Pros: Lovely V6, quiet cabin, exceptionally smooth ride, roomy back seat.
Cons: Dated dashboard, poor government crash-test scores, nary a hint of athleticism.
The 2012 Lexus ES 350 presents a classic car-shopper's dilemma: buy the old one or spring for the new one? The old one in this case is the current 2012 ES, and we're calling it "old" because it's due to be replaced by a redesigned ES for 2013. There's a theory out there that it's a great idea to buy a car in its last year of production. After all, the company's been making the car for years, so hopefully all the kinks have been ironed out. But on the flipside, the new model always promises to improve on the old one's formula, and, hey, new stuff is exciting. So what's a Lexus fan to do?
Truth be told, we're not sure. We don't like the 2012 ES 350's latest crash-test results from the government, for one thing-the new one will almost certainly perform better. Also, the 'interior reminds us a little too much of the year 2007. But the 2013 ES 350 has Lexus's controversially bold grille, so maybe you'd rather stick with the current model's conservative face. Moreover, the current ES has a fantastic V6, and you might be able to score a great deal on one amid all the fanfare surrounding the new ES's debut.
Either way, you'll end up with a nice car, so we're not too worried. But don't automatically dismiss the outgoing model just because it's old. We can appreciate the appeal of the latest and greatest, but the smartest money might go toward a tried-and-true 2012 ES 350.
Comfort & Utility
The 2012 Lexus ES 350 comes in one well-equipped trim level. Standard features include 17-inch alloy wheels, a sunroof, keyless entry with push-button ignition, a power tilt-telescopic leather-wrapped steering wheel, 10-way power front seats, leather upholstery, driver memory functions, electroluminescent gauges, a trip computer, dual-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth and an eight-speaker audio system with a six-CD changer and iPod/USB connectivity.
Optional is an audio/navigation bundle that adds a hard-drive-based navigation system, a rearview camera, a 14-speaker Mark Levinson audio system and Lexus Enform with Safety Connect (see "Technology," below). The navigation system is also offered as a separate option. The Ultra Luxury package tacks on different 17-inch alloys, adaptive xenon headlights, a panoramic sunroof, woodgrain interior trim, semi-aniline perforated leather upholstery, heated and cooled front seats, a power thigh support for the driver's seat, memory functions for the front passenger's seat and a power rear sunshade.
Standalone options include some elements of the Ultra Luxury package as well as adaptive cruise control and, believe it or not, a rear spoiler.
The ES 350's interior is full of high-quality materials, no doubt, but the dashboard is really showing its age. That's not surprising. After all, the 2012 ES is based on the previous-generation Toyota Camry, which dates back to the mid-2000s. Ergonomics are excellent, of course, and the electroluminescent gauges feature Lexus's trademark clarity. We also appreciate the standard power tilt-telescopic steering wheel, as that's typically a high-end option on luxury sedans. But whenever we're in an ES, we can't shake the feeling that we're sitting in an older car. On the other hand, the dramatically redesigned 2013 ES might be a little too "new" for your liking.
Here's another unsurprising fact: the ES's back seat is very accommodating. Adults will have no problem spending hours in the supportive yet cushy rear quarters. The trunk is perhaps a smidge smaller than average at 14.7 cubic feet.
You might think that the aged ES would come up short in the technology department, but you'd be mistaken. Unlike some young upstarts we could name, the ES comes standard with iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity, an important trifecta for tech fans. The available hard-drive-based navigation system is another up-to-date offering, though the ES gets a touchscreen interface instead of Lexus's newer "Remote Touch" mouse-like controller. We'd like to see more sophisticated graphics on that screen, but operating the system is pretty straightforward.
The navigation system includes the Enform telematics system, which lets you either plan trips from home using a Lexus-exclusive online search called eDestination, or leverage your smartphone for this purpose with the downloadable Enform mobile app. Destination Assist provides live navigation assistance from Lexus's 24-hour response center. Both features are facilitated by direct communication with the ES's navigation system.
Note that Toyota's Entune system, which uses smartphone data connections to integrate mobile apps like Pandora into the driving experience, isn't available in any Lexus for the 2012 model year.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The front-wheel-drive ES 350 is powered by a 3.5-liter V6 rated at 268 horsepower and 248 lb-ft of torque. This is the same engine that appears in the V6-powered Toyota Camry, and that's great news, because it's one of the best engines in the world. Acceleration is even stronger than the numbers suggest, while refinement is top-notch. A-ll you hear as the tachometer needle sweeps toward redline is a distant, mellifluous snarl. The six-speed automatic transmission is likewise highly civilized, hardly ever calling attention to itself.
Fuel economy is EPA-rated at 19 mpg city/28 mpg highway. That's about average for a car of this type.
The 2012 Lexus ES 350 comes with standard stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes and ten airbags (front, front side, front knee, rear side and full-length side-curtain). Conscious of consumer concerns, Lexus has installed a brake override system in every ES that cuts power when the brake is applied, even if the throttle is still depressed. All models feature Safety Connect, an emergency assistance program that uses the same 24-hour response center as the Enform system to get you the help you need.
Although the ES 350 got satisfactory crash-test scores a few years ago, the government changed its testing methodology recently, and the results weren't good for the 2012 ES. The overall rating was just three stars out of five, including four stars for frontal impacts and just two stars for side impacts. It goes to show you that the number of airbags often isn't the most important thing.
The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety was more generous than the government, awarding the ES its highest rating of "Good" in every testing category except rear impacts, where the ES garnered the second-worst "Marginal" rating.
The Lexus ES 350 earns our respect because it doesn't try to be anything it's not. The point of this car is to isolate its occupants from the outside world, period. And that's precisely what the ES does-no more, no less. Crumbling pavement barely upsets the ES's composure. Indeed, the suspension is so soft that it feels like it could float serenely over just about everything. Road and wind noise barely register. Naturally, the ES has vague steering and sailboat-style body roll in corners, but that's just part of the deal.
Other Cars to Consider
Acura TL - The TL is based on the Honda Accord, so it's similar in concept to the Camry-based ES. However, the TL has a much sportier edge.
Buick LaCrosse - Buick's Lexus-fighter features even more legroom than the ES, plus an available 3.6-liter V6 that gives the Lexus V6 a run for its money. It also manages to handle with surprising agility.
Hyundai Genesis - The rear-wheel-drive Genesis is designed to compete against high-buck European luxury sedans, but the V6-powered Genesis is right at the ES 350's price point. It's definitely worth a test drive.
We'd forgo the Ultra Luxury package, but the navigation/audio bundle is an absolute must. Why? Because the Mark Levinson stereo sounds so good that it's almost a reason in itself to buy this car.