Is this just a Toyota with a Lexus badge?
The introduction of the Lexus ES350 and ES300h sees the return of the Lexus ES line after a seven-year absence in Australia.
The sixth-generation Lexus ES follows the traditionally conservative nature of the ES models that have come before, designed for comfort and spaciousness at the expense of dynamic ability.
Priced from $63,000, the entry model Lexus ES300h Luxury marks the first time in Lexus’s history that a hybrid model has started the range, with the optional 3.5-litre V6 ES350 coming in at an additional $2000.
The ES300h is powered by a 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine that develops 118kW coupled to an electric motor producing a further 33kW for a combined 151kW of power and 213Nm of torque.
As with other Lexus and Toyota products that utilise this hybrid system, a continuously variable transmission (CVT) is teamed with the engine.
In V6 petrol form, the ES350 features a more standard six-speed automatic and squeezes out a healthy 204kW and 346Nm.
Despite measuring 4.9 metres in length and offering more rear legroom than a Mercedes-Benz S-Class (and Lexus’s own LS), the ES weighs between 1630-1705kg (depending on variant), making it capable of achieving fuel economy figures of 5.5L/100km and 9.5L/100km for hybrid and V6 respectively.
From the outside the Lexus ES is a far cry from the current stable of emotionally styled Lexus models such as the IS and GS. In many ways, its conservative styling is a reflection of its expected buyer group: previous ES owners, those upgrading from a high-end mainstream car, and more mature buyers.
The Lexus ES still gains Lexus’s signature spindle grille, LED daytime running lights and an LS-inspired rear design. The ES300h and ES350 are both available as Luxury or Sport Luxury variants, with the latter asking an additional $9000.
The Luxury variants come standard with 17-inch alloys, satellite navigation, dual-zone climate control, sunroof, front heated seats, smart key, eight-speaker digital radio enabled audio system, power rear sunshade and electric front seats and mirrors.
Externally, the only difference between the Luxury and Sport Luxury models is the alloy wheel design (both 17-inch in size). It’s the interior that gains the full benefit of the price increase with features such as rear-seat climate control, rear seat heaters, power boot lid, rear centre armrest with audio, climate and seat heating controls and the choice of wood-grain look or bamboo trim. There’s also a Mark Levinson 835-watt 15 speakers audio system for good measure.
All models come with 10 airbags plus front and rear parking sensors and a reversing camera and blind spot monitoring system. Unlike the other models the LS300h luxury base model misses out on pre-collision assist and active cruise control ($3,000 option).
Before we delve in much deeper, it’s important to answer the question to what is likely to be a common question. Is the ES a Toyota Aurion/Camry with a Lexus badge? Not really.
Though it shares a great deal of parts (in the same way as Audi and Volkswagen), the Lexus ES is based on a platform that is inherently different to the Toyota products we have here in Australia (though is based on the US market Toyota Avalon). Most parts back from the engine firewall are unique to the ES, as are suspension set-ups and other underbody componentry.
The cabin ambience is certainly typical Lexus, with high-quality materials and an overall sense of sophistication not found in Toyota products.
Attention to detail is paramount, such as the hand-stitched leather on the dashboard that is crafted by one of only 12 people in the world who – as part of their test – have to be able to fold an origami cat from a flat piece of paper – with one hand – in less than 90 seconds.
The cabin flows in a similar manner to the new IS and ES with a standout design and easy to use controls.
However, it’s not too hard to tell why the ES is so well priced, because the plastic air-conditioning controls and technological feats are a good generation behind compared to the IS. The 8-inch satellite navigation system, coupled to the mouse-like second-generation Remote Touch controller, feels – and looks – ancient.
Comfort isn’t an issue, though. The front seats are spacious and supportive, making the ES a great choice for long drives. The rear, too, is a spacious place to be with enormous legroom (1015mm) and headroom, aided by welcoming seats. (Lexus Australia happily admits the ES would make a great choice for hire car companies and we wouldn’t disagree.)
The Lexus ES300h isn’t one for enthusiastic chauffeurs or owners, though. Through twisty and hilly countryside, the ES misses the rear-wheel-drive balance of the IS and GS Lexus models and quickly steps out of its comfort zone when pushed.
And while a 0-100km/h time of 8.5 seconds shows the hybrid ES can get up to speed without too much trouble, the noisy and cumbersome CVT spoils the driving experience.
In what must be one of the quietest cabins of any car in the world, the Lexus ES300h suffers from a consistent whine from its CVT, a problem not suffered by a similar set-up in a front-wheel-drive Audi A6.
The ES350, then, is our pick of the two. Though it could do with two additional gears for fuel efficiency and better acceleration, it still has a claimed 0-100km/h time of 7.4 seconds and the tried and tested traditional six-speed auto is faultless, much easier on the ears, and generally creates a smoother driving experience.
And especially in ES350 form, the big Lexus offers a level of refinement that is well above its asking price. That includes a suspension that absorbs bumps and potholes without fuss.
There are many areas for improvement. The ageing hybrid drivetrain technology that still makes use of nickel-hydride (rather than superior lithium-ion) batteries or the 3.5-litre V6 and six-speed transmission set-up that has been available in both Toyota and Lexus products for far too many years.
But it’s difficult to think of another car for $63,000 that offers the same level of standard kit, prestige, comfort, refinement, spaciousness and practicality as the Lexus ES300h. Put in another $2000 for the V6 ES350 and you’ll be set.