I love sports cars, but there’s something to be said for a large sedan that knows its place in the world. Cars like the Lexus ES300h. The latest model looks exciting, with a dramatic grille and sloping roof, but it’s a low-maintenance cruiser at heart.
That makes an ES fettled by the Lexus Performance Vehicles division, the Lexus answer to BMW M or Audi RS, something of a contradiction. But don’t be fooled, this isn’t powered by the high-revving V8 engine from the LC500 and GS F.
Although the badge reads ES300h F Sport, the car you see here is almost identical to the ES300h already offered in Australia. As with all F Sport models, this one is all about looks (with a dash of suspension tuning thrown in for good measure).
You will be able to tell it apart from garden-variety models by its unique wheels, black trim pieces, honeycomb grille, triple-LED headlights, scrolling indicators, and external badges. Think of this as a comfortable Hush Puppies loafer dressed up like a Nike runner.
Power comes from a suitably sensible 2.5-litre petrol engine running on the Atkinson cycle, and mated with a nickel-metal hydride battery and an electric motor.
The petrol engine makes 131kW and 221Nm, while combined peak power is 160kW. Given the ES is 4975mm long and 1865mm wide – call it a near perfect match for the BMW 5 Series size-wise – those figures don’t make for invigorating performance.
The ES is actually available with a 3.5-litre petrol V6 engine overseas, but Lexus Australia has shown no interest in offering it Down Under.
The claimed 100km/h sprint takes 8.9 seconds, which feels accurate in the real world. It isn’t fast, despite the fastback design and F Sport badging.
The car generally drives from 0 to 20km/h under the steam of the electric motor, although a gentle right foot could see you accelerate silently to around 40km/h before the engine takes over. It also swaps seamlessly between petrol and electric power on the move, leaning on whatever power source is most appropriate for the situation.
With a compact, economy-focused engine driving the front wheels through a CVT, there isn’t much point pushing it hard. When you do, the petrol engine responds with a surprisingly coarse sound and very little in the way of extra performance.
It somewhat undermines the Lexus’s credentials as a four-wheeled sensory deprivation tank. The brake pedal can also be a bit touchy at the top of its movement, as the hybrid system uses the e-motor to harvest energy under deceleration.
There are shift paddles behind the wheel and the CVT gamely imitates a torque converter when pushed, but it really isn’t worth the effort. Nor is there much to be gained from flicking the tactile little toggle switch on the instrument cluster to Sport or Sport+. It’s all very relaxing; the powertrain encourages the driver to sit back and enjoy the ride.
Performance isn’t the point of Toyota hybrid powertrains, which are quickly gaining market share across the mainstream Toyota and luxury Lexus line-ups.
Efficiency is the goal, and the ES300h achieves it. No matter how small the engine, big cars tend to drink heavily in the city. But over a mix of city and highway driving, we recorded fuel economy as low as 5.0L/100km, with an absolute worst of 6.5L/100km in the hands of our lead-footed photographer. That’s remarkable for such a big car. It’s better than most hatchbacks can manage.
Of course, the ES doesn’t ride or handle like a little hatch. It’s far more dignified than that.
Despite the 19-inch alloy wheels that come standard on the ES F Sport, it does an excellent job isolating the driver from bumps at low speed. There’s no crashing over potholes or speed humps, because Lexus hasn’t gone all-out with an overly aggressive suspension to pretend the car is sporty.
Body control is surprisingly good, in spite of the comfortable suspension. The ES300 isn’t a wallowing barge, generally dealing with bumps in one smooth movement. The suspension is actually unique to the F Sport and is an adaptive set-up, but it's never less than polite and refined, regardless of drive mode.
Given plenty of Lexus sedan drivers operate airport transfer businesses, it should come as no surprise to hear it’s also a relaxed long-haul cruiser. The hybrid powertrain leans more heavily on its electric motor at low speed, but the ES is still impressively parsimonious at a cruise.
It's also impressively quiet, with the roar from the tyres and rustle from the wing mirrors muted to a gentle background hum.
The steering is well judged, given the traditional Lexus buyer profile. It’s slower and heavier than some of the razor-sharp systems to which we’ve become accustomed, but that’s in keeping with the car’s relaxed demeanour.
It’s light enough for one-handed parking, although the car’s long bonnet and high window line make it tough to know where the edges of the vehicle hide. Thankfully, the surround-view camera is clear and has dynamic guidelines at both ends.
You also get parking sensors, low-speed autonomous emergency braking, rear cross-traffic alert, pedestrian warnings, and blind-spot monitoring to warn of impending low-speed harm.
As the speed rises you get radar cruise control, autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, lane-keeping assist, and lane-departure warning to help.
The ES300h is well thought out inside with lots of lush materials, as you’d expect of a large Lexus sedan. The driver and passenger perch in heated and F Sport seats trimmed in waxy-feeling faux leather, and the chubby steering wheel is lovely to hold.
It smells and feels pricier than its $73,755 before on-roads price tag would suggest, save for a tinny piece of plastic dashboard trim to the right-hand side of the steering wheel.
But it isn’t perfect. The high-resolution 12.3-inch infotainment screen is controlled by a finicky touchpad, and still requires too much of the driver’s attention to operate on the move.
It packs the same features as its German rivals on paper, packing Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, digital radio, and navigation with traffic updates – but the latest technology from Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi utterly murder it for usability.
Unfortunately, our tester didn’t feature the software update for smartphone mirroring, so we couldn’t test it for ourselves.
At least the instrument display is sharp, and the LFA-style sliding tachometer ring is achingly cool. The Mark Levinson sound system, part of the Enhancement Pack ($4000) on our car, is excellent as well.
We lauded Lexus for making the new ES look athletic from the outside at launch, but the sloping roof line – not to mention the small sunroof up front – undermine the interior practicality.
My head almost touches the roof lining with the driver’s seat dropped as low as possible, which can make things feel a bit claustrophobic. At least the seat and electrically adjustable steering wheel are endlessly adjustable, so taller drivers can stretch out and relax.
It’s a similar story in the rear, where six-footers will struggle for head room despite the scalloped roof lining. At six-seven, my head is wedged into the roof back there. What price fashion?
It’s a shame, because the ES otherwise offers plenty of leg and elbow room, along with a soft fold-down armrest and storage bin. Boot space is 473L.
Although it doesn’t match the five-year warranty offered in mainstream Toyota products, the four-year, 100,000km coverage offered on the Lexus range is still better than what you get from its luxury rivals.
The ES300h slots into an interesting part of the car market. It has the dimensions to take on cars like the BMW 5 Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class, but it’s priced to go head-to-head with a low-end 3 Series.
It’s furnished with an F Sport badge and looks poised for action, but has an interior that’ll make the members of your local lawn bowls club jealous. Although this isn't the insult it once would have been, there's no denying this shares its bones with the humble Toyota Camry, too.
Despite that, there’s no question the ES300h is an excellent cruiser that knows exactly what it’s trying to do. But unless you’re particularly enamoured with the way it looks in this specific trim, it’s hard to see the point of opting for the F Sport.
Why pretend to be sporty when you’re this good at being comfy?