The year was 1989. Toyota was making a bold move into the luxury market, introducing a new upscale car brand called Lexus. Some cynics scoffed, but adventurous buyers stepped up and took a chance on a new name in premium cars. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Lexus has not only survived, but it has thrived, often held as a standard for innovation as well as quality. You can now buy sporty cars, hybrid cars, and even a limited production supercar with the Lexus badge on the front.
When the nameplate got going for the 1990 model year, there were only two models in the lineup. A large sedan called LS400 was the flagship model, with a standard V8 engine and lots of amenities. There was also the “entry” Lexus, to give the brand a bit of breadth and also to generate interest among customers who might not have had the means for the more expensive model.
The smaller, less pricey car was dubbed the ES250, and the poorly-kept secret was that it was in many ways a gussied up Toyota Camry. It came with lots of features as well as a standard V6 engine, but its humble roots shined through. Over the past 20+ years the ES has evolved, but it always carried the “that’s just a Camry with a nicer interior” stigma.
Well, not any more. The all-new 2013 ES350 has arrived, and it’s no longer based on the Camry. Instead, it shares its platform with the larger and more upscale Toyota Avalon. OK, it’s still a lesser Toyota deep down, but the Toyota relative it shares DNA with is hardly a slouch. In recent years, many people have observed that the Avalon is “nearly a Lexus.”
When you first see the new ES, you might be taken by how striking it is. The Lexus brand has often been accused of holding back on styling, with its cars being kind of hum-drum in the looks department. While it’s not likely the 2013 ES350 is going to be called breakthrough, its lines and overall shape suggest a very handsome upscale car.
The biggest benefit of sharing a platform with the Avalon is that the ES now has more interior room thanks to a longer wheelbase, with rear legroom up over four inches. There’s a truly ample back seat now, and four (or even five) passengers can travel in comfort.
From the driver’s seat, the interior upgrades further enhance the typical Lexus driving environment, which is to say very good. The information screen is located up high on the instrument panel, and while the array of buttons and controls has grown over the years, Lexus has done a good job of making their placement pretty intuitive.
One of my favorite features on the ES and other recent Lexus models is the ergonomically designed Remote Touch Interface, which allows your right hand to rest on a curved pad while your fingers operate a mouse-like scroll control to operate various things via the display screen. The control even provides tactile feedback so you don’t have to look at the screen very much.
Mechanically, the ES350 isn’t what you’d call exciting, but it’s definitely competent. The V6 engine is smooth as silk, and is mated to an excellent 6-speed automatic transmission. There’s a drive mode selector that lets you choose “Sport” or “Eco” modes for either snappier acceleration or more efficiency, respectively.
Even though the car is now a bit larger, fuel economy is up. EPA estimates are 21 mpg city and 31 highway for a combined figure of 24. And for the first time, the ES gets the option of a hybrid model for even better fuel economy. (I hope to be reviewing that one soon.)
Base price for the 2013 Lexus ES350 is $36,100. Options can pile on and add up quickly, and my test car had $10,000 worth of them. Still, in the luxury arena it truly lacked for nothing.
The Lexus ES may have started from somewhat humble origins way back when. But today it’s quite grown up, and represents the Lexus brand better than it ever has.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz, Facebook: ABC7Dave