COAL: 2016 Lexus ES350 – Wouldn’t You Rather Have a Japanese Buick?

Spoiler alert: my actual car from the dealer website before I bought it

Let’s take a break from my “rescue” COALs as some commenters have called them. I like that name, it is indeed more accurate than “beater” COALs. We’ll visit the current day for a change. The LR4 you have read about has gone off to college with my oldest this Fall. I was driving another “rescue” COAL you will read about later, but it has been appropriated by my youngest, who will be 16 soon. So, I needed a car. We have the Cayenne, and my 18 year old son has a used Jeep Grand Cherokee. So, I don’t need or want another SUV.

I wanted a comfortable, quiet, kinda mushy, import sedan for the 20,000 miles or so I drive each year. The kind of car that seems to be less popular than 10 or 20 years ago. I wanted to stick to $30,000.00-ish as a max budget.

I researched for days online. I started zeroing in on a number of used sedans that when preowned, seemed to be cheaper than I expected due to lack of demand, or excess inventory, or both. The Volvo S80, the discontinued Infiniti G37, the Acura RLX, Toyota Avalon, and the Hyundai Genesis (last bodystyle) all seemed to come up frequently. The Cadillac ATS is a little small, but appears to depreciate rapidly, so it made the shopping list.

The RLX seemed to best fit my mushy/affordable criteria. But, they sell very few (1,478 in model year 2016 to be exact) and therefore there are very few good used ones out there that I could find. When you find them, though, they are a great deal I think. At $55,000.00 new, they are overpriced. But, a 2014 RLX (1 of 3,413) with 30,000 miles and a certified pre-owned factory warranty can be had around $30,000.00. I have found them at non-Acura dealers (so no warranty) in the low $20’s.

After chasing a couple of low mileage used RLX’s and hitting a dead end (one got sold, the other turned out to be wrecked twice per CarFax), I decided to amble an hour away to the Lexus dealer. I was with my mother in law when she bought her little hybrid hatchback CT in 2012. The CT has recently been discontinued after a so-so USA sales run of 8,903 in model year 2016, so there are some deals to be had on them, new and used. I wasn’t much interested in something that small, but I have always admired the ES sedan and wanted a closer look.

The F Sport that I drove; even from this grainy photo you can make out the white chips on the hood.

I immediately was instead seduced by a 2014 LS460 F Sport, with almost 80,000 miles. It had been ridden hard and put away wet, and in person it looks rougher than this picture of the actual car would indicate. But the price was alluring, high-$30’s. This was over $85,000 new, and it did indeed have about every option in the book.

It was not Lexus certified pre-owned due to having too many miles to qualify, so “as is, no warranty” and no cheap financing either. A test drive revealed tomb-like silence and rapid acceleration, but also a vibration at highway speeds and shuddering upon braking that would be out of my pocket to rectify. The overall complexity of the car (Mark Levinson amp, air suspension, main rear oil seal, and control arms are common problems at this mileage) concerned me. I came back to my senses and moved on to the ES section of the lot. As a side note, the LS is reduced and still there. It would be a whale of a car with some mechanical and cosmetic tweaks.

2007-2012 ES, on the Camry wheelbase

The 2013-2018 version is a little larger than prior generations. Earlier generations shared key dimensions with the Camry, but for 2013-onwards, the sixth generation ES shares dimensions with the mechanically related but slightly larger Toyota Avalon. I’ve read multiple times that the Avalon is EPA classified as “full size”, but that’s not so per the EPA site. It’s EPA classified as “mid-sized”, but so are the LS460 and even the LS460L, which makes little sense to me.

2013-2015 ES350, lots of Camry DNA but slightly upsized like the Avalon

The ES sells in relatively large numbers new (over 72,000 in 2013 and 2014), so there are lots of used and off-lease ones out there. So converse to low demand/low supply like the RLX, these are high demand but also high supply. There’s plenty of buyers out there, but there’s plenty of good used ES supply too.

