My grandma on my dad’s side drove Lincoln Town Cars from, he’ll claim, the time he went to college in 1970-something until roughly 2003. Around that time, my grandfather had passed away, and she decided to sell his Chrysler Town & Country and her Town Car in favor of something smaller. Standing 5’0″, the rest of the family (strongly) supported her decision. She chose a pearl white Lexus ES330.
I came of driving age when she had the ES330, and got a bit of seat time in it when we’d visit her out in Arizona. It was definitely a “grandma car” of sorts – buttery smooth, very quiet, generally unobtrusive. It did not encourage any sort of speed or aggression. It was perfect for a Sun City West retiree, but absolutely not the car targeted at a younger male market.
Now, 15 years after Grandma bought her white Lexus, I found myself behind the wheel of a brand-new white Lexus. The 2018 ES350 F-Sport was courtesy of Lexus corporate, and the driving experience was thanks to my friend Sofyan, the editor-in-chief of Redline Reviews. While out for tacos and margaritas, he asked if I’d be interested in hosting an episode, and I figured “why not try it.” And so, here we are.
What’s The Big Deal?
The F-Sport trim is new for 2018, although the latest ES lineup came out a year or so prior. Lexus took a largely visual approach to the F-Sport’s modifications, which include unique bumpers, 19-inch (!) wheels with a 235mm tire, and an adorable trunk-mounted spoiler that surely does nothing at legal speeds but does work to round out the package.
Inside the F-Sport, Lexus added some more aggressively-bolstered (and comfortable!) front seats, a thicker steering wheel, and a gauge cluster inspired by the LFA sports car. A delightfully weird “Circuit Red” interior color was chosen on the test car and I liked it – not too bright, and not too overdone.
Beyond the F-Sport bits, it’s a modern Lexus. Take it or leave it, including the mandatory “predator” grille.
How Does It Drive?
The current-generation ES is part of Toyota’s TNGA-K (Toyota New Global Architecture) platform. The same platform underpins the current Camry, Avalon, and RAV4, as well as this Lexus. Although Lexus prefers to compare the ES350 to the entry-level Germans (A4, 3-series, C-Class), it’s closer in size to the A6, 5-series, and E-Class.
Extra power is not found with the F-Sport; rather, you get the same 302 horsepower 3.5L V6 found in other TNGA-K Toyotas. It’s bolted to an 8-speed automatic transmission and sends the power through at least one front wheel at any given moment. The car does 0-60 in 6.6 seconds and certainly does not need to be any faster.
The one neat trick the F-Sport pulls out of its mostly-visual hat is an adaptive suspension. The adaptive shocks are unique to the F-Sport trim and will firm up or soften based on the chosen drive mode. They do work to keep the car pretty flat (and impressively neutral) through sharper curves.
Would Grandma Like It?
Well, not for herself. Lexus is targeting a younger audience with the F-Sport. They claim “under 40, male” is the segment that will buy this car.
Realistically, a front-wheel-drive Lexus won’t appeal to more hardcore enthusiasts, even as a daily driver. But most people are not that hardcore. Lexus’ target market may think they want something “super sporty” that can haul the family around, but then realize a BMW 540i M-Sport points the needle too far in the wrong direction. These buyers want the illusion of sportiness – the bumpers, the wheels, the different, “non grandma” interior. And Lexus delivers.
When the highways turn to winding back roads, these buyers can twist the drive mode knob to “Sport+,” fiddle with the paddle shifters a few times, and let the adaptive dampers do their thing. Unlike ES’ of years past, this one won’t fall on its face at the thought of a corner. It’ll take it, and if you push too far, it will gently push wide as all front-drive cars do before the traction control reins you in. No oversteer, no fishtailing, not too much drama. Again, Lexus delivers.
Every automaker is re-evaluating their lineup. Crossovers are The Hotness and sedans are, allegedly, a dying breed. “Sporty!” is what most manufacturers are doing to add more of a pulse to their previous bread and butter. Frankly, there are still sportier Lexus models to choose from.
But Lexus has succeeded in building a variant of ES that appeals to more segments than “80+ years old, large sunglasses, will squeeze the puddin’ out of ya.” And I think that’s a good thing.
Special thanks to Sofyan for trusting me with an episode of his show, and to Rob for his “just pretend I’m not here” patience as we shot so many takes.