The Lexus ES has long been the Lexus you buy if you remain wedded to the company’s “traditional” maxims.
Unapologetically conservative and not remotely interested in being sporty, the Lexus ES has instead always been about maximum space and refinement inside, and comfort (read: softness) on the road.
These tenets make it an increasing outlier in the Japanese brand’s line-up, given the company’s other sedans — the GS and IS — have been pushed into an increasingly sporty direction, in terms of dynamism and design.
With these abilities still at its core, Lexus has just given the middle child in its sedan range a mid-life update, the first since it launched in November 2013 following a seven-year absence.
The first thing to point out is the “re-sculpturing” at the front, with the MY16 Lexus ES taking on a bolder version of the company’s spindle grille, flanked by more aggressive headlights with daytime running lights and fog lights. There are new taillights too.
We wonder what typical buyers of the Lexus ES would make of it…
Here we’re test driving the Lexus ES300h petrol-electric hybrid in entry Luxury guise, priced at $62,500 plus on-road costs, which is $500 less than when it launched two years ago. This version is the most affordable ES you can buy, with the six-cylinder ES350 Luxury costing $63,500. Both engines can be had in Sports Luxury spec for an additional $8000.
At this price point, the ES is only $2500 more expensive than the much smaller IS300h. It also stacks up against the base Hyundai Genesis V6 ($60,000) and Holden Caprice V8 ($60,490), but the hybrid system and the superior badge cred makes the ES a unique offering.
However, unlike those other cars, the ES eschews a sporty rear-wheel drive layout in favour of a front-drive configuration, as it always has. The ES has long been derided as a ‘Toyota Camry in fancy dress’, but this version is actually much more closely related to the US-market Toyota Avalon than anything sold in Australia.
As ever, the ES is a car that knows its strengths and plays to them. For one, the cabin feels a bit like your favourite pair of slippers; there’s nothing particularly sexy going on, but it’s comfortable enough to make you look the other way. In fact, during my time with the car I had a rather nasty cold, so its supreme comfort — the cushy cloud-like seats and the general sense of relaxation — really did it for me.
Updates as part of the MY16 facelift include the new (and lovely) steering wheel, and new 4.2-inch TFY multi-information display ahead of the driver that shows basic sat-nav and audio information in addition to driving data. However, it is still sans digital speedo.
In Lexus fashion there are cushy heated leather front seats with ample electric adjustment, memory and good side bolstering and thigh support. The high quality leather is also used on the arm rests in the doors, the console and on the redesigned steering wheel.
As we’ve come to expect from Lexus, the material quality and fit-and-finish is near peerless, while features such as the super-quiet soft-closing windows and heavy acoustic doors add to the ambience, as per its buyers’ taste.
Some of the smaller details aren’t particularly luxurious; the dash-top stitching looks mainstream, the cruise control switch (as always) is right out of a Toyota Yaris, and the central fascia looks a little unresolved, cluttered and, frankly, overtly “Americana”.
The infotainment system is operated by Lexus’ mouse-like toggle on the transmission tunnel (right where your passenger’s hand sits), which I actually found relatively intuitive, though not to the degree of BMW’s iDrive or even Mazda’s MZD Connect.
The software on the well-integrated 8.0-inch screen is fine, featuring DAB+ (Digital Audio Broadcasting) and rapid-fire Bluetooth re-pairing. However, the graphics on the home screen and the satellite-navigation with SUNA updates are a little passe, as is the red cursor.
The eight-speaker sound system is very decent, though it lacks the class-leading clarity and power of the company’s Mark Levinson 15-speaker system that comes on the Sports Luxury version. Audiophiles take note: that unit is one of the best in the business.
The full list of standard equipment includes reverse-view camera, sat-nav, DAB+, an electric rear sunshade, auto-folding mirrors, sunroof, dual-zone climate control, rain-sensing wipers, and leather heated seats with driver memory.
You also get a good safety suite, with things such as radar cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, and a new lane-departure warning system all standard. The Sports Luxury adds features such as the afore-mentioned Mark Levinson sound system, LED headlights, an electric boot, climate control in the rear, extra woodgrain highlights (clearly aiming for an older demographic) and ventilated seats.
Often regarded as the ES’ biggest strength are the rear seats, which are not a million miles shy of the enormous Holden Caprice. This is despite the fact that, at 4915mm long, the ES is shorter than a Commodore in both overall length and in terms of the wheelbase.
Indeed, you can see this car being something airport valets would look at, along with Uber Black drivers.
