At the Lexus manufacturing plant in Georgetown, Ky., a factory worker runs her hands over the body panels of a newly minted ES 350. Using only her eyes and sense of touch, she can detect distortions in the metal by a fraction of a millimeter. If the car doesn’t pass muster under her discerning eye, it won’t end up on the showroom floor.
This level of craftsmanship is a point of pride for those at Lexus, the company that changed the luxury space by focusing on superior customer service. (Remember the putting greens and nail salons at Lexus dealerships?) Now Lexus has completely redesigned and reengineered its best-selling sedan, the midsize ES. The seventh-generation ES is built on an all-new platform, offers vastly improved driving dynamics, and features a bold new design. But what also sets the car apart is the rigorous quality control process it goes through, and the advanced training the latter requires.
“There is a great deal of thoughtfulness and attention to detail in everything we do,” says Yoshihiro Sawa, president of Lexus International. Factory workers hone their skills on a variety of “sensory tables,” which teach them everything from how to feel the correct amount of resistance in a switch, to spotting variations in panel gaps. In all, the Kentucky team logged 15 million training hours before beginning production on the new ES.
Aesthetically, the car—available in a gas-powered ES 350 and a hybrid 300h—follows what seems to be every automaker’s mantra of “longer, lower, and wider.” It also is fitted with a wide-mouthed “spindle” grille, a version of which appears on the latest LC coupe and LS flagship sedan. For the first time, the ES gets a performance-oriented F Sport trim, distinguished by its black mesh grille insert, which Lexus hopes will attract younger buyers.
Sawa, who comes from a unique background in both design and engineering, says one of his favorite elements of the ES is its silhouette. “German companies are making too many models,” Sawa tells us. Many do a four-door sedan with a square silhouette and a more sleek, four-door coupe.” The ES, according to Sawa, splits the difference between the two. “It looks tight from the outside, but the inside is very roomy. It’s kind of a surprise.”
Under the skin is a brand new architecture, which Sawa says is not only more rigid, but is flexible to accommodate future electrified power trains (the platform is shared with the Toyota Camry and Avalon, with additional reinforcements). The ES 350 is powered by an updated 3.5-liter V-6 engine that makes 302 hp, while the 300h pairs a 2.5-liter four-cylinder gas engine with an electric motor for a total output of 215 hp. Both configurations offer more power and improved fuel economy over their predecessors.
Lexus is one of the few brands that continues to use naturally aspirated engines over turbochargers, and on our test drive through the countryside outside of Nashville, Tenn., we appreciated the smooth, linear response of the V-6 with the help of a responsive, yet unobtrusive eight-speed automatic transmission.
Improvements in the suspension, including dynamic control shocks that eat up additional vibration and harshness when driving, make for a comfortable ride. While we wouldn’t take the ES to the nearest racetrack (it is, after all, front-wheel drive), we did appreciate the F Sport’s additional stiffness and performance dampers, which kept us entertained on twisty bits of road.
From country roads to highways, the ES remains exceptionally quiet thanks to a variety of noise-reducing technologies, including improved engine mounts and special, acoustically optimized wheels (during lunch, we hit both these and traditional wheels with a rubber hammer and could tell a distinct difference).
In the cabin, the ES benefits from the same “Lexus craft” philosophy, with seats that cradled (and cooled) us during a day in the summer Tennessee heat. We like the ES 350’s Luxury model trimmed with matte bamboo; the F-Sport, meanwhile, looks racy in red leather. For the first time, the ES also comes standard with Apple CarPlay and Amazon Alexa, the latter of which enables drivers to start or stop the engine, view fuel levels, and lock and unlock the doors remotely from a smartphone. Our only complaint would be the ES’s central touchpad control, used also on the LC and LS models, which we find awkward and difficult to use.
While Sawa admits it can be tough to sell cars in a market hungry for SUVs, he hopes buyers will see the ES as a way to enjoy what he calls life’s micro-moments.
“It’s the feeling you get when you put on your favorite shirt—the one that fits perfectly because it’s crafted by the finest tailor. I want the ES to be a special thing that sparks joy.”