The car we shouldn’t overlook.
The Lexus ES is, size-wise, a contender for the BMW 5-Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class, while offering up a very different proposition. If you’re feeling a little confused now, thinking that the Lexus GS was that sort of contender, you’d be quite right. The ES and GS exist in the same size category, but the ES sits beneath the GS, but above the smaller IS.
The ES is actually a more value-driven proposition than the more premium GS and the more sporty (and smaller IS), and even sacrifices the traditional rear-drive layout of premium cars in the pursuit of that value. It provides a more natural walk-up from the sort of mass-market large saloons buyers might have previously owned, and means that new buyers into the segment can have all the size of their last car without having to sacrifice the space. It’s also incredibly comfortable and remarkably refined, and offers either a large atmo V6 or an efficient petrol-hybrid powertrain for buyers to choose from.
And when you consider that the ES undercuts its large luxury saloon contemporary rivals by a large margin (by some five figures), surely its limited engine range can’t be its only downside. Why isn’t the ES a sales leader?
“The ES is the elegant midsized sedan in the Lexus lineup, slotting in between the compact IS and the larger GS. When I say “elegant sedan” I mean it literally as that’s what the letters ES stand for.” - The Car Guide
There’s a certain elegance to the ES’ proportions, with its long bonnet and sloping roofline. Yes, the profile does look a little reminiscent of a Toyota Camry, but the devils’ in the details. The large spindle grille (which now stretches all the way to the bottom edge of the bumper) is impossible to miss, and the intricately-detailed headlights (now incorporating the ‘tick’ shaped LED daytime running lights) make the ES look very distinctive in the corporate carpark.
The cars’ proportions means that the lines from the nose to the tail don’t appear abrupt or unfinished, with the surfacing taking a very pared-back approach. It looks clean and unfussy (even with that face), and balances elegance and aggression nicely. It’s a great reprieve from the increasingly angry-looking Germans.
Engine & Drivetrain
“It doesn’t need to be able to blast up a b-road at a million miles an hour. What it needs to do is get its occupants to the restaurant smoothly, quietly, and comfortably.” - Wheels Canada
Only two powertrains are on offer here, each distinctly different from the other. In the ES300h you’ll find a 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine mated to an electric motor, providing a combined 118kW and 213Nm, that sends power to the front wheels via a continuously-variable (CVT) automatic transmission. While it packs decent pace, this powertrain is geared more toward economy and ecology, which is how it returns a respectable 5.5L/100km on the combined cycle and emits just 130g/km of CO2.
The other mill on offer is quite a whopper. A 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine sits beneath the bonnet of the ES350, and provides no less than 204kW of power and 346Nm of twist, sending power to the front wheels via a six-speed automatic gearbox. The ES350 is lighter than the hybrid thanks to the lack of a battery pack, and as a result, manages to do 9.5L/100km (which isn’t so bad for an atmo V6 of this size). If you’re into green motoring this might not be the car for you though, as it does spit out some 224g/km of CO2.
“The ES elevates the experience somewhat…” - The Chronicle Herald, Canada
Just like the exterior, the interior of the ES shines most when you zero-in on details. Like any Lexus interior, the cabin here is built to an exacting degree that even the Germans cannot appear to match, with everything screwed together with laser-like precision. The switchgear employed feel like they’ve been hewn from granite and promise to never fail you, with the only real failing being that they look like they came from the 1990s.
Aside from the Lexus touch-pad controller thing, that is. That is distinctly 2010, and we wish it would stay there. It’s incredibly fiddly to use and doesn’t get much better with time, and quickly answers the question why the German manufacturers unanimously opted to go the way of a rotary controller. We’re not sure how many tests Lexus conducted before they decided on this interface, but we can tell you it’s really awful. Maybe it works better in left-hand drive markets (where you’d control it with your right hand rather than your left), but we’d wager a guess that it’s pretty shoddy there too.
Aside from that, the ES’ cabin treats its passengers to sumptuous comfort, with soft leather and gorgeous pseudo-wood employed generously around the cabin. The sheer quality of the ES’ cabin serves as a reminder that the Japanese luxury brand is not one to be scoffed at when thinking about luxury propositions, and that the ES is a real bargain in this size category.
Behind the Wheel
“The ES remains a traditional luxury car with a creamy, tranquil ride, which is just how buyers like it. And for good reason -- with virtually every other manufacturer pushing the phrase "fun to drive" toward meaninglessness, it's refreshing to get into a car that's all about making you feel as comfortable as possible.” - Autotrader
When you sit behind the wheel, the big ‘L’ badge on the steering boss should remind you how to drive it. This is a luxury car, so drive it in a luxurious manner. Don’t stab at the throttle and don’t yank the steering wheel, this isn’t a BMW 5er nor a Jaguar XF. Being brutish with the ES (be it the 350 or the 300h) will not reward you, so take a chill pill and let it lull you along.
