Since the launch of the howling LFA back in 2011, Lexus, it seems, has been on a mission to rid itself of its previously dull image, and the Japanese marque hasn’t been holding back any punches, either, with no fear of releasing aggressive and polarising designs and jam-packing its cars with at-times tricky to use technology.
But with most of the easy jobs already taken care of when it comes to its sedan range, with the IS remaining as focused as ever, the GS offering up the bellowing V8-powered F model, and the new LS serving up twin-turbo oomph and a level of luxury to die for, it’s now time to see how they’ve managed with the hardest job of them all – making the ES, well, not boring anymore.
Sharing the same basic underpinnings as the ever-popular Toyota Camry, a car which is also trying to shed itself of a notoriously stale image, although offering a slightly longer wheelbase in common with the Avalon which is absent from the Australian market, the ES has, on the surface, gone in a similar direction to its platform donor and fellow Lexus four-doors, with an aggressive nose and next-level interior, but with one glaring omission – any added power, as an unchanged Camry Hybrid drivetrain is the only option Australia will see.
Fresh off the back of an update for 2020 – following the new model’s initial launch for the 2019 model year – the range has been expanded from two variants to three, starting at $60,488 with the Luxury before stepping up to the newly-added F Sport and the range-topping Sports Luxury, with optional Enhancement Packs available for the former two.
To see whether it has been able to shake some of its old drabness off, I grabbed the keys to the feature-packed top of the range model and set about finding out.
It’s a good thing I was able to nab the Sports Luxury because I can assure you it’s the one you want, as for the money, it’s remarkably well-equipped. Sure, it might not have any particularly groundbreaking features, but it does have everything you could ever think of needing.
When it comes to conveniences alone, the front seats abound with features. Both are 14-way adjustable with three memory positions for each, which also remembers the positioning of the electrically-adjustable steering wheel. What’s more, both seats have three-stage automatic heating and ventilation which corresponds to the climate controls and external temperature, while the steering wheel has two-stage automatic heating as well.
The technology doesn’t stop there, either, as there’s a massive 12.3-inch infotainment screen in the centre, and although the system isn’t new, it does finally add Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity in addition to already featuring integrated satellite navigation and digital radio. Annoyingly, it still uses the trackpad control system first introduced on the LC, which, while easy enough to figure out most of the time, does make entering navigation destinations an absolute nightmare. Still, at least it’s better than the old joystick controller.
The gauge cluster is all digital, too, aside from the fuel and temperature gauges, and features a slick central tachometer which changes colour depending on the drive mode you’re in and nestles the digital speedometer inside it. Having a tachometer in a hybrid-only model is curious though, given many other hybrid Toyota and Lexus models simply feature an Eco/Power gauge instead.
Rounding out the spec sheet is an 17-speaker Mark Levinson audio system – which is perfectly-tuned for jazz and classical music, funnily enough – with some very funky speaker grilles, a sunroof over the front seats, and automatic wipers and headlights, the latter of which also feature an automatic high-beam function.
The quality of the materials throughout the cabin is all pretty impressive, with all the surfaces you touch wrapped in plush patterned leather or smooth wood trim, and even the carpets feel thick and dense. Unfortunately, if you really start poking around you will find some Camry-esque materials, such as the dashboard plastics, but there’s nothing especially bad to be found anywhere.
But for as nice as it is up front, the back seat is really the place to be in the ES, with rear occupants being incredibly well-catered-for in terms of features. Fold down the centre armrest and you’ll find a control panel on it from which you can recline the rear seats slightly, adjust the stereo, operate the powered rear sunshade, and adjust the temperature.
Furthermore, there are sunshades on the side windows as well, including even a little one for the additional glass, along with controls on the side of the front passenger seat allowing you to slide it forwards for even more legroom, not that it was lacking in the slightest to begin with.
And the massive amount of legroom you’ll find inside the ES primarily comes down to the fact that it is front-wheel drive. Sure, front-wheel drive might seem counterintuitive to those accustomed to rear-wheel drive Beemers and Mercs, but the lack of a driveshaft and rear differential due to everything driveline-related staying in front of the dashboard does work wonders for maximising interior space, and given Lexus’ primary target market being the US – after all, the marque’s name is believed by some to stand for Luxury Exports to the United States – prioritising a roomy interior over rear-drive dynamics does make sense as it’s what its target demographic demands.