Legroom in particular is outstanding, as is the shaping and quality of the seats. That said, toe room is average, while headroom is badly compromised by the sunroof. My 194cm frame was stooped. You also get no door pockets, though the flip down partition has cupholders and a few smaller cubbies.
Rear occupants get vents, map pockets, leather arm rests, overhead lighting and hand rests. Parents also get two outboard ISOFIX points. There’s a 12V socket, but we’d like to see a USB point back there, and perhaps some better ambient lighting.
The boot is okay at best. At 425 litres, it’s smaller than a Nissan Pulsar and 65L smaller than the ES350, though there’s also a full-size 215/55 spare wheel underneath, which is rare for a hybrid. As there are batteries in the rear, the back seats are fixed in place — there’s not even a ski port to load long items through.
On the road, the ES behaves as it always has. The drivetrain is unchanged, meaning a 2.5-litre four-cylinder operating on the Atkinson cycle producing 118kW at 5700rpm and 213Nm at 4500rpm. This engine is paired with an electric motor linked to a 650V (nickel-metal hydride) battery pack. The combined system power output is 151kW, which is sent to the front wheels via a CVT.
In typical hybrid style, the ES300h feels punchy around town because the electric motor that generally works solo below 40km/h gives you immediate torque. It also means the ES hybrid operates in silence at low speeds until the battery depletes, which is nice.
Lexus has also done a good job deadening the CVT drone and reducing the noise for the petrol engine as it kicks in on heavy throttle. The engine is never as intrusive here as many other hybrids.
If you’re trying to get a hustle on, the hybrid’s tendency to run out of steam higher up the rev band deadens the experience. But unlike the IS, the ES is not that sort of car, so take this criticism with a large dose of salt.
If you do value this ability, opt for the $1000 pricier ES350, with its smooth 204kW 3.5-litre V6. Not only is it more powerful, it also weighs less (1665kg kerb rather than 1705kg).
Of course, the main drawcard of a hybrid is its fuel use, and Lexus claims combined-cycle fuel consumption of 5.5 litre per 100km (the ES350 uses 9.5L/100km).
Our test route yielded a very commendable 5.8L/100km under the kind of reserved driving an ES300h owner might be expected to do. In typical hybrid fashion, fuel consumption climbed on the highway due to the electric motor being inactive at those speeds.
As befits the brief, the ES’ suspension setup — MacPherson struts front and rear — and damping is soft and cushy, with excellent bump suppression and decent travel, with only very big speed humps at higher-than-average speeds eliciting any hint of a thud. However, the 17-inch alloys wrapped in 215/55 tyres can let the impact from some harsher cobbles into the cabin sometimes.
All told, the ES eats up inner city roads without fuss, and suppresses wind and tyre drone at higher speeds equally effectively.
Logically, a soft ride does sacrifice a little in the way of body control, meaning the ES leans mid-corner, while the FWD layout makes the ES give in to safe and predictable understeer if you push. But again, this is not a car designed to be driven hard.
The electric-assisted steering in its normal setting is decently weighted, and also totally disconnected. If you press the Sport button, it takes on extra weight, but gives you no extra feedback. This Sport mode also sharpens the throttle response and programs the CVT to hold higher revs for more immediate response, but it’s pointless in this application. Don’t bother.
In short, the ES is about as sporty as a sleeping bag. But it’s also as comfortable as one.
The only real dynamic bugbear are the brakes that, in classic hybrid style, have a very wooden and uninspiring pedal feel, translating to a dullness at first, and a tendency to be very ‘grabby’ further in the arc. On the subject of brakes, we don’t like the US-style foot-operated parking brake because it gets in the way of the footrest.
A real key to Lexus is the cost of ownership. The company really rolls out the red carpet, offering to pick up and drop off your car when serviced (or give you a loan car in lieu), inviting you to fancy shindigs and giving you a thorough roadside assist plan.
The ES’ new vehicle warranty covers four-years/100,000km, while the HV (Hybrid) battery warranty lasts eight years/160,000kms.
So that’s the Lexus ES. Downsides? Well, aside from its floppiness in corners that we don’t much care for, it’s the compromised rear headroom and boot that grate, and the unremarkable cabin layout and infotainment.
But as the earlier allusions to slippers and sleeping bags might tell you, the MY16 Lexus ES remains fundamentally and unashamedly a comfortable, quiet and spacious sedan for the conservative buyer. The hybrid drivetrain really suits the car.
Cross-shop with a Genesis and make the call from there.
Click on the Photos tab for more 2016 Lexus ES300h images by Tom Fraser.