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).
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.)
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.
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.
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…
Oh god. Please tell me you didn’t get an HS250h. My mom has one. It reminds me of a Cimaron… but without the J-cars handling prowess. An imitation of a prestige car. It plows like a D9 bulldozer, and about as refined.
Yeah, that’s about what I would say. As the daily driver of contemporary cars, a 2006 BMW 330i (6MT) and a 2008 Cadillac CTS4 (6AT) I would propose to never buy a boring car as both are engaging to drive and look at. But, both are requiring a bit of sometimes expensive maintenance as they get on in age, so grade it on a curve.
I will say that I was in one of these (nearly identical ES350) recently and it felt absolutely cheap, unlike the contemporary cars I have just mentioned. But I acknowledge that the Toyota is pretty much dead reliable. Just boring.
And there is always a soft spot for me since they were built by my brothers and sisters in Central Kentucky. They come from TMMK (Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky) which is the largest volume Toyota plant on Gods green earth, and my hometown is Lexington KY, ie one county next door.
I still say if you need a fridge, buy a fridge, but if you need a car then buy an interesting one. That said I truly adore the Great Toyotas Of Old, and it seems they actually leaned into the 2018 Camry (Car and Driver 10Best for whatever that’s worth) so maybe they have picked up the plot again. This was a dictate from Big Toyota “no more boring cars” so I hold the faith. 😉
PS – Footnote I forgot: my 1995 Lexus GS300 (RHD UK spec, but that’s a different story) was a wonderful automobile (2JZ engine) and had tilt / telescope steering. I would have edited, but it timed out… Just so everyone knows I don’t sxxxbag Toyota 😉
The ES is a consummate, if not THE consummate Lexus- its basically a Toyota Camry (or Avalon), providing a degree of extra comfort, refinement, and prestige, while retaining the predictable handling and ownership experience people expect from a Camry.
I will never buy one, it is not my thing at all. But it is a competent product that is aimed smack dab at people like the poster, and does exactly what it says on the tin.
The HS250h is different. It’s a piece of garbage. It can’t handle, it can’t accelerate, the interior is poorly assembled from apparently cheap materials, it is uncomfortable, cramped, and noisy. It is a less efficient Prius with a Lexus badge (yes, yes, I know it is engineeringly very different) and none of the other things you expect from a Lexus.
I drive an MB Metris. It is basically a work van, but it handles better, rides a bit better, is more refined, and (despite being 203” long on a 126” wheelbase) has a tighter turning circle than the Lexus. I’m not saying the Metris is great in any of those respects (except the turning circle, which is astonishing). I’m saying whoever signed off on the HS should commit seppuku for disgracing the brand.
You definitely have appoint in saying that “exciting” in regards of cars is a euphemism for either “frustrating” or “dangerous”. This Lexus has done what it supposed to do: make your automotive experience uneventful and thus make your life easier. The older I get the more I appreciate such qualities.
I don’t know, but it just seems as though it shouldn’t be all that difficult to build a car that is both fun to drive and is reliable. I have no direct experience with them, but folks say that Miatas are both fun and reliable.
Toyota, more than any other car manufacturer, seems to take each particular model and as long as it’s reasonably successful just continuously refines that car. Some manufacturers can continuously refine…and it improves that car, while others latch on to 1 or 2 qualities and just provide more of those qualities in each successive model.
That’s the point, friend – Toyota used to hit the ball way out of the park (think Cressida, LS400, Supra) but just seems they have been asleep at the wheel for some time. I’m glad they seem to have awakened and remembering what actually made the marque great in the first place.
Those mid-1980’s Lincoln Town Cars are developing quite the cult following today.
Not everyone wants an American luxury car that is hard to get in and out of, has a snarling engine and rock hard suspension system.
It is funny that less than 4 years later I could buy a stripper Kia minivan with an almost identical powertrain (3.5 L V6 of 271 bhp mated to a 6 speed automatic.) It’s really quick in a much heavier vehicle. The difference between “luxury” cars and “normal” cars continues to compress.
Even though the roof line betrays its Camry origins, it does not look bad and has aged well. The interior, at least in the pictures looks too plasticy by modern standards. The wide expansive of black plastic with the painted silver plastic center console just looks cheap to me.
Agreed. I like the XV40’s exterior styling, but the interior seemed like a definite downgrade over the previous generation ES.
So let me get this right: This is really a Camry in a drag? Why then not get a fully-loaded Camry – did dealers offer brutal discounts to get rid of them? Full disclosure: I’m in the EU and we never had those here (they would not sell), so I may miss something peculiar the US market.
Yes. That is precisely the point. Camry, Avalon, and ES3xx roll off the exact same production line. Fact.
Below is an image of the sign at the plant which does not say Lexus ES … But it does now. Last year I drove past it every day on my way to work, and it has subsequently been changed to say “home of …. XXxX and Lexus ES”.
Again, not sxxxbagging, just stating a fact. And yes, I think the Avalon is a much nicer car for less money.
None available here (see below – click on “Modelle”. I suppose the nearest to the Avalon we have is the UK produced Avensis), but from what I hear the new Camry has metamorphosed into a sports sedan and if I were living in the US, I would not say no to one…
I’m one more of the ones saying you got an HS250h. Either that, or a second gen IS