2009 Lexus ES350

A public statement of one’s boredom existence and the temporary stress relief that $38,000 can buy.

Aging can do funny thing to one’s mind. It also changes the hormone in the body. Not only mentally experiencing the more frequent senior moments, physically fighting off the realm of aching joints, and while accepting the fact that Extenze has become your regular sports supplement.

This syndrome is unfortunately further enhanced by your increasing responsibilities as a member of the executive office and the anchor in the family. The only time you have for yourself is also unfortunately dedicated to your commute.

In a modern day after a hard day at work, what you’re looking for the most are the luxury toys to soothe the strain; air con seats, silence, comfort and softness.The least you want to experience in this moment is congestion, broken pavement, cops, speed limits, and traffic cameras… elements that could potentially traumatize you even more. What you ultimately desire is calmness in that journey home; the precious tranquility before seeing the screaming teenage kids and demanding spouse. This peace can be found in the Lexus ES350.

The once non-appealing car now seems somewhat attractive with aging. I now have the respect and sympathy toward ES owners. There are 600,000 (number of ES sold since 1989 to 2008) souls in the U.S. alone had to defer the sensations about driving to find temporary stress relief and publicly admitted they have a boring life.

Background

The Lexus ES series was first released in 1989 as the midsize entry-level luxury sedan directly based on Toyota’s highest volume seller – the Toyota Camry. Toyota launched the Lexus division in 1989 to compete with the Germans in the luxury sedan segment.The Lexus ES250 was represented for the least expensive market to widen the product coverage between the LS400 luxury flagship.

The ES has evolved five times since. The first four generations shared the identical body styling and chassis components with the top-of-the-line Camry except the ESs had better sound proofing, more electric gadgets, and finer interior materials.

Our tester is the 5th gen (classis code: GSV40), debuted in early 2006 as a 2007 model along side with the release of the 7th generation Camry. For the first time, the ES features its own body styling and Lexus’ L-finesse design philosophy to further emphasis comfort, quietness and smoothness. The ES350 is still sharing its mechanical components and majority of the equipments with the 7th gen Camry XLE V6 that costs $10,000 less.

On paper, the specifications are geared mostly toward comfort than performance. Despite the bread-and-butter spec sheet, the ES350 is much better than the previous one.The more time I spent in the car, the more subtle improvements noticed. The ES350 drives better, rides better, and handles better than any of its predecessors while retaining and improving the stress-free and relaxed cruiser statue. Yet the driving dynamics of the ES350 still cannot charm a car enthusiast but it should stop the accusation for the ES’s Buickness.

During a Lexus testdrive event few years back, the ES330 I drove in a test circuit fully exposed the ES shortcomings in driving dynamics more than anything else. It rolled, dove, understeered heavily, traction control was way intrusive, lacked of elegance, and looked just like a Camry…. Left me thinking, what exactly is this! Why would someone spend $35,000 for this? Why not just buy a Camry?

The fundamental setup of the ES350 may not provide justice for our tester’s $38,000 price tag but the successful sales figures of the ES350 provided the response to the question of, is the premium of the ES over the top-of-the-line Toyota Camry justified for the added amenities in the ES350? The 82,867 (the number of ES350 sold) aye were the answer in 2007.

Engine

The ES350 is powered by an all-aluminum 3.5L 24-valves DOHC V6 engine (engine code: 2GR-FE) with commonly employed variable valve timing on both intake and exhaust cams. Toyota calls it, dual VVT-i (Variable Valve Timing with intelligence). It pumps out ordinary 272hp@6,200rpm and 254Ib-ft of torque@4,700rpm with premium petrol. Engine is transversely mounted driving the front wheels via a 6-speed ECT-i (Electronically Controlled Transmission with intelligence) automatic transmission with sequential shifting mode.

Lexus in general are meant for conservative driving style. Any driving habit beyond what Lexus engineers assumed as safe will require seemingly two decade long response by the vehicle computer: a delay to the driver input to ensure driver’s intention, then a lengthy approval process to determine if the action is permitted or not. Perhaps this is how stress-free, relaxed driving should be; just let the computer determine your fate.

The throttle response is lazy under rapid throttle input. Have to plant the foot down and start counting. It takes about 3 seconds for things to happen. The current throttle mapping is a totally opposite of the previous Toyota product, lacking the initial throttle tip-in aggressiveness. Now it is somewhat more linear under normal circumstance.

Transmission

With the computer dictating the engine, the supposedly state-of-the-art automatic transaxle does not comply with driver’s inputs very well. The “with intelligence” feature may suggest it has better IQ than the driver.

