No matter how low fuel prices may hover, not everyone needs to run out to buy or lease an SUV or pickup. A sedan still does a great job for four adults who want to take an out-of-town trip or just go out to dinner.

Case in point: the 2016 Lexus ES. With its silky ride, hushed cabin and smooth-but-not-obnoxious 268-horsepower V6, it’s not hard to fathom why the entry-level Lexus is the luxury brand’s top-selling sedan in the U.S. (Globally, more than 1.7 million have been sold since 1991.)

Starting at $38,100, the 2016 ES 350 also picked up a Top Safety Pick Plus award in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s crash tests. Need even more rationale? In J.D. Power’s 2016 Vehicle Dependability Study, which looked at three-year-old vehicles, Lexus owners again had the fewest number of reported problems: 95 per 100 vehicles. The industry average was 152 problems per 100 cars or trucks.

Even though the ES received a facelift last year, the 2016 model gets a new front fascia with a bolder version of Lexus’s gaping “spindle grille,” standard LED headlights and repositioned fog lamps. Out back you’ll find new taillights and an updated rear fascia that integrates new rectangular chrome exhaust tips.

Meanwhile, the cabin is upgraded with a sportier multi-function steering wheel, the shifter gains a leather boot, and the console gets some softer materials. The panoramic roof and 15-speaker, 835-watt Mark Levinson stereo can be had – at extra cost – with the ES 350’s three tiers of packages: premium, luxury and ultra luxury.
But the most significant difference in the 2016 ES is harder to spot. Nudging us ever closer to the day when cars will be able to drive themselves (and bludgeon us with alphabet soup terminology), the Lexus Safety System Plus package combines pre-collision system (PCS), Lane Departure Alert (LDA) with steering assist, Intelligent High Beam (IHB) and High-Speed Dynamic Radar Cruise Control.

At $1,015, the bundle is trickle-down technology that once could only be found on very expensive cars like Lexus’s flagship LS. On the 2016 ES, the safety suite runs less than half the cost of the $2,650 Mark Levinson sound system.

PCS can detect vehicles – and in certain situations, pedestrians – by using a millimeter-wave radar and a front-facing camera. The system can warn the driver of a potential collision and, if needed, initiate automatic braking with brake assist.
Using a camera to detect white and yellow lane markings, Lane Departure Alert triggers an alert and vibrates the steering wheel if the system determines that the driver is unintentionally straying from the lane. With steering assist enabled, LDA can help the vehicle stay centered in its lane by smoothly and slightly increasing steering torque.

Intelligent High Beam technology senses headlights from oncoming traffic, and also the taillights of the vehicle ahead, to automatically adjust high- and low-beam illumination.

High-Speed Dynamic Radar cruise control works at speeds over 25 mph. Also known as adaptive cruise control, the system tracks the speed of the vehicle ahead and can adjust the speed to help maintain a preset distance.

The older and more common Blind Spot Monitor (BSM) with Rear Cross Traffic Alert (RCTA) detects vehicles in blind spots and alerts the driver to oncoming rear cross traffic when backing out of a parking space. On the ES 350, both options come to a total of $500.

The MSRP of our ES test loaner, which came in gorgeous “eminent white” pearl, ballooned to just under 50 grand, thanks to nearly a dozen options or packages. But it’s worth noting that the ES 350, which is assembled in Japan and, starting in late 2015, in Georgetown, Kentucky, is fairly well equipped for an “entry level” model. Watch the first ES 350 built at new Georgetown plant here: http://bit.ly/23aM1VG

Standard features include 10-way adjustable power front seats; automatic climate control; NuLuxe perforated upholstery; power tilt-and-slide moonroof; power-adjustable outside mirrors with turn signals and defoggers; remote-linked power window and moonroof opening and Lexus-personalized settings to customize select electronic functions.

The 2016 ES 350’s standard infotainment system is centered on a 7-inch screen and includes HD Radio, Bluetooth audio, automatic phone book transfer, a vehicle information display and complimentary traffic and weather data provided via HD Radio. Drivers may never miss out on an old favorite on the radio with the ES 350’s cache feature – which allows pausing up to 15 minutes if you need to briefly talk to someone in the car or at a drive-up window.

The ES also comes with a one-year trial subscription to Lexus Enform Remote which allows the customer to remotely view and, using an iOS or Android app, operate remote door lock/unlock; remote stop/start of the engine and climate control; find the vehicle, and – parents and grandparents, pay attention – monitor a guest driver.

Snapshot:

2016 LEXUS ES 350
TYPE: Luxury midsize sedan
BASE PRICE: $38,000
AS TESTED, INCLUDING DESTINATION: $49,160
MAJOR OPTIONS: Ultra luxury package, $3,500; navigation/Mark Levinson audio package, $2,650; Lexus safety system plus, $1,015; 18-inch high-gloss wheels, $800; intuitive parking assist, $500; blind spot monitor with cross-traffic alert, $500
DRIVETRAIN: 3.5-liter V6; 6-speed auto; FWD
HORSEPOWER AND TORQUE: 268 hp at 6,200 rpm/ 248 lb.-ft. at 4,700 rpm
FUEL: gas, 87 octane; 17.2-gallon tank
EPA ESTIMATED MPG: 21 city / 31 highway
CURB WEIGHT: 3,571 lbs.
SAFETY: NHTSA, 5 stars; IIHS, “Top Safety Pick Plus”
WEB: http://www.lexus.com/models/ES

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