Tested: 2021 Lexus ES 350 F Sport Needs More F Sport
Take away the F Sport name and promise from the ES 350 and it becomes an appreciably comfortable, understandable, and convincing luxury sedan at a decent price. The issue here, though, is in the name. Lexus' F division was created nearly 15 years ago as a viable alternative and rival to hard-hitting performance divisions like BMW's M and Mercedes' AMG. F stands for Fuji speedway, by the way, Toyota's (Lexus' parent company) home track that also serves as testing ground; It's also spectacular. Besides bona fide F models like the GS F or RC F, Lexus makes F Sport models like this as a halfway point to the real deal. However, this ES 350 doesn't exactly sprint out of the starting gate and instead, prefers a leisurely Sunday stroll.
This is not to say that the ES 350 is a bad car because it isn't, and in fact it's far from one. The main issue is the F Sport moniker that doesn't so much fail to fulfill a promise as much as just flat out lie; it's like a blind Hinge date catfishing you. Release the F Sport name and the ES 350 is a terrifically ironed-out entry into the realm of luxury cars. For one, it's good looking, and the F Sport kit does certainly help with the magnetic Ultrasonic Blue Mica paint, black trim pieces, attractive black wheels (part of the Black Line package), and an overall added edginess. That part, the F Sport does well to endow the ES aesthetically.
Step inside, though, and the cabin is a majestic triumph. Anywhere you touch you'll find soft and sumptuous materials and abundant placements of leather. The fit and finish is superb, and you'll easily see and feel the difference in quality compared to the step-brother that is the Toyota Avalon. The seats are F Sport specific items that look promising in design and felt superb at the first sitting. However, after a few miles I started to get this strange feeling that the seat back was angled too forward no matter how I adjusted. I put this down to a head restraint that is situated just too far forward. Your mileage may vary, but despite the supportive and attractive seats, they didn't quite fit me.
Past that, there's loads of rooms everywhere, including the trunk and the rear seats. The steering wheel is wrapped in leather and is wonderful to grip and use, but he center console is where things go slightly awry. Because this is a Lexus, it's equipped with the trademark Lexus infotainment screen controlled by a mousepad, and like always, it's the worst system in any new car today. Thankfully, I've gotten used to it now after spending time in many Lexuses, but in practice it's still a frustrating and distracting experience. At least once you're inside , the one thing you'll never mistake the ES for is a pretender in the luxury segment.
On the road, it's exceedingly quiet and comfortable with a delightful ride quality. Wafting around is effortless and only draws compliments from occupants. This is the type of car that someone getting into it for the first time, like that same blind Hinge date, would say, "wow, it's so nice." The casual passerby might even exclaim their fascination at the mousepad infotainment before the subsequent disappointment in its actual use. But yes, this Lexus does the luxury part very well, in typical Lexus fashion. One other small pet peeve was the shifter, which felt slightly too flimsy in motion and changing between drive and reverse.
It's only when you try to explore the F Sport portion of the equation that this ES 350 deflates. While the steering is quite good for a modern car, with well-judged weight and accuracy, I overall found this F Sport too lackadaisical in response and handling. Too be blunt, it's too soft. Whereas a recently tested NX 300 F Sport woke up and encouraged harder driving (and excelled in such a manner), the ES did not offer similar rewards. Even adjusting driving modes did not yield satisfactory results for an F Sport. Also, for a fifty grand luxury car, front-wheel drive seems a little out of place. Furthermore, an Avalon TRD, with the same chassis underneath, was harder edged than this F Sport, with less body roll and a keen balance when cornering hard.
But, the biggest issue with this being an F Sport and aspiring sport sedan comes from the transmission. An eight-speed automatic is the norm these days, but this trans has a case of mistaken identity. The logic behind the computer is easily confused with throttle inputs and causes unwarranted 'hunting' for the right gear. Example being it shifts up too early, and then has to downshift again when it realizes it was too soon. But, that's not the real complaint, that would be in the plasticky (cheap) paddle shifters behind the wheel. Paddle shifters are supposed to allow manual control over an automatic transmission to make an automated-manual per se. While the paddles do work, the ES 350 F Sport offers no actual, real manual control over the transmission. Even if you slide the shift knob from drive to the +/- manual mode and start pulling paddles and select sport mode, it's still not actual manual. Case in point being if I were to downshift from eighth gear on the freeway and into fifth gear and floor it, the car instead downshifts to the lowest possible gear (like third) on you, overriding your choice.
This is extremely frustrating in sporty driving on backroads where you would want manual control and exploit the midrange of the capable 3.5L V6. So when midcorner, sitting at 3,000 RPM and you apply the throttle, the transmission won't let you ride that wave out and will downshift on you if you go too far with the throttle. That's actually just dangerous and can easily upset the car from underneath you. This same behavior affected the Avalon TRD as well, but not the NX 300 with its own six-speed auto. Having an F Sport attached to the name implies certain intentions, but how can something be 'sporty' if you don't maintain proper control over it?
Therefore, this ES 350 F Sport is best left to be driven like a standard ES 350, which is no bad thing. If you're buying the flashy (and attractive) looking F Sport for the sporting aspect, you'll be disappointed, though. However, there's more that's good news. The naturally-aspirated V6 is wonderfully smooth and refined and provides great high-RPM power. Gas mileage from the old-school V6 is also surprisingly excellent, and I mean excellent. In my freeway highway testing, the ES 350 delivered 39 MPG. On my work commute, that number only dipped to 28. For a large sedan with a big V6, the efficiency is terrific and betters most cars that have 33% fewer cylinders.
With 302 horsepower, 0-60 MPH happens in an unrepresentative 6.5 seconds. I say unrepresentative because it struggled off the line in my testing from the front-wheel drive, but then pulls pretty hard once it gets going. Luckily, torque steer isn't much of an issue with this car. Torque is a relatively low 267 lb-ft and occurs at a high 4,700 RPM, meaning this engine needs to be worked and revved to get the most from it. In a sport sedan, that would be fine, but since as already stated it doesn't do the athletic role real well, this engine isn't the most well suited for this application. As much as I love naturally-aspirated engines, a luxury vehicle is more suited to the effortless thrust of turbocharging.
While this review seems like a mixed bag, it's unfortunate that this example has a misleading F Sport slapped onto its name. Think of F Sport more as an appearance package, of which with that method, it's an alluring package for the looks alone. I have to again call out the wonderful Ultrasonic Blue Mica paint and the open and inviting white interior. At this price point, it's quite welcoming, but Genesis' refreshed G80 is a compelling alternative that doubles down on luxury even more for about the same price. For a sharply styled new Lexus for the Lexus faithful, though, the ES delivers. And for those same loyalists, it's probably a better thing that the driving experience is more O'Doul's than a Red Bull spiked with Jägermeister.
2021 Lexus ES 350 F Sport
As-Tested Price: $50,390
The Road Beat Rating: 3.5/5
Pros: Lexus luxury and isolation; excellent economy
Cons: F Sport in name only
Verdict: The name is misleading, though the ES 350 remains a sensible, large luxury entry point