NORFOLK-- After a long day of racing with the rats, there's nothing wrong with preferring a car that has as its dominant personality trait sequestering you from the outside world. Yet it seems that every automaker is going in the opposite direction, as if they've all caught a severe case of BMW envy.
Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota Motor Corporation, is no exception. He's pushing to give Toyota and Lexus vehicles a more dynamic personality and it's clearly evident in the 2014 Lexus ES.
Restyled for 2013, the 2014 ES 350 is a much more handsome car than the one it replaces. The most noticeable change is the dramatic spindle grille, which gives the car a distinctive presence. Its expansive greenhouse and staid rear sheet metal closely mimics the pricier Lexus GS and LS. The end result? The ES no longer looks as if you spent less.
Part of that newfound presence is due to its size. Whereas previous versions of the ES shared their underpinnings with the lowly Camry, the new ES employs the larger 2014 Toyota Avalon as its foundation. This explains the generous size of the cabin, which is about the same size as the pricier rear-wheel-drive Lexus GS. Try it out and you'll find enough room to comfortably fit four or five if they're related. The trunk isn't quite as generous, although it feels larger than its 15.2 cubic foot measurement implies.
Beyond the cabin's space, you'll find the new ES has a much more modern ambience, with a choice of birdseye maple, piano black or bamboo trim. A large navigation/infotainment monitor dominates the instrument panel and how you control the controls on the screen depends on whether you opt for a navigation system. If you opt for it, you'll find a mouse-like device on the center console with an overly sensitive feel controls the screen. Skip the navigation system and you'll get a knob similar to those used by Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. The latter is much easier to master while driving.
Overall, you'll find the ES 350's environment recalls a trendy boutique hotel and, given its interior space, it's almost as large. While Lexus designers have masterfully banished the dowdy character of previous ES models, they are less successful when they try to do the same for performance.
Despite having a firmer suspension and more responsive steering than its forbearers, the 2014 ES is not an Autobahn athlete. The ride is still supple, despite the lack of body motions over bumps and reduced body lean in corners. This car is a cruiser, not a bruiser, and it's meant to spend its time in the middle lane, transporting its occupants in serene comfort. That is does, but with less isolation that previous models. Some of that Lexus specialness is missing. Still, most will find it to be a satisfying isolation chamber.
The new ES comes in two flavors. The ES 350 sports a 268-horsepower 3.5-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic, while the ES 300h gets a 200 horsepower gas-electric hybrid driveline.
As you'd expect, there's a difference in performance. The ES 350 has plenty of power on tap, although its engine does make its presence known through a hint of noise and trace of vibration. In contrast, the ES 300h's gas-electric hybrid drivetrain is felt but not heard, delivering the isolated refinement that Lexus customers have come to expect. Yes, the hybrid is slower but returns notable fuel economy: 40 mpg city, 39 mpg highway. By comparison, ES 350's V-6 returns 21 mpg city, 31 mpg highway and costs $900 more to fuel annually. Given the $2,880 premium for the hybrid model, hybrid buyers will break even in little more than three years.
Prices start at a reasonable $36,620, but keep in mind that most of the expected luxury features from leather trim, ventilated seats and navigation system, to the rear power sunshade, blind spot monitor and power trunk are optional.
The 2014 Lexus ES 350 has a newfound size, stature and style that's nearly equal to that of its larger Lexus stablemates. No, it will never be a car for Dale Earnhardt wannabes. So what? Its best traits are those its buyers will appreciate.
Powertrain: 268-horsepower V-6, six-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Cargo capacity: 15.2 cubic feet
EPA fuel economy (city/highway): 21/31 mpg
NHTSA safety rating: 5 stars
Base price, base model: $36,620
Base price, test model: $36,620
Where to buy it: Charles Barker Lexus, Virginia Beach and Newport News
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