Powering those front wheels in the ES 300h is the same petrol-electric hybrid system you’ll find beneath the bonnet of the Camry it shares its underpinnings with, which pairs a 2.5-litre Atkinson-cycle naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol engine that makes 131kW and 221Nm with an electric motor that produces 88kW and 202Nm, bringing the combined system output to a maximum of 160kW. A CVT automatic is the only transmission option available, which does have a manual mode controlled by paddles on the steering wheel.
With Toyota and Lexus having been developing this hybrid system for so long, the point of refinement the two marques have got it to is remarkably impressive. The transition between petrol and electric power really is as close to seamless as you could imagine, and complements the incredibly smooth nature of this drivetrain and the way it performs in this car perfectly.
It’s definitely not what you’d call particularly sporty in any way as even though the electric assistance does make it feel particularly pokey when you first stab the throttle, 0-100km/h taking a steady 8.9 seconds and its top speed pinned at just 180km/h does highlight that top performance it not really the point of it.
Being a front-wheel drive car with a long wheelbase, it’s clearly not intended to be the most planted thing through high-speed off-camber corners, either, as while it does actually handle much better than you’d expect when keeping things in check, push it too hard through the bends and you’ll want to be weary of lift-off oversteer.
But consider its relaxed throttle response, light and easy steering, drivetrain focused more on economy, and that well-appointed and roomy backseat, and the true point of the ES starts to make far more sense – while some buyers will no doubt choose to drive these things, this is really a car for being driven in.
And as a passenger back there, things are truly more than pleasant. There’s no abrasiveness to be felt at all from the drivetrain or suspension, and there’s little in the way of wind or road noise intrusion to spoil the serenity. If your chauffeur arrives in one of these ready to take you to your next meeting or special occasion, I can’t think of anything about the Lexus that could spoil that journey.
A driver’s car, the ES isn’t then, even if it is very smooth and pleasant to drive, but a passenger’s car, it absolutely is. With what’s easily the most spacious and feature-rich rear seat in the class, it really does punch above its weight when it comes to its luxuriousness.
The way it’s priced is remarkably competitive as well, as with this range-topping Sports Luxury running for just $75,488, it easily undercuts the Germans it’s being pitted against on price, while also offering a longer warranty with four years of coverage. The only other rival that offers a better deal in that regard is the Genesis G80 with its five years of coverage, although you’ll still be spending six-figures for a comparably-equipped, if more powerful equivalent.
In these budget-conscious times, then, there’s no need to fear if you need to give up the Beemer or Merc when it comes time to upgrade at the end of your lease – assuming you can still afford the driver to go with it, the Lexus is easily the cheaper and the better bet.
But has it been able to shake its old image? Well, from the way it caught the eyes of the observant as I silently made my way around in it, I’d certainly say so. While I would suggest – cautiously, I might add, as I tread lightly over some ageist eggshells – that the ES still seems to have an older clientele in its aim, but for a younger guy like myself, there’s still a lot to like.
If a V6 powertrain were offered here, as it is available in the Camry, I’d have been minded to say that Lexus truly had turned the ES into something properly cool like its other sedans. For now though, I’ll simply have to say that it’s just close enough, but that’s totally fine from where I’m sitting.
2020 Lexus ES 300h Sports Luxury List Price: $75,488
- Performance - 7.5/107.5/10
- Ride & Handling - 8.5/108.5/10
- Tech & Features - 8.5/108.5/10
- Practicality - 8/108/10
- Value for Money - 8.5/108.5/10
Pros: Incredibly plush ride, jam-packed with comfort-oriented features, impressive fuel economy due to its hybrid drivetrain
Cons: Not the sharpest handling in the class but better than expected, irritating trackpad controller, some Camry interior plastics present
In a nutshell: Even if it isn’t 100 percent of the way there, the ES is far cooler now than it ever has been before.
Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Lexus Australia for a week with fuel expenses covered. Additionally, our friends at MPF Detailing gave it a complimentary Express Detail for us prior to our photoshoot.