The U660E close-ratio 6-speed transaxle is developed by Toyota exclusively for their front-wheel-drive products. It can handle the maximum torque of 295Ib-ft with reduction in operating noise and yet features 21% fewer components than the previous 5-speed. This transaxle can be commonly found in 2007 Camry, 2008 Avalon, and 2010 RX350.

There is the delay in downshifting at freeway speed and under spirited driving. What is analogical and frustrating is that the tranny has a different agenda and mindset of its own even in the sequential manual mode. It greatly defeated this driver oriented feature. Why bother to offer the sequential manual mode?

To state a couple flaws, every time place the lever from D to S (manual), it always shows “4” on the gear indicator in the instrument without regard of if the car is in a complete stop or going 80mph. Is the forth suggesting it will take off from a complete stop in 4th gear? Can I simply request for a single gear downshift when I knew it is traveling at 6th in D instead jumping straight to the 4th? No!

Secondly, when downshifting from 2nd to 1st in sequential mode. The result is often an annoying beep in which we later found out is the word “No” in Lexus vocabulary. The downshift is mechanically achievable, hints that we are not requesting an absurd downshift that will rev the engine beyond it’s redline. Perhaps if the downshift is permitted, the car will lurch hard due to the lack of downshift rev match function. It is a way to use electronics to prevent and soften its mechanical deficiency to preserve smoothness. But in reality, how many ES driver understand the technique of or apply downshift engine braking?

Power Delivery

Despite all the nitpicking, the transaxle is highly efficient when you let it be itself without driver’s intervention. It is a good match with the engine. The ES can accelerate off-the-line with authority or at any speed, well, of course only when permitted by the dictating computer. The widened gear ratios allow the engine rev in top gear at ~ 1,850rpm at 60 mph and ~2,300 rpm at 80mph.

Under hard acceleration off-the-line, considering the simple Macpherson front suspension layout, we were expecting for ferocious single tire spin and bracing for wrist breaking torque steer but surprisingly no tire squeal was present and torque steer was only moderate. In fact, the power lying down onto the pavement was reduced and limited by the traction control to completely eliminated tire spin and some of the discreditable torque steer inherited. A Saab engineer once said the absolute limit of a front wheel drive is 220hp.

Engine power is fully utilized once the front tires can handle more power. Who cares if engine power is reduced from a complete stop? It is plenty fast in the real world. The ES dashes from zero to 60mph and clears the quarter mile in high 6 and 14 seconds, respectively. These velocities are easily achieved with minimum noise and effort required; no fuss about it. Just smooth power deliveries to its 6,400rpm redline while obtaining very respectable 27mpg fuel economy during our heavy footed test.

Suspending the Ride

Similar to the Macpherson front suspensions layout, the rear of the GSV40 chassis is also supported by independent Macpherson strut suspensions with stabilizer bars fore and aft. MacPherson struts are inexpensive to construct, easy to setup and cheap to develop.

The standard suspension setup is firmer and more supportive than the previous model. We almost thought the tester came with sport package. The ES350 has no more of the previous ES’s over under-damped, floating on water softness. Road feel and ride quality are delightful and suitable for the comfort imagine of the car. It is not so harsh that you can feel every single expansion joint without needing to worry about hitting a pothole would shedder your aching back. However, a big bump can still causes the car to bounce up and down a few cycles before it would settle down.

Handling

The conventional hydraulic assist power steering offers effortless steering input for parking lot speed but too light for the freeway. The on-center feel is vague and has some slack between the on-center to where the front wheels are turning. That caused the rapid steering input feel, since initially there’s no response so the driver ends up cranking the wheel more than necessary. Fortunately, the road feel on the wood trim steering wheel via the P215/55R17, Bridgestone Turanza EL400-02 all-season touring tires is accurate but still diluted for my liking.

The suspension and steering setup translates into easy to modulate handling with higher than expected cornering limit followed by moderate understeering and plentiful of body roll. Under spirited driving, the undefeatable traction and vehicle stability control has the tendency to kick in prematurely to keep the car on track even before the tires begin to squeal. “Come on, let me drive the car. I am the driver. I have control. Stop beeping and keep saying no to everything. Who’s your daddy?” The car is, apparently. How rare the ES owners will do any kind of spirited driving anyway? So on daily basis, the ES handles just fine and perhaps great in that context.

Braking

Stopping power is generated by 11.7” vented discs in front and 11.1” solid rear discs with standard anti-lock braking system (ABS), electronic brakeforce distribution (EBD), and Brake Assist. The brakes are capable of stopping the 3,600ibs sedan in 123ft from 60mph with anticipated heavy nose dive.

