Designed to please all and aggrieve none, this mid-size sedan from Toyota's luxury division has crooned its way into more than a million households since its debut in 1989. It's done so by playing it cool with reliably conservative comfort, docile performance and a solid value proposition.
But after nearly 21/2 decades of smooth hits, Lexus decided to redo the 2013 ES playlist with a smidge less Peabo Bryson and a smidge more "Gangnam Style." The result is a fresh take on a car starting at $36,980 that should largely broaden the appeal of one of the brand's most important vehicles.
The key change is the new ES' styling. Lexus is in the process of fitting its entire lineup with what the company calls a spindle grille. (Think of a short, angular hourglass.) Despite this design coming across as a little, gosh, unique when it's viewed independent of the car, the ES actually wears the spindle better than the other vehicles it's been bolted to.
Angled headlamps with daytime running LEDs complement the grille. The bumper is now more pronounced and falls lower, giving the ES more of a chin than it's had before. And, in back, Lexus stretched the taillights and added a small lip to the trunk lid and dual exhaust pipes. The result is a more aggressive facade than you've ever found on this car's banal predecessors.
Less noticeable on this ES is the fact that it's grown; the wheelbase is almost 2 inches longer, while the length is up an inch. Previous versions of this car were based on a platform shared with Toyota's Camry, but for 2013 the ES is based on the larger Avalon.
While an inch here or there may not sound like much, this growth pays its biggest dividends in interior space. Rear legroom is up 4 inches, making the back seats positively cavernous for this segment. Throw in the most comfortable headrests this side of a Mercedes-Benz S-Class, and you have a lovely place to spend some time. And, wouldn't you know it, such a setup matches the riding habits of many buyers in China, where Lexus and others are eager to make gains.
Head to the front seats, and life is just as comfortable — if somewhat marred by the view. The dashboard layout of the ES is new and, unfortunately, overwrought. There are more lines and folds here than in a beginner's origami class. Most notably, a pair of heavy, jarring creases above and below the 8-inch navigation screen bisect the dashboard horizontally.
Adding to the discord is the smattering of buttons, knobs and storage bins on either side of the driver. Placement of these controls seems to have been executed at the 11th hour of the interior's design and makes them hard to find at times.
What you can't miss, however, is the large, flat joystick affixed to the center console. Found on numerous Lexus vehicles, it's the controller that one uses with the optional navigation screen to operate the stereo, climate control and navigation system itself.
Each time I used this controller, I liked it less. In theory, it's not a bad idea: Replace a touch screen or rotary dial with what amounts to a computer mouse. But the device loses its precision when the car is moving, and the input systems on other luxury marques are quickly leaving this setup behind. That the screen itself is saddled with outdated graphics doesn't help matters.
But these shortcomings are most noticeable if you spend a lot of time in other cars. Plenty of buyers will overlook them and focus on the car's comfort and the brand's historically pragmatic approach to luxury.
An interior with the quietude of a sunset will also align with buyers' expectations. This Lexus is so good at keeping the cabin serene, you have to strain to hear either of the two available engines do their work.
The base ES 350 carries over the previous 3.5-liter V-6, which still pumps 268 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission.
This engine is also used in other Toyota and Lexus products, which is a good thing. It packs stout, smooth power and it moves the ES 350 from zero to 60 mph in 7.1 seconds. Even better, by reducing the car's weight versus the previous version — and using some aerodynamic trickery — the 2013 model bumps up its fuel economy ratings to 21 mpg in the city and 31 on the highway. During my time with the ES 350, I averaged 21 mpg in mostly city driving.
If you're willing to trade some horsepower and trunk space for noticeable fuel economy, consider the hybrid ES 300h. A first for the ES line, this version uses the same electric motor and 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine as Toyota's Camry hybrid, for a total of 200 horsepower. Paired with a continuously variable transmission, it gets 40 mpg in the city and 39 on the highway. The hybrid starts at $39,725, a $2,730 jump over the base engine.
Both ES models come standard with 10-way power driver and passenger seats, faux-leather seats, moon roof, eight-speaker sound system with Sirius radio, dual-zone climate control, LED daytime running lights and eight air bags. Sadly, a backup camera and navigation system are not included, though both come bundled in a $2,625 package.
Both cars also come with a dial that enables drivers to choose among Eco, Normal or Sport settings for the throttle and steering systems. The inclusion of this feature is undoubtedly a move by Lexus to up the ES' performance cred a hair, and the Sport setting's added boost of throttle from low speeds is appreciable.
We should remember, however, that the ES hasn't earned its keep over the years by being sporty — not even close. Thus, the few buyers who do change the drive mode will probably set it once and then leave it alone. Although the overall handling of this 2013 model is improved over the old version and it's more exciting to pilot, that's like saying "Gigli" is a better film than "Battlefield Earth." It's a marginal gain, kids.
This incremental boost in dexterity probably will mix with the newfound aesthetic mettle to pull in a respectable number of newcomers to the ES line.
Meanwhile, these cars adhere to Lexus' inoffensive approach to comfort and luxury and thus will please a fan base wary of surprises. The result should be a continued popularity that's music to Toyota's ears. Smooth, easy-listening music.