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2012 Lexus ES 350 Review by Carey Russ +VIDEO

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2012 Lexus ES 350

The New ES features something for everyone, and why not!


• SEE ALSO: Lexus Buyers Guide

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2012 Lexus ES 350

The ES has been the entry-level Lexus since Lexus's beginning in 1989. Lexus is unusual in that it now has multiple entries in the entry-luxury segment of the automotive marketplace. That shouldn't be overly surprising as some people looking for aspirational but affordable luxury cars want something with traditional luxury attributes -- comfort, conveniences, and a smooth, quiet ride -- while others want something that's sportier. The two desires can be difficult if not impossible to balance in one car, so the Lexus IS debuted back in 2000 to take care of the sports sedan side of the market, and has done so quite well. That allowed the ES to become even smoother and more traditionally luxurious, with no loss of sport-oriented buyers thanks to the IS.

Yes, the next-generation ES has recently been unveiled on the auto show circuit, but it won't be here until late summer, as a 2013 model. The 2012 ES350 continues, and it continues to have all of the comforts and conveniences that have made it popular. And if the already high level of standard equipment isn't enough, there are plenty of options to let an ES rival the premium LS if desires and budget so decree.

As has been the case since the current, fifth-generation, ES was introduced, its sleek lines, high level of standard amenities and availability of more, smooth, quiet ride, and roomy interior for its modest size are designed to appeal to people who value comfort over performance. That said, its 3.5-liter, 268-horsepower V6 engine can move it quickly enough for even the shortest highway onramps -- and it now runs on unleaded regular. A six-speed automatic gets that power to the front wheels smoothly and efficiently, with a 25 mpg average for my recent week. And while the ES's fully-independent strut-type suspension is calibrated for comfort, it's tuned well and deals with poor roads and sudden changes in direction is a manner that is closer to European than vintage American luxury. I had no complaints after being coddled in a reasonably-equipped (read: not over the top) example of ES350 for the past week.

APPEARANCE: Understated elegance in styling means that this is a car for the confident, not the flamboyant. The "little Lexus" isn't so little anymore, and looks very much like the larger and more upscale LS, toned and muscular in a natural way. No steroids necessary. The ES has a near-fastback roof line, but does not try overly hard to impersonate a coupe. Chrome trim on the grille, door handles, and above the rear license plate plus surrounding the side windows gives the look of modern luxury. It looks sleek, and is, with a coefficient of aerodynamic drag of 0.28. That translates to improved fuel economy, reduced wind noise, and better stability at highway speeds.

Watch TACH's exclusive Lexus ES 350 promo video

COMFORT: This is a Lexus, so comfort, precision in fit and finish, and attention to detail are expected. And are here. The ES is closer to mid- than entry-luxury in interior design and appointment, and a long list of available options can put it closer to premium luxury if your desires and budget allow. Ten-way power-adjustable front seats are leather-trimmed and offer good support and comfort. A power-adjustable (tilt and reach) steering wheel allows the perfect driving position.

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2012 Lexus ES 350

The brightly-lit Optitron® instruments are easily visible in all light and shielded from glare. Soft-touch textured synthetics are used for most interior surfaces, with leather and wood where appropriate. The horseshoe-shaped center stack has been an ES styling feature for a while and still looks good -- and makes ergonomic sense. The rear seat has comfortable room for two medium-sized adults (under 5-10 or so), with a low central tunnel giving more room than usual for any center passenger. Typically for a luxury sedan, the seatback doesn't fold but there is a locking ski-passthrough. There's plenty of trunk space -- see below for a surprise. My test car was modestly appointed by Lexus standards, with an option package that included a voice-activated navigation system with touch-screen and hard button controls, XM NavTraffic™, NavWeather™, and Sports & Stocks in addition to the standard XM satellite radio, a useful backup camera, the Lexus Enform telematics system, heated and cooled front seats, wood-and-leather trim on the steering wheel and shift lever, and, wonder of wonders, a full-size spare tire mounted on an alloy wheel matching the others on the car. It has little negative impact on trunk space and is more than worth that for its improvement in safety compared to a space-saver. It's also available as a standalone option.

SAFETY: A reinforced passenger compartment and front and rear sections designed and built to control deformation and energy in the event of a crash are supplemented by 10 airbags - dual front, dual front knee, front and outboard rear side, and full-length head curtains. The full complement of braking safety technology is standard as the Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) system incorporates traction control, anti-lock braking, brake assist, and electronic brake-force distribution systems.

RIDE AND HANDLING: Yes, it's comfortable, and nothing wrong with that at all! -- but the ES responds to steering inputs quickly and accurately, with only minor body motion at sane road speeds. It's not ideal for sports driving, but it wasn't meant to be. There's an IS(F) for that… A rigid unibody structure allows the ES's fully-independent MacPherson strut/multilink strut suspension to be tuned moderately, for comfort, yet respond quickly to bumps and holes with minimal fuss. Clean aerodynamics and a low 0.28 coefficient of drag keep wind noise down and let the car ignore head, tail, and cross winds. Strong disc brakes stop quickly.

PERFORMANCE: Last time I looked (model year 2010), the ES350 had 272 horsepower and 254 lb-ft of torque. Now it's rated at 268 hp (at 6200 rpm) and 248 lb-ft (at 4700 rpm). That's not a noticeable decrease, and the 3.5-liter V6 is now calibrated to run on unleaded regular instead of premium. The aluminum alloy engine uses VVT-i variable cam phasing to optimize both efficiency and power production. Fuel economy and acceleration are both further improved by use of a wide-ratio six-speed automatic transmission, and adaptive computer control in the transmission changes shifting strategy to match the driver's driving style. Yes, there's a manual-shift mode, but it's not really necessary. With 13.5 pounds of car for each horsepower produced by the engine, the ES is plenty quick enough for all necessary merging and passing tasks -- 0-60 is 7.0 seconds -- and to help the driver get as far as possible on each gallon of that regular unleaded there's an "Eco" light (green, of course) that lights up under light throttle driving for a little operant conditioning. EPA estimates are 19 mpg city, 28 highway. In a week of mixed driving, but more city and back roads than highway and little attempt at trying for best economy, I got 25 mpg. No complaint there.

CONCLUSIONS: The 2012 Lexus ES350 continues to be a benchmark for traditional luxury.


2012 Lexus ES350

Base Price $ 36,725

Price As Tested $ 41,240

Engine Type aluminum alloy DOHC V6 with VVT-i variable valve timing on all camshafts

Engine Size 3.5 liters / 211 cu. in.

Horsepower 268 @ 6200 rpm

Torque (lb-ft) 248 @ 4700 rpm

Transmission 6-speed automatic with manual-shift mode

Wheelbase / Length 109.3 in. / 191.7 in.

Curb Weight 3605 lbs.

Pounds Per Horsepower 13.5

Fuel Capacity 18.5 gal.

Fuel Requirement 87 octane unleaded regular gasoline

Tires P215/55R17 93V Bridgestone Turanza

Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, ABS, EBD, BA, TRAC, VSC standard

Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent dual-link strut

Drivetrain transverse front engine, front-wheel drive


EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon

city / highway / observed 19 / 28 / 25

0 to 60 mph 7.0 sec


Navigation System With Additional Options - includes: hard disk-based navigation system, voice command and color LCD display, integrated backup camera, enhanced Bluetooth® connectivity, NavTraffic™, NavWeather™, Sports & Stocks, Lexus Enform, heated and ventilated front seats, wood- and leather- trimmed steering wheel and shift knob, full-size spare tire with 17" alloy wheel $ 3,640

Destination Charge $ 875