The 2010 Lexus ES 350 may be built on the same platform as the Toyota Camry, but its cabin appointments and ride are pure Lexus. Lacking any sporting character, the ES 350 serves as luxury transportation. In classic Lexus style, it is effortless to drive, with a wheel that turns easily and a smooth-shifting transmission. Wood trim, leather, and soft plastics line the interior.
Its luxury midsize sedan competition includes such cars as the Mercedes-Benz C-class and the Infiniti G37, but the front-wheel-drive ES 350 doesn't meet those cars' level of performance. A more suitable dance partner is the Lincoln MKZ.
The ES has always been a good-looking car, and the 2010 model incorporates an even sleeker exterior that sets it apart from the boring world of midsize sedans. The front of the car flows down towards the ground, and the rear roofline blends into the trunk in an almost-fastback style. A new glass roof allows a sunroof over the front seats and moonroof over the rear.
Having driven many Lexus models, the ES 350 proved entirely unsurprising on the road. A few Lexus models reach into the realm of performance, but all share a common comfort level and a distinct ease of driving. The wheel in the ES 350 turns with little effort, and the brakes and transmission allow for smooth operation.
Driving at slow speeds in the city or freeway speeds on an Interstate, the ES 350 flowed well over rough pavement. Using its conventional suspension, it strikes the right balance between softness and damping out the bumps, making sure no asphalt imperfection leaves a lasting impression in the cabin. There are cars with better rides, but the ES 350 dominates its class.
The 3.5-liter V-6 under the hood uses modern variable-valve timing for efficiency, but doesn't push into any new technological ground. Producing 272 horsepower and 254 pound-feet of torque, it contributes to the luxury feel of the ES 350 by supplying easy and quiet acceleration. Likewise, its associated six-speed automatic works in the background, shifting gears so subtly that you would be hard-pressed to guess the car's gear after an hour of driving.
Lexus reports particularly high fuel economy ratings for the ES 350, at 19 mpg city and 27 mpg highway, numbers that many other V-6-powered cars in its segment can't reach. But we didn't hit those highs in our review car, achieving a mere 21 mpg driving around town, on freeways, and a mountain highway.
Speaking of mountain highways, the transmission includes sport and manual modes, along with the standard drive setting. Don't be fooled, as these settings just come with the transmission, and aren't really suited to this particular car. The sport mode is not particularly aggressive, and the ES 350 is far from a sports car. A trip along a winding road in Northern California proved more scenic than exciting.
Mark Levinson sound
Befitting its luxury mission, our ES 350 came equipped with the optional adaptive cruise control, a technology just starting to trickle down from the top luxury segment. Not quite as capable as Mercedes-Benz's system, it won't bring the ES 350 to a full stop, instead turning itself off if speeds drop below about 30 mph. In use, we found it a little disconcerting that when a car cut in front of us, causing the radar to lose its lock, the cruise control let the ES 350 free wheel for a few seconds. In this situation, a discreet amount of braking would be better.
Another way Lexus secures its luxury reputation is with Mark Levinson sound systems. In the ES 350, this means 14 speakers and a 300-watt amp with surround-sound processing. In general, we've found Mark Levinson systems to be one of the best you can get in a nonexotic car, in close competition with Lincoln's THX systems.