Lexus ES300h 2018 sports luxury hybrid

2019 Lexus ES300h Sports Luxury review

First Australian drive

The brand new Lexus ES hybrid sedan makes a big leap over its predecessor by offering comfort, space and style in spades. The recipe is the same as ever, but the ingredients are of a much higher quality.
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Previous iterations of the Lexus ES have been the automotive equivalent of popping an Ambien. But in case you missed the memo, Japan’s luxury car brand doesn’t play that way any more.

And so, the new-generation big sedan embraces modern Lexus’ far more aggressive design language. It has a long and low roof, powerful sculpted bonnet, long and broad shoulders, lovely door-mounted side mirrors and a chiselled rear end. It also has a lower coefficient of drag (aero rating).

Lexus calls all this “provocative elegance”, but the only element that really earns this descriptor is the nose, those sleek lightning-shaped LED headlights and the gaping ‘spindle’ grille shaped like a squashed hourglass, designed to shock buyers into paying attention.

For those who like to paint the ES as a tarted-up Toyota Camry/Avalon, here’s your ammunition: it sits on the same version of the company's new transverse TNGA architecture, called GA-K, as this pair. The good news is that this time around, that’s actually a good thing, because both of those cars are dynamically excellent.

This ES is a smidgen lower than before (by a negligible 5mm), but 60mm longer overall, 50mm longer between the wheels, and 45mm wider. Stance life. It’s also torsionally stiffer than before thanks to greater use of high-tensile steel which, incidentally, cuts down on weight.

We’ll get to how it drives in a moment, but it’s more important for now to focus on the interior. The ES’ owner-mix of traditional private owners and – dare we say it – limousine contractors, demand comfort, space and quality above all things, even innovative technologies.

The cabin strikes the right notes. The steering wheel is borrowed from the LS, there’s soft-touch plastic on all touchpoints, tasteful contrasting silver and wood elements, fabric lining the door bins and console, and typical Lexus build quality. The way the cupholder cover gently closes is a work of art, ditto the glovebox.

The layout is similar to the LS, meaning it’s more adventurous than before. The digital instrument display changes its look when you set the binnacle-mounted stalk to sports mode by turning red and adding a tachometer, though unlike the LFA that it mimics there’s no mechanised moving element.

This is paired with a biggest-in-class head-up display that projects speed, speed limit and navigation information onto the windscreen, and which can be adjusted via sub menus in the instrument cluster. The steering wheel has buttons for audio, cruise control and lane assist functions, plus the fairly accurate voice control system (can set routes and change stations). It also has electric column adjustment.

The centre fascia is dominated by a 12.3-inch screen, which can display two menus, for example you can view maps and the audio home page concurrently. Below this are buttons for the ventilation controls, while to the right of the screen is the signature Lexus analogue clock. There’s also a slick blue starter button and an electric parking brake switch replacing the clunky old foot-operated unit.

It’s not a touchscreen, however. Lexus is doggedly persisting with the laptop-style touchpad setup that you use to move the cursor around, helped by some hard shortcut buttons. We know it’s a repetitive gripe, but even at its least sensitive setting this remains more fiddly than BMW’s iDrive, for one example. We suppose owners adjust?

The version we’re driving here is the flagship ES grade, called Sports Luxury, priced at $74,888 before on-road costs. By comparison, the ‘entry’ Luxury grade is a whopping $15,000 cheaper. In typical Lexus form, the list of features is comprehensive.

All ES models get as standard satellite navigation, DAB+ digital radio, 10-way power-adjustable front seats with heating, dual-zone climate control, LED headlights, automatic wipers, a power-adjustable steering column, a powered sunroof, and a Qi wireless charging pad for compatible smartphones.

Above this, the Sports Luxury gets 18-inch alloy wheels (not 17s), ventilated front seats with 14-way power adjustment, an orchestral 17-speaker Mark Levinson surround sound system, three-zone climate control with humidity sensor, hands-free boot opening, ‘semi-aniline’ leather-accented seat trim, a heated steering wheel, and adjustable heated rear seats with a nifty electric-operated recline function.

Read our detailed Lexus ES pricing and spec breakdown here.

On a side note, our resident audiophile didn't find that sound system all that special. Merely good.

Colour theme choices inside are black-and-tan (pretentiously called Chateau/Shimamoku Black), black-on-black, and black-and-bamboo, which looks quite fetching. The Sports Luxury alone can be had with a Rich Cream colour scheme, too. Good luck keeping that clean...

It seems clear that the $60k ES300h Luxury is the more appealing buy, especially considering it’s almost $4000 cheaper than its predecessor whereas the Sports Luxury is about $3000 more than the old version.

The back seats are a vital part of any ES. The sleeker and lower roofline is offset by a lower hip point, while legroom is improved by 7mm. I’m 194cm and had plenty. On the other hand, headroom was still limited for me, though I’m an outlier. The fact the headlining on our test car was/is cream-coloured made/makes it feel airier.

The seat headrests are highly supportive, there are privacy/sun blinds on the doors and rear window, the back seat bases are heated, the seat backs rake electrically, and you can control the car’s audio functions and the rear air vents from a cluster on the flip-down centre armrest. There are also two 2.1A USB points and a 12V socket in the rear, cup holders, and crisp LED reading lights. It’s pretty deluxe back there.

