published Saturday, June 15th, 2013

Test Drive: Lexus ES 350: Good looks and good manners

The Lexus ES 350 occupies the intersection of luxury and value. 
Staff photo by Mark Kennedy
The Lexus ES 350 occupies the intersection of luxury and value. Staff photo by Mark Kennedy

FAST FACTS

Model: 2013 Lexus ES 350

Exterior color: Silver Lining Metallic

Interior color: Black

Engine: 3.5-liter, V-6

Horsepower: 268

Transmission: six-speed automatic

Fuel economy: 31 mpg highway, 21 mpg city

Dealer: Lexus of Chattanooga

Price (as tested): $43,927

At the intersection of Luxury Street and Value Avenue sits a compelling four-door sedan that has sold more than 1 million copies in the last 25 years.

The Lexus ES 350 is one of the favorite automobiles of the mass affluent; those looking for affordable luxury.

The ES line was redesigned for the 2013 model year, and we wrote about the excellent 200-horsepower gas-electric hybrid version in this space late last year. Joe Prebul, sales manager at Lexus of Chattanooga, said inventory is finally catching up to demand for the six-cylinder, nonhybrid ES 350 at the local dealership, and we took a Silver Lining Metallic copy for a test drive earlier this week.

STYLING AND FEATURES

Timeless design has always been the guiding light for the Lexus ES series, and the 2013 ES 350, the sixth generation of the car, follows form. Still, the ES 350 manages to jazz things up a bit by incorporating the new "spindle grille" design which has become the signature of the luxury brand.

While sharing some DNA with the Toyota Camry, the ES 350 has the presence of a much larger car, and indeed rear seat leg room has been increased by a whopping four inches. I saw a black ES 350 on the local lot and mistook it for the much larger LS -- something about that limousine black plays tricks on the eyes.

The ES has a high belt-line and dashing roof line that gives it a sleek, aerodynamic look. Yet there are no design clichés that might quickly date the car. This design will still look fresh and modern in four or five years, and by then it'll be time for another facelift.

Ten spoke alloy wheels, a $110 option, look classy mated to all-season Michelin tires. Our tester also included a blind-spot monitoring system ($500) and high-intensity headlamps ($515), two worthwhile safety features to go along with standard smart-stop and collision-avoidance technology.

Inside, the design sophistication continues with a clean, padded dash, including one hand-stitched seam, the kind of understated elegance that Lexus owners appreciate. The dash architecture is open and airy, none of that wrap-around cockpit stuff. An 8-inch VGA screen, embedded mid-dash, controls navigation, radio, media, heat and air, and phone -- you can even sync your iPhone apps.

Our tester came with two major option packages: a luxury package ($1,370) which includes leather upholstery, heated and ventilated seats, bird's-eye maple trim and a tilt and telescoping steering wheel. A technology package ($2,625) includes a hard-drive navigation system, and a backup camera, among other features. Parking assist, which takes the work out of parallel parking, is an $500 upgrade.

DRIVING IMPRESSIONS

The ES 350 is powered by an ample 286-horsepower all-aluminum, 3.5-liter V-6. Sound-dampening technology, a Lexus trademark, makes the cabin whisper quiet, aside from a sporty exhaust note that clears its throat under hard acceleration.

A dial on the center stack allows the driver to set the driving dynamics to "normal," "eco" or "sport" modes. The sport mode quickens the throttle and adds weight to the steering. The eco mode improves fuel economy, and the normal mode strikes a balance for everyday driving.

On our test drive on Highway 153, the ES 350 exhibited the quiet, comfortable ride that Lexus owners expect. Those looking for a more spirited ride often gravitate to other luxury brands.

BOTTOM LINE

The 2013 ES 350 has a base price of $36,370, and our highly-optioned test car topped out at a sticker price of $43,927. Fuel economy is 31 mpg highway, and 21 mpg city.

At the end of the day, purchasing an ES 350 is a low-risk, high-reward proposition. It's a cliché, perhaps, but true: A million buyers can't be wrong.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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