The new Lexus ES marks a fairly radical departure for the Japanese brand in Europe and the UK. It replaces the GS, which tried hard (but ultimately failed) to take on the Germans at their own game: namely, a rear-drive executive saloon.
So the GS is being quietly dropped (production has stopped already, apparently) and now the ES is becoming a global car. We say ‘becoming’ because it’s not a new badge elsewhere; this is, in fact, the seventh generation ES. Globally, it’s Lexus’s best-selling saloon and second in the firm’s overall sales chart, just behind the RX SUV.
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It’s a very different beast to the GS, too – not least because it is based on Toyota’s latest chassis technology, and is front-wheel drive. It’s closer in principle to some versions of the latest Audi A6, then, than it is the BMW 5 Series or Mercedes E-Class.
The powertrain will be more familiar in concept to British customers – and, arguably, it has ever-increasing appeal in the current anti-diesel climate. It’s a hybrid, naturally, with a 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine up front, and a set of nickel-metal hydride batteries mounted below the rear seats. The total system power is 215bhp, which puts the ES300h roughly on a par with the likes of the Mercedes E 220d and the BMW 525d.
Lexus is still doing the numbers on how efficient the set-up will be in the forthcoming WLTP tests – but the back-of-a-fag-packet conversions to current NEDC rules suggest 60.1mpg and 106g/km of CO2 emissions. Those are very decent figures for a car of this size, and while a BMW 520d Efficient Dynamics diesel will trump them (just), the ES 300h should be competitive on company car Benefit in Kind (BIK) tax.
Lexus is also still thrashing out the final specifications, but we already know that the ES will be sold in five trim levels in the UK. Entry-level cars get an eight-inch navigation screen but lack even the possibility to add some of the car’s option packs. Mid-grade will open up access to the Tech and Safety Packs, as well as switching to leather upholstery.
F-Sport will come in two flavours – regular, with the eight-inch infotainment screen and sports-themed styling cues, and F-Sport High Grade, which steps up to a 12.3-inch widescreen navigation system. That upgraded unit is also part of the range-topper, High Grade, which include semi-analine leather seats. Our American test car came closest to matching this spec, in fact.
The million-dollar question is whether a front-wheel-drive hybrid Lexus can get anywhere near the best of the Germans on driving involvement. The smooth and gently curved roads of our Nashville test route make it hard to answer this definitively, but our gut feeling after a day in the car is that it will not.
Weirdly, though, that’s not down to the chassis. If anything, the ES feels a fundamentally well-sorted thing. It’s nicely damped, coping well with smaller road imperfections and the sharp hits that you get on bridge expansion joints. But this level of comfort doesn’t come at the total expense of body control, which feels more than acceptable. The steering is direct and nicely weighted, too – although Lexus’s claims of ‘excellent feel’ are a little ambitious.
No, the reason that the ES isn’t going to bother a diesel 5 Series on sheer driving pleasure is the hybrid powertrain. It’s getting better all the time, we must acknowledge, and should you wish to drive everywhere with gentle throttle modulation, it will reward you with great smoothness and deeply impressive refinement.
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It’s less effective when you’re in a rush, though – and should you try to overcome this by taking a bit more control, it’ll still get in your way. There are paddles behind the steering wheel and the ES is claimed to offer six ‘steps’ in its transmission, making its CVT gearbox seem a bit more like a conventional auto. But that powertrain, efficient though it is, just doesn’t have enough low-down torque in a car weighing 1.7 tonnes.
So while you can jump up and down false ratios quite merrily, and the ‘gear’ number on the digital dashboard won’t change as you nail the throttle, the drive unit will still feel the need for extra revs. It’s not like holding a gear at all, then; there’s no wave of diesel-like torque to waft you along, and you never feel totally in control of what’s happening when you apply heavy throttle inputs.
This sounds negative, and if you’re yearning for B-road weapon, you’re probably going to stop reading this review right here. But ask the Lexus to pitch up against an E-Class as a refined long-distance cruiser and it could come much closer to nailing the brief. And not every Lexus has enjoyed this purity of focus.
This is proven, in fact, by the F-Sport model, which we also had a brief chance to try. In the name of ‘sportiness’, it steps up to 19-inch wheels instead of the High Grade’s 18-inchers, and gets thicker anti-roll bars, too. It didn’t feel much more dynamically capable, and while still far from unbearable, the ride is compromised – so unless you want the tastier alloys, we’d be tempted to stick with the regular models that are more in keeping with the ES’s general character.
Our car was a very late prototype, so Lexus was at pains to point out that some elements of the interior finish weren’t quite up to scratch. The materials felt on a par with the likes of the Jaguar XF, but even in the pre-prod stages, build quality is tighter. The dashboard design draws on inspiration from the LS and the LC, with a sizeable head-up display likely to feature on high-end editions and, thankfully, enough buttons to cover all of the major functions without looking horrendously cluttered.
If you’re going to pick holes in the interior, you’re more likely to find weak spots in the infotainment system, which still relies on Lexus’s fiddly touchpad and does not include Android Auto or Apple CarPlay integration. The rear packaging is compromised, too; legroom is impressive, but headroom is compromised by the ‘coupe’ roofline. There should still be enough space aboard for four six-footers, mind.
The boot is a respectable 454 litres and while there’s a hefty lip to load heavy items over, the space and floor layout is pretty generous once you get there. The rear seats don’t fold down, though, so longer items are a no-no.
The key to it all could be pricing. British-market ESs will be built in Japan, just as the GS was, but you’d have to hope that the switch to a shared platform with the huge-selling US-market Toyota Camry will allow Lexus a little bit more wriggle room on the numbers. Not just on list prices, either, but on the discounts dealers are able to offer. This, more than anything, could be fundamental to the whether the car is a success – not least because Lexus believes as much as 70 per cent of its sales could come from fleet customers.