury car, but it's better. 6.3 km/l in city traffic (20 km/h average) isn't too bad at all; a small price to pay to bring the peace and quiet of your home around with you in the city. On the highway, the ES is simply sublime: the same manners of smoothness and silence, while working to full potential on urban roads, simply shine when taken on a long, straight, and smooth expressway. Wind noise is also hard to notice. And fuel economy gets better: 12.9 km/l at an average speed of 78 km/h.
But where the ES 350 truly improved is in the drive: it can actually be a fun drive, unlike before. Yes, you read that right: this front-drive Lexus has some performance to it. The drive mode selector is mounted on the shroud of the gauge cluster, and if you select Sport, the gauges will change and the drivetrain will sharpen up and hold gears a little longer for spirited driving. A 0-100 km/h sprint is done in 7.9 seconds, while a top speed of 230 km/h is attainable. Overtaking is easy in Sport mode, as the gearbox will kick down a gear or two if you wish to pass quickly. Overtaking in Normal mode or Eco (which basically makes the drivetrain more conservative) could be better.
On a mountain road, the Lexus can surprisingly hold its own in the bends. Just to be clear: the Lexus ES isn't going to beat the drive of something like the BMW 5-Series, but it's definitely better than the previous model. The suspension manages the weight well if you're driving fast, though I really wish there was more feedback coming from the electric power steering. Braking is decent for a car of this size, though you'd still have to be careful and think further ahead as you drive for potential hazards that would require hard braking, and for tight corners.
The only real niggle I found with the Lexus is minor but noticeable: the touchpad. Sometimes when cruising, I generally like to rest my right hand on the center console while the left manages the wheel. But that sensitive touchpad is just in the way, ergonomically-speaking, and can be a bother.
Still, that's not enough to dampen how well the 2018 Lexus ES 350 performs on a daily basis. Behind the wheel it's definitely better, but I suspect that you'd really love it if you had a personal driver. There are plenty more features and settings left to explore, but overall, at PhP 4.3M, it's a tough proposition to say no to, especially since many of its similarly-sized competitors are priced way over the ES 350.