I finally did it: I'm a dad. The funny thing is, I've always owned dad cars, even before I needed to. Owning anything with less than four doors never made much sense, which is how I ended up with a stable of souped-up grandpa cars from the Sixties and Seventies. Now that I'm a father, the '74 Oldsmobile sedan I brought my wife and son home from the hospital in seems a bit dated. And that, my friends, is how I found myself on this quest to find the perfect new dad car. The latest contender: The 2019 Lexus ES 350 in Ultra Luxury trim.
The 2019 Lexus ES 350 Ultra Luxury, By the Numbers
- Base Price (Price as Tested): $44,275 ($53,399)
- Powertrain: 3.5-liter V6, 302 horsepower, 267 pound-feet of torque; eight-speed automatic transmission; front-wheel drive
- EPA Fuel Economy: 22 mpg city; 33 mpg highway
- 0-60 MPH: 6.6 seconds;
- Top Speed: 131 mph
- Random dad fact: The Lexus ES may look fancy, but it rides upon the same Toyota New Global Architecture-K platform underpinning the Toyota Camry, Avalon, and RAV4.
From 30 feet away, it's easy to mistake the all-new Lexus ES 350 for a Toyota Avalon. The two cars—large luxury sedans, both—share similar body lines and rear fascias. The ES 350's grille is more elegant than the Avalon's wacky omelette splatter of black plastic, but they have the same soul.
I liked the ES 350. I liked the Avalon even better. (Somehow, it was sportier than the ES 350). But my old man-like car preferences aren't enough going to save Toyota's big sedans from history's dustbin. Sales numbers seem to have sounded the death knell for the family sedan, and although a spike in fuel prices could change that, American car buyers seem to have decided that they prefer cargo capacity and truck-like posture to the sleek, dignified lines and generally superior fuel economy of a well-designed sedan.
But Lexus, Toyota's luxury marque, has decided to make a last ditch effort to win over younger buyers by giving the ES 350 more kinetic styling. Even standing still, the lines swooshing back from its scrunched, stretched grille shape give the car an appearance of swift motion. I guess the idea is that the ES 350 is supposed to be sporty, which it's not. Unless you buy it in F Sport trim...and even said F Sport's sport cred is questionable.
For younger buyers, many of whom have families composed partly of even younger people, the important question is simple: How does the ES 350 perform as a family hauler? As far as sedans go—and its other trivial faults aside—not bad.
Allow me to elaborate. First of all, the ES 350 is a big car with a big, box-shaped trunk. That matters if you have a child safety seat in the back row, and even more so if you have two car seats back there. Plenty of legroom front and rear means there's space for both your government-mandated child-sized wannabe-ejection-seats for the kids and the front seat passenger who doesn't want to sit with their knees all scrunched up against the dash (and the driver, who simply can't). The trunk is deep from front to back, and fits a stroller lengthwise with plenty of space for a large suitcase and a bunch of smaller bags and items stuffed in around the sides. In other words, you can have your stroller and eat your groceries, too.
Second, the ride is smooth. Attributes like "floaty" and "soft" are anathema to the performance car aficionado, but to the infant who has just crushed eight ounces of formula (or the toddler who has just power-stuffed wads of kale and macaroni into his or her gullet), a harsh ride is just another excuse to vomit previously-eaten nutrients all over your car's nice leather. Smooth is good. The seats are comfortable, too, which made a grueling post-Thanksgiving slog less of a chore than if seat-related fatigue had been a factor.
Third, compared with other cars in its segment, the ES 350 is a bargain. In fully-loaded Ultra Luxury trim (that sounds so Japanese, doesn't it?), the ES 350 costs a little over $53,000. That's the price of a base BMW 5 Series that lacks almost any of the expensive options most luxury customers will want, and it's thousands less than the starting prices of the Audi A6 and the Acura RLX. It also gets good fuel economy compared with other cars in its class—another aspect sure to score points with the well-heeled-but-thrifty dad.
Neither the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety nor the federal government have released crash test ratings yet for the ES 350, but IIHS ratings for the TNGA-K platform-based Avalon serve as a sort of a speculative crystal ball as to how the ES 350 will fare. The Avalon aced its safety tests, for what it's worth; still, we're talking about your family's safety here, so it's easy to understand if you want to wait until the professional crashers have offered their assessment.
The ES 350 may not be as exciting to drive as an A6 or even an RLX, but that may not be the point. It's a Toyota deep down, and as such is a practical car, even if it is fancy. Buyers can be reasonably certain that ES 350 ownership will be trouble-free, which is the best anyone can expect of any car. Whether or not that will be enough to entice people of child-rearing age away from more practical crossover options remains to be seen. Based upon precedent, though, it seems likely that the ones showing up at the Lexus lot this year with desires of ES ownership will be the graying empty-nesters who have flocked to this car in years past.