First drive: 2022 Lexus ES 350 settles into middle life-cycle age

August 2, 2021

The advantage of aging is you are more comfortable with what you are and care less about what you are not. The refreshed 2022 Lexus ES is comfortable in its role as a quiet, comfy mid-size sedan that doesn’t care to be on the cutting edge of technology, even though it adds a touchscreen this year. 

The updates are incremental if not grudging to compete with sharp rivals such as the 2021 Acura TLX, 2021 Genesis G80, and 2021 Cadillac CT5. Long a leader in the premium sedan class, the ES doesn’t clamor for the old days, but Lexus is fine with letting the redesigned IS compact sedan and 2022 Lexus NX compact crossover appeal to these kids today. 

I cruised around the Chicago suburbs for a long weekend in a 2022 Lexus ES 350 prototype in top Ultra Luxury trim. I appreciated its familiarity, how the sharp design complements the excellent mechanicals, even if the cabin has become a mishmash of design elements from various eras. The touchpad and the CD player abide. 

As do the powertrains. The ES 350 employs a venerable 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 302 hp and 267 lb-ft of torque and is also used in the related Toyota Camry and Toyota Avalon. Elsewhere, the naturally aspirated V-6 is being shelved in favor of torque-rich turbo-4s, but the ES hustles with surprising alacrity and delivers its power with a smoothness turbo-4s can’t match. 

Teamed with an 8-speed automatic transmission that can be notched into a manual mode and a Franken-knob of drive modes on the lip of the instrument cluster, the V-6 provides a pleasing range of driving styles including a punchy Sport mode.

With the demise of the GS sedan, the ES straddles the performance spectrum between the LS grand tourer and the IS compact. The ES Ultra Luxury uses lateral performance dampers from the GS and other Lexus F Sport models that span the front and rear suspension to smother noise and vibration effects in the steering wheel and ride. A new rear suspension brace bolsters the torsional rigidity for steadier handling and a calmer cabin. Sport mode provides a bit more resistance to the steering feel, though the steering is direct in any mode. The ES lets you enjoy good acceleration and direct steering without being tempted to overdo it in corners or ever sacrificing its easy cruising nature. 

Laminated front windows and other sound deadening techniques further isolate road and wind noise from the cabin, which is where the most significant changes occur for the 2022 ES. 

2022 Lexus ES 350

2022 Lexus ES 350

2022 Lexus ES

2022 Lexus ES

2022 Lexus ES

2022 Lexus ES

Like in the flagship LS, the base 8.0-inch or available 12.3-inch center displays become actual touchscreens and move 4.3 inches nearer the driver so you can touch it without leaning too far forward. The bright bold map display on the tester’s 12.3-inch touchscreen can occupy the entire horizontal screen, or be split off into two screens; it’s quicker, simpler, and safer to touch than scrolling on the touchpad. The advantage of the touchpad is the same as in real estate: the location makes it effortless for the driver to access, but watching the cursor track over the screen is about as safe as playing Pong in the car. 

I used the touchscreen to quiet the navigation prompts, change the side menu to audio, or touch other hot buttons already on display. I used the touchpad for menu and other setting-related options. For the rudimentary basics, like volume or tuning, I used the steering wheel controls. Voice commands still take a beat to process, but it gets better the more you use it and learn its language. 

These tech iterations, with a cluttered console and mishmash center stack, muddle the fine materials in the cabin and prevent it from feeling like Ultra Luxury, as the trim name implies. The touchscreen is an overdue addition, but it wouldn’t have made the ES feel new even back when it was redesigned for 2019. 

The interface lacks wireless Apple CarPlay and pales to luxury competitors, but it also doesn’t have as many setting submenus. That can be a pro or con depending on your level of technological comfort in a car. But inserting a CD would seem to take the same amount of attention off the road as toying with a touchscreen.

Maybe that’s why the Lexus ES comes with the most standard safety systems of any premium or luxury competitor. This year, blind-spot monitors join automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, active lane control, adaptive cruise control with a lane change function, and automatic high beams. Lexus veers on the side of caution in how long you can drive without hands on the wheel (about 15 seconds) and how insistent it makes its warnings and alerts. The annoyance can be shut off or you can drive better.

Pricing for the production 2022 Lexus ES won’t be announced until early September, but we expect little change from the 2021 model’s $40,000-$50,000 price range.

The 2022 Lexus ES mid-size sedan ages well as a comfortable, quiet cruiser with enough V-6 power to pack a punch, and a better infotainment screen that doesn’t invalidate its standard CD player. It’s not cutting edge, it doesn’t feel new, but it prioritizes safety and comfort, which is always a good thing behind the wheel.

Lexus provided us five days with the 2022 Lexus ES to bring you this firsthand report.

2021
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