The ES is kinda tricky, a lot of things I wanted are optional, like navigation and heated seats. The “build” feature on their website actually reveals quite a few options, packages and standalone, in the old Detroit tradition. When I would find a low mileage, well priced one, it was usually a “stripper”. A nice car for sure, but devoid of several key features that are standard on many lower priced cars. There’s no quick way to discern what you are looking at, like the DX/LX/EX Honda Accord naming scheme, that told you at a glance what major features were present.

I found a silver 2015 (one of 64,969 that model year) with the optional nav and heated seats, and only 20,000 miles. About $42,000.00 new, I got them down to $30,000.00. And, with Lexus certified preowned, you get 6 years/unlimited mileage factory warranty from the original sale date to the first owner. This one was a two year lease started in May 2015. So, warranted to May 2021 with unlimited miles. And 0.9% for 48 months, with 2 years/20,000 miles of free service as well.

I put down a $500 nonrefundable deposit to hold it, after making sure I could get the deposit applied to another vehicle if I drove it and didn’t like it. But I was very pleased with the price.

Not all intake, of course. The bumper runs through the middle third of the “grille”, resulting in modest upper and lower openings.

The 2016-18 version of this body has front and rear updates that, well, you either love or hate. I decided after some study that I actually liked the grille OK, but the 2013-2015 version looked more like the LS big brother to me.

However, the 2016-2018 rear lights and exhaust treatment did look much better to me. It’s minor changes, but it was a big improvement to my eyes. And, the interior had some minor refinements such as a new steering wheel, shifter, and upholstery pattern to align it more closely with the LS460.

But none of this really mattered, as the 2016 used ones were too much. They were running high $30’s, and if you found one closer to my target price, they had a lot of miles, or were strippers. So the 2016-on facelift versions I pretty much didn’t shop at all.

The night before I was to go drive and hopefully buy the silver 2015, I was reviewing the dealer’s site one last time to make sure there was no other 2013-2015 ES I wanted to drive on their lot. Wait, what is this? A 2016 (one of 58,299 that model year) for $32,498? Must be a stripper or high miles.

No, it had under 14,000 miles and was loaded to the gills…..every option but a pano roof and the Mark Levinson sound system, just about.

Via a combination of packages and standalone options, it had navigation with Lexus Enform, heated and cooled seats, LED low and high beams, driver memory on the driver seat/mirrors/wheel/HVAC, auto high beams, cross path detection, lane keeping assist, blind spot monitoring, radar cruise control, parking assist (front and rear), crash mitigation with passive braking, real wood trim, wood and leather steering wheel, perforated leather seats, power rear sunshade, power trunk open/close, and upgraded wheels. With a subscription, Enform allows you to remote start the car from your smart phone among other functions. The dealer had thoughtfully added a trunk mat, door edge film, all weather mats and tinted glass for overinflated markup purposes, but I liked the grey tint.

It was even a color combo I liked, dark metallic blue with grey and black interior. The final votes were cast when I asked my 19 year daughter and wife about it. They both had a strong preference for the 2016 facelift as opposed to the 2013-2015 version. My wife, who tightly controls the family purse strings and is possibly the only Cayenne driver who always takes extra napkins and ketchup packets home in her purse, opined that the newer look, one model year newer, and added equipment for $2,500.00 was a no-brainer.

I texted my salesman to ask him about it. He said it had been there over 90 days, and therefore had been reduced several times, most recently the day prior by another $3,000.00. It was leased by them for 12 months to a lady in the office, and wasn’t a rental or a service loaner.

All of this was corroborated by the CarFax and later, the Lexus Owner web portal that lets me see and reprint every dealer service writeup (that were all marked “Employee Vehicle / (her name)”). It had been cared for and it showed, but he said it just hadn’t found a “qualified buyer”, which sounded to me like maybe some financing(s) fell through. This reminded me of the situation with the 1991 Buick Century I had bought for a relative song over 20 years prior.

