COAL: 2008 Lexus ES350 – Another One, Part 2

2008 Lexus ES 350 Side View

Doing the COAL series and looking back at the cars I have purchased over the past quarter century or so has given me an interesting perspective. Looking at the cars I purchased during my 30s I am somewhat amazed that I had the freedom and the resources to buy some interesting wheels (Miata, Mustang, or what have you) but my actual choices were not so interesting. (But then again, you’re talking about a person whose high school dream car was the contemporary mid-80s Town Car.) This week’s car is certainly in that category as one I wanted to buy but don’t really have any significant good or bad memories about it. It was nice but not memorable (which some would say characterized Lexus vehicles overall during this time).

In 2008, Lexus was into the second year of this fifth generation XV40 platform for the ES sedan. Still based on the contemporary Camry, this generation looked much longer and wider than the previous generation car, even though it really wasn’t (it was only slightly longer and wider). Rear seat room was a big plus on this version relative to the previous one – there was more legroom, thanks to a longer wheelbase,and the visibility for rear-seat passengers was much improved. Lexus also introduced a number of high-end options such as a panoramic sunroof, a powerful (and expensive) multi-speaker Mark Levinson stereo, and a relatively high-resolution DVD navigation system as part of an “ultra luxury” package that could push the price of this car up into the $40k range. This was serious money in 2008 (and I’d argue it’s a pretty large price tag for cars today).

2008 Lexus ES350 Rear View

The major advance to me, though, was under the hood with the larger 3.5 liter V-6 making 270 horsepower paired with a six-speed automatic. This made the ES350 genuinely quick in my book, with 0-60 times coming in around the mid-sixes depending on which magazine was doing the testing. As you might expect, that’s about it as far as sporty credentials go: the suspension tuning and handling were comfortable, safe, and unexciting. Some tests complained about torque steer from pushing that power through the front wheels – I don’t recall that being a problem with this car (I certainly remember it making the 2004 Maxima we owned a handful to drive sometimes).

As I mentioned in the COAL entry for the 2005 ES330, my first exposure to the new model was through having one as a service loaner and I was favorably impressed. The new version seemed much more substantial than the 2005 car I was driving, and I liked the exterior styling. This was when Lexus was still selling cars that looked conservative (pre-spindle grill days) and this aesthetic was something that fit with how I liked my cars. (Some might say “boring,” to be honest.)

2008 Lexus ES350 Front View

The Lexus dealer I was working with was only too happy to take my well-cared-for 2005 ES330 and end the lease early to get me into a 2008 ES350, as you might expect (they cheerfully took my money). As prices had risen somewhat in the intervening couple of years, I had to forego some of the equipment that my 2005 car had, including the memory passenger seat (which always seemed like a gimmick to me), the ventilated seats (which hadn’t been that impressive to me), the mixed wood/leather steering wheel (which I hadn’t liked very much anyway), and HID headlights (which I did like, unfortunately). Unlike the last ES, this one didn’t come with a cassette player – I guess by 2008 even Lexus owners had switched to books on CD rather than books on tape.

I did get a few new features in this car, some of which were entirely new to me. This car came with a power tilt/telescoping wheel that was linked to the seat memory buttons. If I recall correctly, this was also the first car I owned that could link a memory seat setting to a particular key, so the car would automatically set the seat, mirrors, and steering wheel to the memory setting associated with that key, a feature that I found pretty handy. This car was the first conventional-powertrain vehicle I owned with pushbutton start, as well. My Prius had pushbutton smart key access, but that was more like pushing a computer power button rather than activating a starter. The ability to enter and leave the car without pressing the remote buttons was nice but I wasn’t entirely convinced that a pushbutton starter was any better than a key.

Dashboard 2008 Lexus ES350

This was the first car I owned with a Bluetooth cell phone pairing system as well. It seems quaint now, when even the most basic rental econoboxes can come with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto to read text messages to you, but this was a big deal back then and this feature came mostly on upmarket vehicles. It made me feel like a tech geek pairing my car with my Samsung Windows CE smartphone (form factor approximating the first brick cell phones, stylus-operated, and nerdy antenna for cell reception). The ability to make phone calls on the go didn’t mean I made any more calls – I’m not the type to spend a lot of time talking on the phone.

As with the 2005 ES, this one was very well constructed. I was always impressed with the soft matte finish leather of these cars – I’ve owned other cars with leather seats but haven’t found them to be nearly as soft and expensive-looking as these. Some of the controls in the car (particularly the wiper and light stalks) were Toyota parts-bin specials, but everything the occupants saw or touched was of high quality. This car still had some glossy wood trim, but not nearly as much as my 2005 car – only the console had wood trim. The underhood area was interesting, as Lexus covered virtually everything but the induction system on the top of the engine with plastic covers. I guess they were sending a message to anyone who opened the hood – “no user serviceable parts inside.” Since the car was very reliable during my ownership period, the fact that I couldn’t get at anything but the dipstick and washer fluid reservoir without disassembling the covers wasn’t that big of a deal.

2008 Lexus ES350 Interior

This transaction involved another first for me, the use of manufacturer credit card points. When I leased the 2005 ES, the dealer made me aware of the company’s Lexus Visa card that accumulated points toward a new vehicle based on my monthly credit card expenditures. Since we typically don’t carry a credit card balance the money toward a new car was “free” to me (because the merchants paid for it with their fees). It meant that I began using that card preferentially for groceries, online bills, and virtually all my work-related travel expenditures (our company was too small to issue us corporate credit cards, but I was happy to buy airfare and hotels and get reimbursed if I got the extra points). Because I used the card for just about everything, the points added up pretty quickly so I had a good-sized down payment for the 2008 car. I remember having a bit of difficulty redeeming the points as I was apparently one of the first to do so at this dealer, but eventually they figured it out.

The astute reader will note that I’ve reached the end of this week’s installment without talking much about my driving/ownership experience. That’s largely because the car itself wasn’t particularly memorable overall. It was very quiet, powerful, and pleasant to drive, but it certainly didn’t leave much of an impression. It gave me no trouble and required nothing more than regular maintenance. I can argue that for an everyday driver this is probably the ideal situation – fun stories to tell CC readers after the fact often mean problems that were frustrating or potentially dangerous at the time. I kept this car for roughly 2-1/2 years before Lexus introduced another car that I wanted to own, which put me into an exclusive group (the very tiny number of people who actually purchased the car I’ll describe in a couple of weeks). For those already bored with Lexus vehicles, never fear as there are more exciting cars (and stories) to come…