The 2019 ES 350 Ultra Luxury edition is well beyond ‘entry level’

It’s always a pleasure to do a weeklong review of a Lexus vehicle, and the ES 350 is probably my favorite of the fleet, so I was looking forward to that late-June delivery. I was intrigued all the more to learn it would be the “Ultra Luxury” edition.

The cynical side of my brain wondered if it would live up to the billing, especially as the ES is considered by industry insiders to be an entry-level luxury sedan. I, of course, shared this cynicism with a couple of friends, but when later they asked if it really was ultra-lux, I had to consistently answer, “I can’t think of anything it lacks.”

From the outset I will say there is one tweak I would make if I were Mr. Lexus and could order such things. I really don’t like the ES’s user infotainment interface. It’s a touchpad on the center console, and it is not easy to use. Maybe it would feel more natural if I was in the vehicle for longer than a week, but even by Day 7 it was not coming to me.

I do like the way they make the hand rest comfortable and convenient for using the touchpad, but I don’t like the way the touchpad itself works. It is ultra-difficult to get the cursor to go where you want it to go. That’s a pretty big problem, especially when you find it in a $43K vehicle (our copy was actually stickered at $53K). The short-story solution: Replace the touchpad with a touch screen like you find in the ultra-impressive Camry.

Despite the interface shortcomings, this ES 350 is still an amazing vehicle. Let’s start with the performance. The 3.5-liter V-6 delivers 302 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque, and that’s a lot, and it means you’re in complete control of this vehicle in traffic. You want to be in front of that car in that other lane? Snap, and you’re there. Front and rear performance dampers ensure that you maintain more road grip and less bounce when you’re maneuvering on challenging surfaces. This vehicle is an entry-level luxury car, but it’s an entry-level sports car as well. You’re not going to do much more with a V-6 than Lexus does with their ES 350 powerhouse.

The natural downside to performance is fuel economy, but the beauty of this engine is that you’re still getting an average 26 miles per gallon and up to 33 on the highway. That’s not bad considering the power you’re getting. Mind you, if you push it hard all the time, your mileage won’t be this generous.

Toyotas and Lexuses are both rolling off the line these days with a bevy of standard, high-tech safety features, including the impressive pedestrian detection system. Cross traffic notification systems have impressed me for years, and they’re handy when backing out parking lot spaces. The ability to detect pedestrians is even more important. It works when you’re driving forward, too, of course, so it helps you “see” people walking dangerously close to traffic.

By the way, you don’t find pedestrian detection in the 2019 GX 460, which surprised me, and I mentioned it in that review a few weeks ago. The much-less-expensive Corolla comes standard with it, so I was surprised that the GX did not. As I noted in that review, I’m guessing Lexus is just rolling out the same GX until it’s time for a redesign, which I am hoping comes in 2020.

The ES 350 further earns its Ultra Luxury badge by offering 14-way driver and 10-way passenger seats that are both heated and ventilated. This latter feature is one of my favorites, especially down here in the Georgia summertime. You’re getting a wood and leather steering wheel as well, which is beautiful and well set in this overall gorgeous interior.

Our copy had a few extra options I enjoyed quite a lot. The panorama glass roof is fantastic, even though I’m not much for sunroofs. In this case, you’re enjoying the city lights at night, and this will be great for showing friends around Downtown Atlanta and Buckhead with all of their skyscrapers. Illuminated door sills and other ambient lighting is a nice touch, again, really coming in handy at night.

The copy we tested had the optional Mark Levinson sound system, which is anchored by a 12.3-inch display, 17 speakers and 1,800 watts. I’d like to hear the standard, 10-speaker system, because you’re paying an extra $3K for the Mark Levinson package. I think most new cars are rolling off the line with better standard sound these days than just a few years ago.

Another surprise this time around was how much I enjoyed the tucked-away wireless phone charging pad. Once you’re in this ES 350, you don’t need your phone to hand anymore, because it syncs perfectly with the car via Bluetooth. Now you can put it completely out of sight while charging it wirelessly.

Whenever I drive the ES 350, going back several years now, I wonder why they still call it an entry-level luxury car. I get that the price point is lower than you could pay, but some people don’t want the larger car with the larger engine at any price, and you’re not really going to get much more in the way of luxury appointments in the cabin even if you go up the chain. I’d rather just call this a luxury car and be done with it. If you’re driving the ES 350, you haven’t just entered. You’ve arrived.

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