I told him I wanted to see it too, when I came in. He said the new price was attracting a lot of attention and it may not be there tomorrow. I asked if I could give a deposit on it as well, but no, only one car can be “held” at a time.

I was going over budget, but for $2,498.00 more, I could have fewer miles, way more equipment, and the updated grille and tail that love it or hate it, was identical to a 2018 and would therefore keep the car looking “fresh” longer (well, until the newly redesigned 2019 ES anyway). Plus, a year longer warranty than the 2015 since it was delivered a year later. This car was a 12 month lease from May 2, 2016. So, it had factory warranty to May 2, 2022, with unlimited miles.

The 15K service and an oil change had been done early as part of the lease return process, so I would get the 20K, 25K, 30K and 35K services free, along with the same 0.9% financing. The window sticker in the car showed over $47,000.00 new, or 31% depreciation. Almost a third off! I wouldn’t be interested at anything near the new price, but the recently reduced used price had my attention.

The test drive went well, it felt tight and new. Other ES’s I had driven with 40,000 or more miles felt “willowy”, is the only way I know to describe it. A soft brake pedal and a flexy (but still quiet) body and ride. Is it wear? Will this one feel that way in time? I hope not, but we shall see. My 2016 ES was built about six months after the ES started rolling out of the Kentucky Toyota factory alongside the Camry and Avalon. I have read that the Kentucky plant is one of the highest quality Toyota plants in the world, so that bodes well.

Back at the dealer, the car went to the detail shop while I was escorted to the finance office. Of course, they tried to sell a variety of packages to me…..wheel repair, paint protection, paintless dent removal, leather damage repair, carpet replacement, GAP insurance, yada yada yada. I knew I wasn’t going to buy any of it and I politely declined. The finance person didn’t dwell and moved on to efficiently dispensing with the needed documents.

Of course, the glossy flip charts and graphs concealed the clear cost of all this, but I did the math in my head and realized if I took it all, I would have added over $200 a month to my 48 months of payments. About $10,000.00! Wow, if you just get a few customers to take that each week, you’re rolling in the dough.

As you read this, it’s been three weeks and about 1,700 miles since I brought the Lexus home. I did find a torn trunk seal before I left that day, which they had to order. After a few days of driving I decided the parking brake went too far to the floor and needed adjustment (it’s an old school step on, step off pedal). I returned for those items, was given a 2018 RX as a loaner, and the ES was detailed (again) when I picked it up.

Strong points? It has a very comfortable and quiet ride. The seats are a little firm but comfortable, and the armrests are nice and squishy for long stints behind the wheel. The electronic doodads and controls are pretty intuitive and I’ve figured everything out already without the book. The engine is silky smooth, quiet, and I’m getting a consistent 23/33 mpg, better than the 21/30 mpg estimate. I like the “tile” home screen which lets you have multiple functions of your choosing displayed simultaneously. Paint quality and overall fit and finish are excellent. The trunk is very large. The maintenance schedule looks easy and inexpensive to follow, when the free service ends.

Areas that could be improved upon? The Camry/Avalon/ES DOHC 3.5 liter V6 makes less power than most comparably sized engines out there, and the transmission is only 6 speeds. There is more hard plastic inside than I expected, but it’s down low where you don’t feel it. These three issues will be addressed with the 2019 redesign, I’ll wager. The base stereo setup is pretty good, but the speakers could be much better.

A call to Crutchfield brought me highly rated Polk speakers for the doors and dash for just under $400.00. They are the factory sizes, so they should be plug and play, retain the factory grilles, and an afternoon should be enough time to get them in. The subwoofer in the rear deck is a major project to access, and there’s enough bass for me anyway, so it stays.

I felt I made a sound decision, and got a pretty good looking car too. Appealing and youthful, but sensible. My 16 year old son said “Oh. You bought an old person’s car.” Well, I am almost 50, so I guess we would have different impressions of the same object.

What was the most unexpected reaction (good or bad) you experienced to a “new” car?