Some of my fondest memories as a kid were family road trips. It seems ironic to make this comment now, but travel (by plane) wasn’t as easy – or affordable – back then as it is now. Well, certainly not up until about March 2020, anyway.
So, in lieu of a cheap air ticket to wherever you were going, your parents would drive to said destination. You had to be pretty inventive to while away the hours, too, without iPads, Kindles and portable DVD players. Come to think of it, the rich kids (or the kids without ethnic overlord fathers anyway) had Nintendo Game Boys.
I digress. Back to the road trip, usually taking in all the small country towns along the way. Bypasses were as common as cheap airfares come to think of it, and as such, a trip from Sydney to Melbourne used to take a hell of a lot longer than it does now, but you’d also get to stop in at a bunch of little towns as you passed right through them.
Rewind back to that period from the mid-’80s to the mid ’90s, then, and another factor is also true – just about everyone was driving a medium or large sedan. Unless you were a farmer in a work truck, or a 4WD explorer in a LandCruiser or Patrol, you’d be in a sedan with mum and dad. Medium SUVs? Hadn’t even been thought of yet. Small hatchbacks? You’d see people driving them, but not many once you got out of town. Commodore, Falcon, Cressida, Bluebird, Camry, Magna – that was the metal you’d see in plentiful supply.
In fact, if you’ve got a road trip story from your childhood, let us know in the comment section below. We’d love to read them.
Fast-forward to 2020, and while dual-cabs and SUVs now rule the roads, medium and large sedans certainly didn’t fall out of favour because they became untenable as a road trip conveyance. Tastes have changed, sure, but the qualities that always made sense once you got out of town, still make medium and large sedans an attractive road trip candidate.
That’s why we decided to point our long-term 2020 Lexus ES300h Sports Luxury in the direction of the NSW Riverina for the annual run to visit family and friends, and load the boot up with local citrus, wine and beer.
On paper, the ES300h has everything you need for an effortless road trip. Comfort? Check. Space and storage? Check. A lazy, effortless engine? Check. A boot big enough to haul all the produce home? Check. I’ve written it plenty of times before, but you don’t need an SUV just because everyone else has one.
To recap, around town, no matter how silly we were or how heavy the traffic, the ES settled into an average of 5.8L/100km and stayed there. Almost unbelievable for a vehicle of its size and comfort.
The conventional element of the powertrain is smooth and easy – a 131kW/221Nm 2.5-litre four-cylinder naturally aspirated motor that is so refined, you feel like lifting the bonnet to check that it’s still there. Paired with an 88kW/202Nm electric motor, it's this more modern tech that brings the efficiency gain.
As we found around town, the CVT works beautifully with the power unit, with a combined 160kW output, and transitions wonderfully between petrol, electric or a combination of both – and that stays true on the open road as well as around town.
We left Sydney with a three-quarter-full and only had to refuel at Temora on the way out. A full 50-litre tank showed an 800km range, and for part of the journey the fuel use dropped as low as 5.5L/100km, before settling in at 5.6L/100km and didn’t budge from there. That’s proper miserly on the open road between 100km/h and 110km/h.
BY Lexus' own offical reckoning the ES300h should use 4.8L/100km in mixed-cycle driving, and 4.7L/100km on the highway.
Even the most ardent hybrid supporter has to concede highway cruising isn’t a hybrid’s best showing, and yet the ES returned a real-world number that would give even the most efficient turbo-diesel medium SUVs a nudge. Sydney to Griffith and back is approximately a 1200km run, and to only have to fill the ES once is impressive.
On the highway, the ES rolls along luxuriously and quietly. There’s little to no road noise entering the cabin, and you can simply sit back and enjoy the cruise. Thanks to the addition (finally) of smartphone mirroring, you can dial up your favourite podcast, Spotify or music library with ease as well.
Crucially, while Toyota might be late to the party, and hasn’t always led the way with infotainment, when it does come to the party, the system works, and works reliably. I’d argue that’s more important than rushing out with a system that doesn’t work. So, kudos there.
There are elements of the infotainment system that are a little harder to grasp, like the control pad, which isn’t an easy one to use on the fly, but you do get used to the menus and operating system the more you use it. Driver tech is well taken care of, too, and smaller touches like being able to monitor tyre pressure are handy on a long road trip.
Heated and cooled seats are a feature that every manufacturer should be offering, and on the particularly cold mornings out in the country, the heated seats are a real luxury. Our outboard second-row passengers loved their heated seats, too. Come summertime out in the Riverina, they would be loving the cooled front seats just as much.
On the subject of the second row, running around town four-up illustrates just how much room the ES has. And how much more comfortable it is in the second row than all but the biggest medium SUVs. There’s proper foot, knee, leg and head room for adults back there, along with power recline adjustment, so longer runs will be no problem at all.
Visibility from the driver’s seat is excellent, expansive facing forward as we head west, the most minimal blind spots you could hope for in any direction, and the broad adjustability in the seat means you can always get comfortable no matter how tall or short the driver might be.
The storage space in the cabin is nicely laid out, too, meaning you can accommodate all the odds and ends you jam into the car for a road trip without anything moving around the cabin. The boot is big at 473-litres, with more than enough space for luggage for four adults, or a big local-produce shopping run.
We liked the way the adaptive cruise control worked on the open road, too. Not all cruise-control systems are created equal, and the ES's system is a very good one. It holds speed accurately once you set it, regardless of whether you’re running down a steep hill or back up the other side. I don’t always love using cruise control, but I found myself using the Lexus's system for long periods on the drive.
Overtaking is effortless, and it’s also here where the extra boost from the hybrid system shows its hand. Not all CVTs work with the driver, but the near instantaneous punch you get when you call on the engine to work harder benefits by not having to search back through ratios. In fact, the ES feels pretty sharp when you nail the throttle. It makes overtaking trucks or scooting past a tractor a cinch – and safe.
The steering, which is light around town at city speed, doesn’t feel dull or floaty on the highway either. It’s precise and responsive, and the ES actually feels sportier than you might expect. It is a large sedan, and it’s not a lightweight either, but it feels sportier than it should.
The ride, as expected, is exceptionally resolved on any surface. Of all the positives, it’s probably the standout. Coarse-chip rutted and washed-out country roads can’t unsettle the sense of composure, and when it does take a hit, it settles quickly.
The Lexus ES300h is undoubtedly an inspired choice for a drive like this. And if your budget doesn’t stretch to the Lexus badge, you can always get into a hybrid Camry, which shares a driveline, but goes without some of the interior refinements. Sedans like the ES still make tremendous sense for a road trip, offering comfort and refinement few medium SUVs can match. The sedan’s days might not be done, just yet.