For the longest time, Lexus’ ES model attracted sneers for being the ride of choice for fiscally prudent retirees looking for a reliably comfortable trip to and from the bowls club – and not much else.
In fact, right from the outset the ES was slammed by the global press for being little more than a tarted-up Camry, albeit with a considerably higher price tag.
In 2013, the rebooted Lexus ES resurfaced in local showrooms, only this time as a sixth-generation version boasting an all-new platform, new-look spindle grille and new technology that included the Lexus Remote Touch interface.
Fast-forward to September 2015 and the latest evolution of the Lexus ES emerged wearing aesthetic tweaks inside and out, as well as a major upgrade to standard safety kit.
And while it might still covet that ever-growing retiree set with a passion for lawn bowls and weekend trips to the holiday house, the newest ES looks and feels like a more substantial and, dare I say, more exciting offering than before.
There’s no question some might find the latest version of the Lexus signature grille polarising – it’s clearly bigger and bolder than any previous treatment, but I find it contemporary and one that has dared to push the styling envelope further than its European rivals.
The new front and rear headlights feature up-to-the-minute LED lighting and a styling treatment in-line with relatively new-look Lexus offerings such as the RC and NX models.
While the range starts with the fuel-efficient ES300h (petrol/electric hybrid) from $63,750 plus on-roads for the Luxury and $71,910 for the Sports Luxury, our all-petrol V6 ES350 Sports Luxury wears a price tag from $72,650.
Lexus’ standard equipment inventories have always been extensive, often with few if any options, but revisions for this latest iteration ES model include a full safety suite makeover featuring Lexus Safety System+, which combines four key technologies into one networked package – pre-collision safety system, lane departure warning, automatic high beam and active cruise control.
That’s along with all of today’s usual safety systems such as ABS braking, electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist and traction control. There are also 10 airbags to boot.
Even the entry-level model receives embossed leather-accented trim, rear-view camera with back guide monitor, blind spot warning, driver memory seat, moon roof, satellite navigation and digital radio (DAB).
The $7950 premium for the top-shelf ES350 Sports Luxury gets you additional creature comforts like a premium Mark Levinson audio system, three-zone climate control with humidity sensor and heated rear seats, passenger seat memory, rear side sunshades and powered boot.
Another more recent Lexus trait is the innovative self-restoring coat that allows the car’s clear coat to repair itself in the event of minor damage.
It’s an awful lot of kit for the money, and the only option is a panoramic roof, which adds $2000 to the list price.
While ES buyers probably aren’t looking for the ultimate in steering feel and on-road dynamics, comfort on the other hand is almost certainly a key purchasing trigger, as it always has been.
Unlike its German rivals, who generally opt for firmer seat cushioning for its passenger cars, the Lexus ES350 is blessed with delightfully comfortable front pews that better compete with your favourite TV armchair than any offering by a rival.
All the key touchpoints are soft to the feel as well, particularly so with the upholstered armrests, so forget about sore elbows after long stints behind the wheel.
Legroom and shoulder space is also high on the ES agenda, with rear-seat passengers treated to generous amounts of both, though not quite limo-class. Less so is rear headroom due to the tapered roof line, though the low-set rear seats do their best to compensate.
Boot space is on the large size too, but while there’s a small opening for longer objects like skis, the bench-like rear seat doesn’t fold, limiting carrying capacity for likes of surfboards and ladders.
While timber-look trim and metal accents go some way in making the Lexus feel more special than its high-spec Toyota Aurion cousins, it still falls short of its more polished European counterparts in the luxury segment.
For starters, Lexus continues to tweak its Remote Touch technology, but it remains a rather cumbersome and frustrating approach to navigating the infotainment system, especially on the move.
There’s a centrally mounted infotainment screen that’s actually reasonably sized (eight inches) and with decent resolution, but looks undersize given the extra-wide housing it sits in.
Still, all the switchgear is easily accessed, clearly labelled and nice to the touch, which bodes well for the kind of stress-free ride this car oozes.
While comfort is still king in the ES350, despite the lack of tricky adaptive dampers, Lexus has dialled in more precise steering and better body control, so the car feels more livelier than any of the previous five generations.
That’s thanks to a more rigid platform introduced for the latest generation, which included a raft of improvements like body reinforcements, new sub-frames, body braces and enhanced joint rigidity.
That said, the ES is still not the kind of car that urges drivers to explore its dynamic limits, rather, it’s about enjoying the sublime ride and utter silence of the cabin – no matter how busy the traffic conditions. The ES completely isolates its occupants from the outside world.
The trusty 3.5-litre naturally aspirated V6 is no more powerful than the last iteration of the ES, but it’s still smooth, quiet and effortless under load.
Punch it from a standing start and the svelte-shifting six-speed auto will get you to 100km/h in a claimed 7.4 seconds (at least in Sport), while top speed is 210km/h. There’s enough on tap if you need to make a quick getaway from the lights, but you wouldn’t call it exhilarating.
On a diet of mostly urban kilometres, it’s thirstier than we expected, too, consuming 14.9L/100km at worst, and 11.3L/100km at best.
Build quality and reliability are two highly regarded brand traits still favoured by corporate bean counters and financially comfortable retirees, and the ES350 delivers those in spades.
Factor in improved looks, countless creature comforts and a value-for-money proposition better than any of its like-sized rivals, and the Lexus becomes the smart choice against its smaller and less-equipped European rivals.