Less impressive is the boot space which, at 454L VDA, is 70L smaller than the Camry’s. Under the loading floor is a speed-limited space-saver spare, which is a better solution than a patch kit, and fits Lexus’ comfort-first brand positioning better than using stiff-sidewall run-flat tyre.

Another key consideration for a large percentage of prospective ES clients is cost of ownership. This is one area where the Lexus shines, because the only drivetrain available is a ‘self charging’ petrol-electric hybrid system shared with the Camry.

The system comprises a Euro 6, 131kW/221Nm 2.5-litre petrol engine running the familiar Atkinson Cycle (meaning the expansion and compression ratios are different, improving economy and tethering power output) with improved thermal efficiency, plus a 88kW/202Nm permanent magnet electric motor and a nickel-metal hydride battery running 244.8V, with 204 cells.

Lexus has made the battery pack smaller (ergo denser) and mounted it below the back seats, though it would achieve more gains using a lithium-ion array. The rationale behind sticking with the older Ni-MH setup appears to be its lower cost and long-proven reliability in Prius/Camry Hybrid taxis.

Matched as standard is a CVT automatic with paddles, plus three driving modes (Eco, Normal and Sport) that fettle the throttle and gearbox calibration to suit your taste.

The engine and motor can both drive the front wheels, taking some strain from the former, while at the same time the petrol unit sends charge to the battery pack (which also gets energy from captured waste energy from the brakes), although it’s slow to charge up. The system can also decouple the engine and let the car coast when you lift off the throttle, and can run as a pure electric car off battery reserves, albeit for super short distances, at speeds below 40km/h, or in reverse gear.

The upside of all this is outstanding fuel economy (95 RON) of just 4.6 litres per 100km, giving you a theoretical range of more than 1000km given the 50L tank. Or as Lexus says, the best economy in class on any car that doesn't have a power plug. On my 300km combined-cycle drive, including some ardent throttle application, I managed 5.5L/100km, which is just fantastic for a 5m long car.

The other cool point is the low-speed refinement, for example in stop/start traffic, when the car runs off battery reserves. This means you sit at the lights in silent serenity, and don’t feel the engine kick in until you’re rolling. Under heavy throttle, the engine’s noise is pretty well damped, actually. Much more so than before. The 0-100km/h time is a reasonable enough 8.9 seconds – not lighting fast, but fine.

The only real negative is the petrol engine’s slightly tinny and vibey note and character at low rolling speeds if and when the batteries are low, a product of the Atkinson cycle we suspect. It detracts from the ‘premium’ experience.

Dynamically, the key for any ES should be comfort and NVH suppression rather than sharp cornering. The new front-wheel drive platform houses better multi-link rear suspension, a re-jigged MacPherson strut setup at the front, a rack-mounted electric power steering unit, a stiffening brace behind the rear seat, and new shocks with reduced internal friction. The wheels are 18-inches, or 17s on the Luxury.

The best parts of the Lexus’ dynamic package is the wind and tyre noise suppression, which is outstanding. As with the Camry, it’s also stiffer and thanks to its lower roll axes stays surprisingly flat against cornering forces. Its high-speed ride quality on passive dampers is excellent, but not so soft that it throws out the handling/body control. There’s also plenty of frontal clearance, meaning you’ll rarely scrape the bumper lip.

The steering is direct enough but has almost zero feedback, though in sports mode it gets a little more resistance/weight. There are rare occasions when the low-speed ride quality became a little sharp and unsettled, and the rebound stroke on the front suspension could be a little more controlled, but overall it’s a much better setup than before. That’s thanks to its strong TNGA foundations.

It's worth noting that while I found the regenerative braking system to have an acceptable pedal feel, a few others who drove the ES found these anchors to feel quite 'grabby' and abrupt, making it harder to drive smoothly. You might need to adjust.

It would be remiss to neglect the suite of active safety features, packaged under an umbrella called Lexus Safety System+. There’s autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, plus all-speed adaptive cruise control, 10 airbags, auto high-beam, and a huge 360-degree camera display.

The Sports Luxury also gets an adaptive high-beam system incorporating 24 LEDs which constantly adjust the light distribution pattern and brightness to "provide optimal illumination while reducing glare for oncoming drivers", along with blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert.

Finally, there’s a lane assist system that nudges you between the road lines if you take your eyes off the road, and which worked whenever the lines in question were clearly painted.

Another key Lexus advantage is its well-regarded ownership program, reinforced by its strong performances in many independent customer satisfaction surveys. You get a four year/100,000km warranty (so for a limo driver, that’ll be about 18 months), a free service loan car or a person to pick up/return your car if you’d prefer, and roadside assistance.

So, that’s the new Lexus ES which, like its more expensive LS sibling, moves the dial for this once-conservative Japanese luxury brand. It may just be an expensive Toyota Camry, but that isn’t really an insult any more.

In fact it ticks all the boxes when it comes to style and value (albeit in entry Luxury grade more than the Sports Luxury as tested), and offers outstanding fuel economy and refinement for the most part.

Plus, reputation would suggest it’ll be trouble-free. It is no dynamic excitement machine, but it delivers in the areas its core demographic demands, and throws in more than a hint of desirability while at it.

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