Buying a Lexus ES is a lot like eating lunch at Chipotle. You don’t need to be particularly wealthy to do it, but extras like a bottle of beer, chips and guac add up quickly. It can be expensive but that doesn’t matter because customers are never hard to find.
And so it is with Lexus’ mid-size sedan. Like the burrito chain, there’s a degree of implied quality. The product never changes much and that’s OK because nobody really wants it to. Long live reliable brands.
Here’s another premium fast food analogy for you: imitators are never far behind. You might be familiar with Qdoba. If not, you’re definitely familiar with Kia. Qdoba’s burritos aren’t really any cheaper than Chipotle’s, but Kia’s vehicles are usually priced at a discount to their competitors. Earlier this year, the South Korean brand began selling the Cadenza in North America; a V6-powered, front-wheel drive premium highway cruiser meant to compete with Lexus’ ES 350. At any rate, that’s what the marketing material suggests. We spent a week driving them side-by-side to find out.
Sometimes the Specs Say Very Little
Engine size, vehicle size, drivetrain, and transmission type are all similar. The Cadenza costs $35,900, or $1,480 fewer paper portraits of George Washington than an ES 350. The Cadenza is a little bit longer and wider, but not by much. With 293 hp, its 3.3-liter direct injection V6 is smaller, more modern and more powerful than the 3.5-liter, 268 hp motor moving the ES 350.
Transplanted Audi designer Peter Schreyer penned Kia’s recently-handsome product line and it’s hard to argue with his logic. Like Audi, Kia’s cars adhere to a singular design with varying lengths. The Cadenza currently holds the crown as Kia’s big kahuna sedan.
If you think like me, you’ll agree that the Cadenza’s proportions are attractive. Maybe even more so beside the ES 350. Lexus’ “spindle” grille looks good on most of its product line, but in this case it hints at a degree of aggression that doesn’t exist.
Navigation and Bluetooth systems are both standard equipment with the Cadenza and it offers high-end features like adaptive cruise control, a heated steering wheel and cooled front seats with the generously-equipped models. There aren’t many differences in the available equipment between either car. Fully loaded, the price gap widens. A high-end Cadenza goes for $43,200 while the optioned-out ES 350 climbs to just under $49,500.
Left to spread sheets filled with specifications, packages and pricing, it would be hard not to put the win in Kia’s corner. It’s better in almost every way possible. Or at least that’s the case on paper.
This is a perfect example of why test drives are so important. You can assume that everything in the Lexus product feels, smells and looks like a high-quality product. The seats look inviting and feel comfortable.
As you probably know, the current ES is based on Toyota’s Avalon full-size sedan, but very little of its less-expensive sibling bleeds through. Parts of the center console finished in hard plastics could be better, and the exposed metal stalk on the shift lever seems like an afterthought; minimal complaints in a package that calls for nitpicking to criticize.
Pictures or the Real Thing: What a Difference
Great from far, but far from great, the Cadenza is a good sedan but it isn’t a luxury car. The front buckets don’t hug you in the same way and Kia cheaps out on the little things. Take the steering wheel and shift lever as examples. The material covering them feels a lot like the sort of pleather upholstery you would find on furniture sold in Wal-Mart. What’s worse, the gear lever felt like it was rubbing up against something while moving between the drive and manual modes.
We should all want the Cadenza to be amazing. It would force more prestigious brands to be better. Rooting for Kia feels good because it’s the underdog, but little things like this make it tough to do.
Then again, it’s a heck of a lot cheaper. At the high end, you would come out with six grand to spare. That would cover a hot tub for your back yard, new digs for the man cave or an anniversary gift to remember.
Here’s the rub. Cross-shopped against something like the ES 350, the Cadenza looks like a golden boy. But anyone in the market for a front-wheel drive highway bomber has a lot to choose from.
|Vehicle||2014 Lexus ES 350||Advantage||2014 Kia Cadenza|
|Engine size||3.5-liter V6||-||3.3-liter V6|
|Transmission||six-speed automatic||-||six-speed automatic|
|Average mpg||24||ES 350||22|
|Front seat legroom||41.9 inches||Cadenza||45.5 inches|
|Rear seat legroom||40 inches||ES350||36.8 inches|
For example, the new Chevrolet Impala is bigger, more powerful and in your humble narrator’s opinion, much nicer to drive. It offers adaptive cruise control, a more stylish cabin and just a hair more rear seat legroom. You skip some of the creature comforts, but it’s also cheaper.
Meanwhile, the ES 350 is still a splendid – albeit expensive – way to get around. Thanks to its gearing, the ES 350 feels punchier from a dead stop, even though it’s down 21 hp. It also lived up to the advertised 24 mpg rating, as did the Kia to its claimed 22.
Lexus still builds the car to beat if you’re talking about cushy front-wheel drive sedans. Wishing Kia the best with the upcoming K900 full-size rear-wheel drive luxury sedan, until then we would respectfully spend our dollars elsewhere.
2014 Lexus ES 350