Take a breather and calm down, and the ES really breaks into stride. Both the hybrid and the V6 feel absolutely at home on the motorway, with the engine(s) setting into a low hum at cruising speeds and the suspension soaking every conceivable imperfection on the road without skipping a beat. The V6 is the kind of motor that builds its momentum gradually, while the hybrid powertrain is most economical when treated the same way. Lexus’ hybrid systems aim to supplement a downsized powerplant with an electric powertrain to deliver the same sort of performance as a big engine, and in that regard, it’s executed it flawlessly.
The only real snag with the hybrid is the CVT gearbox, which remains artificial and unnatural in execution. The way the engine revs rise to a rather grating buzz and stay there for an interminably long time is not a luxury car make, and we feel it unravels the resoluteness of the car as a whole. The CVT is the chink in the armour here, as it is in any hybrid Lexus. It might be a great transmission option on something lower down the food chain, but not that plies its trade in the premium end of the market.
If you’re hoping that the ES will be rewarding to drive, you’re out of luck. This is a Lexus after all, and while offerings like the GS and IS have made huge strides in driver involvement over the years, the ES remains a soft, wallowy luxury barge that’s made to chew miles serenely, not to be caned through backroads or on a mountain pass.
Safety & Technology
“Lexus’ standard equipment inventories have always been extensive, often with few if any options, but revisions for this latest iteration ES model include a full safety suite makeover…” - CarAdvice
As is the case with any luxury car, the ES packs impressive levels of kit as standard. Blind spot monitoring, rear view camera, and blind spot monitoring can be found on all models, along with no less than 10-airbags. The usual array of traction and stability controls, smart cruise control and park distance control also features on the ES, reinforcing its strong proposition as a motorway cruiser. There’s even things like pre-collision safety, lane departure warning, and automatic high beam tacked on as standard too, providing yet more reassurance for those shopping on this end of the market.
Technology is well catered for with the ES too, with things like mobile phone connectivity, satellite navigation, multifunction steering wheel, voice recognition and an eight-speaker audio system that’s really rather good. There’s multi-zone climate control and powered seats too, which means it’ll take even less effort to move the front passenger seat forward to make more room in the captains’ chair, should the ES end up as a chauffeur car.
The Lexus ES is very much a limousine in disguise. It might be sized like a BMW 5-Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class, but it’s got a far clearer focus on comfort and puts passenger serenity as its utmost priority, the way Lexus vehicles have for the longest time. It’s actually rather refreshing to see a car that makes no excuses for its cosseting, comforting, and unruffled ride.
On top of the luxurious ride comes the price, as the ES comfortably undercuts its rivals by a staggering degree. Those stepping up from a large mass-market family saloon into the luxury playing field will appreciate the size of the ES rather than having to downsize for the sake of the badge. Add that to the impressive list of kit, and the ES is a premium offering with staggering value, even if it isn’t quite as cutting-edge as its European rivals.
The only chink in the ES’ armour comes in the form of its limited engine lineup, with only a large atmo V6 and petrol-electric hybrid combination to choose from. Fans of diesels and turbo-petrols will have to look elsewhere, as Lexus continues to leave the diesel and forced-induction questions unanswered (in this generation, at least). That said, the ES does fall vulnerable to cars that offer a more connected driving experience, with the Jaguar XF and BMW 5-Series far more capable of putting smiles on drivers’ faces than the Lexus, while the Mercedes-Benz E-Class has a lot more going for it in terms of active driver assistance (ADAS) systems, paired with a more high-tech cabin.
That said, you can’t deny that opting for an ES will leave you with a lot of change in pocket, which will go some way to cover those fuel bills…
The Car Guide – 4.0/5.0 – “The Lexus ES surprised me the most out of my recent test drives because I simply liked it so much more than I thought I would. If you’re in the market for a luxury sedan, do not pass up the opportunity to drive one, because it just may surprise you as well.”
Wheels Canada – 4.0/5.0 – “It may look different, but the Lexus ES remains as capable a midsize luxury sedan as you’ll find on the market today.”
Carbuzz.com – 91/100 – “With shared emphasis on value and comfort, the Lexus ES is an ideal candidate for buyers looking for a more affordable and supple mid-sized executive sedan.”
Cars.com – 4.0/5.0 – “Even with an increasing number of competitors and the Lexus ES getting up there in years since its last redesign, it manages to keep its place as a dependable go-to in the luxury market.”
Autotrader – 4.0/5.0 – “Sit back and enjoy the Lexus ES for what it is – an entry-level luxury sedan that's slightly larger than midsize. It's not an on-the-limit driver's machine or an over-the-top status symbol, but it's a car with an understated sense of classiness, comfort, safety and serenity.”
CarAdvice – 7.5/10 – “While it might still covet that ever-growing retiree set with a passion for lawn bowls and weekend trips to the holiday house, the newest ES looks and feels like a more substantial and, dare I say, more exciting offering than before.”