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Lexus ES 350: Pleasure without the passion

2012 Lexus ES 350

Bob English for The Globe and Mail/bob english The Globe and Mail

Overall Rating
A car that offers big Lexus luxury and style in a more affordable package. You'll like this car if you're seeking value along with luxury.
Looks Rating
It may not turn many heads, but it certainly projects a Lexus sense of style.
Interior Rating
Simple but attractive and well-finished in obviously high-quality materials.
Ride Rating
Soft but with just enough muscle tone to not feel too squishy.
Safety Rating
Enough size and a lengthy list of active and passive features to be a good safety bet.
Green Rating
Reasonable fuel economy for its size.

No hyperbole-enhanced descriptions of spinal-injury-threatening acceleration or braking forces, inner-ear imbalance-inducing cornering g's, exhaust pipe decibels or a fearsome top speed can be employed in the introduction to this review.

Instead we'll go with words such as serenity and tranquility, composure and peace of mind, unassuming and unostentatious to describe the last-of-its-generation 2012 Lexus ES 350 luxury sedan that is graceful rolling towards retirement.

The reality is that the entry-premium category ES has never been a car to excite great passion. What it has always so capably delivered, however, is comfort and contentment and even a driving pleasure that will suit those who prefer detachment from the world around them to a more visceral involvement.

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For many years, it was the entry-level Lexus and a first step up to the luxury brand for Toyota owners looking for something a little more up-market but not too expensive or showy.

It has been one of the most popular passenger cars in the Lexus lineup since its introduction in 1989 and in 2011 was the third-best-selling vehicle in the entire range of cars and SUVs/crossovers available in Canada.

The fifth generation, the ES 350, came along as a 2007 model, as always based on the latest Camry platform, but with a more distinctly Lexus look and a tonier interior. It was given a fairly modest facelift for 2010.

Sales slippage last year is likely due at least in part to its age, although conservative ES 350 buyers probably aren't particularly influenced by pressure to drive the latest and trendiest vehicles. But the product cycle of life has definitely caught up with it and it will be replaced by a sixth generation – likely some time later this year although Lexus isn't saying exactly when.

Rumors have the new 2013 ES making its debut at the Beijing auto show in April and clandestine photos indicate it will feature a more dramatic take on styling and tauter suspension, but will still likely hold true to its place in the great Lexus scheme of things.

Meanwhile, the 2012 ES 350 is priced at the same $41,150 asked for it last year and Lexus is putting cash credits against the purchase price of $3,000 on the hood ($5,000 on any leftover 2011 models). If the arrival of the new one is indeed imminent, individual dealers will also be highly motivated to move ES 350 inventory off their lots and be looking to make deals.

The base price is actually less than that being asked for a 2012 Toyota Avalon and, employing my admittedly dodgy math skills, that credit would bring the price down to what you'd pay for a number of cars with what most would consider less cachet than a Lexus badge carries.

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Yes, you say, but the new generation will be, well, newer and better. And indeed it should be. But this doesn't mean the ES 350 isn't still a good-looking, competent and accomplished car that already offers most of the features, if in some cases probably not with quite the same level of advanced technology, as the new generation will also be equipped with.

There's very little not to like about the current ES 350.

From the driver's perspective, its 3.5-litre V-6 makes a more-than-enough 272 hp and 254 lb-ft of torque, which finds its way to the front wheels through a refined six-speed automatic transmission. Plant your right foot and keep it on the carpet and you'll find yourself at ticket-inducing speeds very quickly. Do the same at 80 km/h and you'll find passing the car ahead on a two-lane takes little time at all.

Cruising is effortless and fuel economy more than reasonable with ratings of 10.9 litres/100 km city and 7.1 highway. Average usage in my hands was 9.2 litres/100 km and 8.5 litres/100 km at a highway cruising speed. This is one area the new car will almost certainly make gains in, but they won't be major.

The driving dynamics unfortunately don't match the motor's enthusiasm. The steering's on-centre feel is vague and the effort a bit light. The car responds to steering input in a linear fashion, but not with any urgency due to spring and damper rates chosen for ride comfort (which is at a high level), rather than responsiveness.

The use of the word "composure" is valid enough, as it doesn't get rattled by quick-step changes of direction, they're just not something it encourages. At highway speeds, there are hints of that "floatiness" that always used to be associated with big soft American cars.

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The ES 350 test car looked Lexus-like in the Satin Cashmere Metallic (goldy/beige) paint the test car was wearing. But more importantly, it should wear this look well for some time yet without looking dated. Inside, there was cream leather and the elongated horseshoe-shaped centre stack that swoops down into the centre console was finished in a light veneer edged in nickel-plate-look metal.

Instruments are bright and figuring out how to make things like the dual zone climate control and premium audio system work doesn't take a community college computer science course. In other words, it's visually pleasant, nice and simple.

And comfortable, including in the roomy rear seat area, although a little wind noise intrudes at highway speeds. The test ES came with the $3,800 Nav package that included voice-activated navigation, USB audio input, heated/ventilated front seats and reversing camera.

After renewing acquaintances with this generation of the ES, I'd say the reasons behind its popularity are as valid as ever.

Tech specs

2012 Lexus ES 350

Type: Luxury sedan

Base Price: $42,150; as tested, $48,085

Engine: 3.5-litre, DOHC, V-6

Horsepower/torque: 272 hp/254 b-ft.

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.9 city/7.1 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Acura TL, Cadillac CTS, Hyundai Genesis, Lincoln MKS, Buick Lacrosse, Chrysler 300

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