AUTO REVIEW: 2019 Lexus ES 350 Gets Lost Between the Old and the New

(Chicago Tribune/TNS) -
Lexus ES 350
2019 Lexus ES 350 in Ultra Lux trim gets longer, lower and wider for a sportier profile and better handling, and it also gets a more potent 302-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 engine with new 8-speed transmission. (Robert Duffer/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Has Lexus lost its way? This is the question I kept coming back to in the redesigned 2019 Lexus ES 350 midsize sedan. The seventh-generation ES 350 is a quiet, sophisticated ride in the Lexus way, but the technology hasn’t kept up with the modern competition.

It has grown longer (2.6 inches), wider (1.8 inches) and a bit lower; the wheelbase has been stretched by 2 inches to give it a low and wide athletic stance. The giant trapezoidal grille looks good on this sedan, as does the LED light signature.

The more sporting profile is a direct challenge to avoid the fate of Buick late in the last century. The quiet cabin, familiar technology (read: outdated), muted mechanics and venerable reliability made these old faithfuls the chosen vehicle of older drivers. But Lexus knows older drivers don’t buy as many new vehicles. In the last decade, Lexus has energized new buyers with more daring designs, captivating ad campaigns and an infusion of performance, from the gorgeous LC500 sports coupe to the F Sport packages offered now on seemingly every Lexus, from the tried and true RX350 crossover to the LS full-size sedan.

Lexus graces the ES with more performance, as well. The midsize sedan gets a modified suspension on a more rigid front-wheel-drive chassis that both improves noise reduction and provides more responsive handling in the Ultra Luxury trim we tested. The new electric steering system is designed for more feedback, and the latest V-6 with the new eight-speed automatic transmission increases horsepower from 268 to 302, with torque rising to 267 pound-feet (up from 248).

It drives fine. It won’t take your breath away but also won’t leave ES buyers hungry for more. Additionally, fuel efficiency is up 2 mpg to 26 mpg combined despite a modest weight gain.

The problem with the ES 350, more than it being a sedan, is the competition. From the Mazda6 to the Jaguar XE and the Tesla Model 3 — the best-selling luxury car of 2018 — the competitors do a better job of balancing refinement, performance and technology, which is the Achilles heel of Lexus.

Lexus ES 350
(Robert Duffer/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

The touchpad has gotten better, the available 12.3-inch display ($3,000 as part of the navigation package) is clear, voice commands are reliable and the 7-inch display in the instrument cluster simplifies everything. All the modern conveniences are there, but are laid out in such a way that you don’t want to use them.

Surely, owners will get used to it.

Part of it is the mishmash layout of classic square buttons, odd round buttons and the presence of a CD player, with heated seat buttons above it. Then audio circles above that. These tiny space oddities can be pushed in or popped out to scan or change audio source. You can do that from the touchpad and from the steering wheel controls, as well. But the steering wheel controls are another incongruity. Volume control is on the left side, under the controls for vehicle info, which includes audio access. But the tuning buttons are on the right side, under the controls for cruise control and other advanced driver assistance systems.

All those controls are meant to minimize reliance on the touchpad and 12.3-inch display screen. Backup camera projection is excellent, as is map projection. Everything else is a headache. The display can be split into three panels, but navigating through those panels must be done with the improved touchpad. Pinch and pull mapping is a nice feature too.

Best set your audio preferences in the driveway. In our week with the vehicle, we weren’t able to access a station list in any reasonable time frame. There must be a way in the settings, but by the time we got to the owner’s manual, we just wanted to be done with the touchpad and all the scrollable iconography.

From design to functionality, the ES feels like a grandfather tasked his grandsons to come up with the best multimedia display, figuring such accessories are child’s play anyway, then when they presented their systems, he said, benevolently but stupidly, you all win, then jammed them all in there. Apple CarPlay is available.

While I’m curmudgeoning, I don’t like the frankenknobs on the top of the dash display to adjust drive modes or shut off stability control. There’s just too much going on in the cabin, a cacophony of multimedia eras, without any unifying or characteristic design sense.

So maybe Lexus hasn’t lost its way as much as it hasn’t found its way in luxury autos 2.0?

That demanded another question: Is the ES 350 with top Ultra Luxury trim worth $13,000 more, or about 35 percent more, than the similarly powered 2018 Toyota Camry XSE?

2019 Lexus ES350 at a glance

Vehicle type: Midsize sedan

Base price: $43,150

As tested: $50,434 (excluding $1,025)

Mpg: 22 city, 33 highway, 26 comb.

Engine: 302 horsepower 3.5-liter V-6

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Competitive rank: Tesla Model 3, Genesis G70, Cadillac CTS, Jaguar XE, Lexus ES350.