2008 Lexus ES 350 review

The Lexus brand is synonymous with luxury and reliability. In their almost twenty years of existence, Lexus has redefined automotive luxury. They have shown consumers that you don’t have to put up with reliability issues, snobby attitudes, or stone cold German engineering in order to drive a premium automobile. They are reliable as the sun, hold their value outstandingly well, and take first place in quality awards virtually every year.

What they don’t often win, however, is comparison tests. There are a variety of reasons, but it usually boils down to being a “soulless” car. To contrast that statement, a BMW would usually be considered a “fun” car. Its quirks would be referred to as “character”. Thus, luxury buyers these days must often make a critical choice – should they pick the fun car or the sensible one?

One of Lexus’ top selling models is the ES. In 2007 it was redesigned, as was the Camry from which it is based. Its V6 engine grew in size and output to 3.5L and 272hp respectively.
Personally, I find that this generation of ES always seems to turn my head on the road. It’s a sharp looking car. It flows down the road with a classy and substantial stance. Run down the option sheet and you can outfit it as luxuriously as you desire. Everything you can think of is available – power and memory seats that are heated and cooled double pane sunroof, and a stereo system from Mark Levinson. The one I sampled was loaded with almost everything.

Normally I don’t bother reviewing the audio systems, but this Mark Levinson system was a special case. Being an audiophile who is familiar with Levinson’s home theater products, I was curious to sample their work in an automotive environment. It did not disappoint. The sound from over a dozen speakers (!) was rich and full. An iPod interface and satellite radio are available as well. Choose your priorities wisely though – paradoxically you cannot choose an iPod interface AND either form of satellite radio together.

Lexus is known for oozing quality when you step inside their cars. I’ve experienced this when reviewing most of their other models. This time, however, I did not get that feeling when stepping inside this car. It’s nice, don’t get me wrong. But it doesn’t scream luxurious. The gauges look bland. There was a difference in the color of trim pieces moving from the dash to the top of the doors – a very odd quality oversight in a Lexus product. There is dark wood sprinkled
throughout the cabin that seems to contrast well with either a dark or light interior. Everything falls nicely to hand and works with precision. But it just feels like something is…….missing. It’s not anything I could put my finger on, but I somehow got the feeling that this was not quite a finished product; that maybe the engineers had settled for “good enough” instead of rising above.

Firing up the V6 and gliding it down the road shows the ES to be competent, tranquil transportation. It is quiet and everything operates with a hum. The transmission is smooth and in no hurry to shift. You can take manual control of the 6-speed automatic, but don’t expect to start ticking off shifts like an F1 car. The Lexus doesn’t demand much from you; it also doesn’t give much back. Ultimately it feels like adequate transportation. While this is usually what kills it in comparison tests, I would take the statement a bit farther. A Camry is also adequate transportation. It’s inoffensive, smooth, quiet, reliable as a Timex – everything a Toyota should be. Beyond the Mark Levinson stereo (which is an expensive option anyway), I could not find a single, compelling reason to buy this car over any other Toyota. The one I drove stickered at about $43,000 – again pretty well maxed out on options. I didn’t find anything here that couldn’t be found on a loaded out Camry (approx $32k) or even a reasonably loaded Avalon (approx $36k). Frankly, with the Avalon, you would get a larger car, with more practicality, and one that is built to the same standards as the Lexus anyway.

While I would never dispute Lexus’ reputation and award winning reliability records, I have to question their philosophy with the ES. It seems engineered for those who have to have the fancy L on the hood of their car whereas Toyota’s sombrero-wearing looking dude symbol just wouldn’t do. Yeah you get a longer warranty. Yeah it’s more fun to say “I drive a Lexus” rather than “I drive a Toyota”. But it’s no more fun to drive this Lexus than any other Toyota. Undoubtedly it will bring reliable transportation for years to come. But so will pretty much any other upper end Toyota sedan. Unfortunately the ES just doesn’t present a strong enough value proposition to earn my recommendation. If you want a Lexus and want to feel like you got your money worth, you’re far better off stepping into one of their upper end models. As I add to the Lexus reviews here on this site, you’ll see why.

Photos property of Lexus

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