Brake feel is also better than before but not quite perfect. We applauded on the elimination of un-necessary freeplay on the pedal but criticized the non-linearity. Initial pedal travel is linear with braking power but as the pedal reach beyond the midpoint of the pedal travel it requires more effort than expected to acquire the same braking power. It is especially apparently when making a complete stop at higher speed.

Interior is where the money is?

The conventional mechanics equipped in the ES and by the use of electronics to hide and avoid the deficits of the economical design and tuning just do not justify the ES’s premium price tag. Is the interior where you can find that large chunk of $38,000?

Placing yourself into the cockpit, you will notice this open, bright and welcoming feel. The kind of welcoming that is not endorsed by the “Drive Me Now” seductive posture. The interior is wrapped with high quality leathers, and soft to the touch dash material. Polished brown walnut wood and shiny chrome trims are plentifully placed in the center sole, steering wheel and shift knob. The brightness sensation is however depleted by the annoying sun reflection from these shiny trims. It can get bothersome very quickly. It feels like you are surrounded by all of the solar panels in a solar power plant.

The electroluminescent instrumentation gauge cluster is easy to read and elegant enough to not cause dullness over time. Switchgears are intuitive to operate and quality to the touch.

The electric front seats are 10-way adjustable. Lumber support has great range of adjustment, it can bulge the spinal cord forward to a degree that as if you are few months pregnant. They are really great to the touch, and very comfy for a long journey to ensure the gruesome executive chair welded buns are taken care properly.

The Premium Plus option package in the tester comes with climate controlled front seats. There are bun warmers and coolers in the seats. However, the controls are well hidden from sight. They are placed in front of a suitcase size like arm rest/center console compartment behind the cup holders. They also require yoga flexure hand to operate not to mention you cannot tell if you are on cooling or warming until you feel something is getting moist or turning blue. But we loved the cooling feature. It is able to keep your crack moist-free and refreshed in a hot summer day especially leather seat does not absorb well. It has really won over our buns.

Interior workmanship is great. There is absolutely no rattle or squeak. The only rattle is the zipper on your pants when left your fly open. A proven quality product since the ES350 is manufactured at the Toyota’s Kyushu plant in Fukuoka, Japan.

Road noise transmitted into the cabin is lovely thanks to the extensive sound proofing measures. It is just noticeable and enough for good communication between your tires and pavement via your ears. Engine note is damped and the dual exhaust emits NO noise even with windows open when craving through mountain roads with solid wall on one side. Wind noise is also muted, benefiting from the slick 0.28 coefficient of drag body styling.

The standard 8-speakers Lexus Premium Sound system is not that impressive despite the Los Angeles class submarine like quietness in the cabin. It lacks dynamics and definition. The audio LCD display is hard to read, so narrow, generic and dated. And what’s up with the so out of place, green-on-black digital clock on the center console? It is straightly taken out from a Yaris.

The worst drawback, HID is not included in a $38,000 car!

Conclusion

With the improvements in the ’09 ES350, for once I stopped the complaint on the lack of dynamics and responsive of the ES but applauded its comfort and ease of driving. I would not believe we had put on 130 miles in the all too familiar test route. It is really stress-free. The ES350 will never win the Nobel Prize in physics but it could very well win the Nobel Peace if the U.S. uses ES350 instead of the war-spec Hummers in Afghanistan.

The Lexus ES350 is still the Japanese Buick but with much and much greater attention to detail, reliability, workmanship, driving dynamics (considering), efficiency… The ES350 is so Buick that it only comes in left-hand drive. So the right-hand drive markets like U.K., Hong Kong, and including Japan itself do not have to suffer with this Buickness.

Overall Impression
Scoring System:

Powertrain Performance
7/10


Handling & Ride Characteristics
7/10

Brake Performance & Feel
7/10

Comfort & Workmanship
10/10

Features & Technologies
7/10

Will I buy one factor
0/10.

My recommendation factor
0/10

Afterthought

Lexus ES is the money tree for Toyota. It uses clever badge engineering with selective upgrades to suit its market. The ES shows Toyota’s great understanding of the people who shop for the ES. The shopper profiling suggested Lexus has recognized the ES owners are not car enthusiasts. It concluded that ES shoppers have the following general characteristics:

  • Don’t care or understand about cars; V6 has the same meaning as a larger capacity stainless steel refrigerator.
  • Driving is to get from Point A to Point B in the most relaxed, stress-free and comfort way; leather seats, yeah!
  • Driving and enjoyment has no correlation; what is steering feel? Stick shift?
  • Car terminology is a foreign language; double wish-bone is found in the chicken carcass.

End