They're siblings from different mothers, but is the premium commanded by the Lexus ES300h justified against its twin-under-the-skin, the Toyota Camry SL hybrid?
It’s a question we sometimes get asked: Why opt for the Lexus ES300h hybrid sedan when the Toyota Camry hybrid is not only much cheaper than its cross-town cousin, but also essentially the same car beneath the surface?
To try and answer that, we’ve taken the top-of-the-range models of each to see how much luxury Lexus crams into its hybrid sedan, and whether the Toyota Camry is actually worthy of being considered in the same breath as its premium-badged sibling.
It’s an interesting comparison, the two cars sharing Toyota’s New Global Architecture (TNGA) GA-K platform supporting identical hybrid/petrol drivetrains.
Externally, there’s no hiding the upmarket Lexus and the mass-market Camry are from the same family.
Dimensionally similar, the ES300h is fractionally larger in all key dimensions (bar height where it and the Camry sit at the same 1445mm), with remarkably similar silhouettes.
It’s really only the external trimmings – wheels, grille, badging and some design flourishes – that set them apart visually.
With a price disparity that could pay for another new car to sit alongside the Camry in the garage, the question then is, how much luxury and prestige has Lexus crammed into the ES300h?
Pricing and features
It’ll come as no surprise there is a price disparity between the two contenders. Lexus is, after all, the luxury arm of Toyota, and as such commands a premium over its crosstown sibling.
The Lexus ES300h range consists of three variants starting with the ES300 Luxury at $62,525 plus on-road costs before stepping into the F Sport at $71,500 and topping out with the car we have on this comparison, the Lexus ES300h Sports Luxury at $77,000 (plus on roads).
The Toyota Camry SL hybrid on test here is priced at $42,790 plus on-road costs, exactly $34,210 more affordable than its Lexus cousin.
For context, that circa-$34K saving could buy you a new Toyota 86 GT to park alongside your new Camry, or, if you prefer, another Camry hybrid from the range, with both the entry-level Ascent ($31,790) and mid-spec Ascent Sport ($33,790) coming in under the price differential.
As is the Toyota/Lexus way, there are no options to be had for either car, other than a lick of premium paint. Our Lexus wore a $1500 coat of Deep Blue, while the Camry sported a $500 Feverish Red metallic finish.
As-tested prices for both? The Lexus weighs in at $78,500, while the Camry asks for $43,290, both plus on-road costs. In other words, what you see is what you get. And, as their respective range-toppers, there’s plenty of equipment, tech and creature comforts for your money.
Standard inclusions for both include 18-inch alloys (wrapped in the same-size 235/45R18 rubber), LED daytime running lights, leather-accented interiors, electrically adjustable front seats (14-way for the Lexus, against the Camry’s eight-way, both with memory function), keyless entry and start, and a moonroof.
A full suite of safety tech is on board, including lane-departure warning, adaptive cruise control, autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert.
The Lexus comes equipped with the tri-zone climate control, while the Camry makes do with dual-zone air. The Lexus is alone in offering a heated steering wheel.
Both carry a five-star ANCAP rating, the Camry’s awarded in 2017, while the ES300h earned its badge in 2018 with a score of 91 per cent for adult occupant protection, 86 per cent for child occupant protection and 90 per cent for vulnerable road user protection.
Those breakdowns are not available for the Camry, which was tested under earlier criteria. Although, it should be noted it scored an impressive 36.16 out of 37 points overall when tested in 2017.
|Toyota Camry SL hybrid||Lexus ES300h Sports Luxury|
|Engine||2.5-litre 4-cylinder petrol-hybrid||2.5-litre 4-cylinder petrol-hybrid|
|Power and torque||131kW @ 5700rpm, 221Nm @ 3600–5200rpm (petrol)88kW/202Nm (electric) 160kW (combined)||131kW @ 5700rpm, 221Nm @ 3600–5200rpm (petrol)88kW/202Nm (electric) 160kW (combined)|
|Transmission||Continuously variable||Continuously variable|
|Drive type||Front-wheel drive||Front-wheel drive|
|Fuel claim combined (ADR)||4.5L/100km||4.8L/100km|
|Fuel use on test||5.2L/100km||5.5L/100km|
|Boot volume (rear seats up / down)||524L / NA||454L / NA|
|ANCAP safety rating||5 stars (tested 2017)||5 stars (tested 2018)|
|Warranty||5 years / unlimited km||4 years / 100,000km|
|Main competitors||Honda Accord VTi-LX Hybrid||BMW 330e, Mercedes-Benz C300e, Volvo S60 T8 R-Design|
|Price as tested (ex on-road costs)||$42,790 / $43,290 as tested||$77,000 / $78,500 as tested|
Infotainment and tech
Historically, no-one could accuse Toyota or Lexus of being early adopters when it comes to infotainment, the Japanese brands eschewing smartphone mirroring for what seemed like eons. The good news is, both have now jumped on board the Apple CarPlay/Android Auto wagon, technology that remains the standard bearer for its ease of use and functionality.
The two share plenty of commonality in terms of features found in their respective native infotainment systems. Inbuilt satellite navigation with SUNA live traffic updates, DAB+ radio, Bluetooth connectivity, a CD player (although the Lexus’s doubles as a DVD player), wireless phone charging, three USB points, and an auxiliary jack are shared across both models.
However, where they differ is in functionality. The Toyota presents its information via an 8.0-inch colour touchscreen which, despite an ageing-looking user interface, is both practical and functional as well as easy to navigate.
The ES300h scores a much bigger colour screen – 12.3 inches – but it’s served via inputs from an array of shortcut buttons and a touchpad that operates much in the same way as the mousepad on your laptop. These are housed in the centre console, within easy reach, although the pad can be overly sensitive to inputs, meaning you often skip menu items.
We did find, though, that after an extended period using the system (we had the Lexus ES300h in the CarAdvice garage on a long-term loan) you get used to that sensitivity and adjust your inputs accordingly. It remains, however, a not altogether pleasing user experience, especially when technology like touchscreens, or a simple rotary dial, are readily available.
Additionally, the Lexus overdelivers in terms of infotainment content, the array of menus and sub-menus almost overwhelming.
The Toyota’s system might not have the same impressive stance on the dash, but it’s simpler and more intuitive to use.
Both cars come equipped with a head-up driver display that displays information onto the windscreen. But whereas the Camry’s is rudimentary covering the basics, the Lexus offers a richer experience to the way it presents information, projecting current speed, speed limit, and navigation information, all configurable to taste via a sub-menu in the instrument cluster. You can have as little or as much as you'd like.
The Lexus scores a big win over the Camry, as you’d expect considering the price disparity, in sound clarity. While the Camry offers decent sound through its standard six-speaker audio system, the ES300h trumps its cousin with a premium 17-speaker Mark Levinson surround-sound system that offers a rich and deep audio quality.
And yet, while the Lexus’s system is richer in detail and presentation, it’s the Camry’s more humble integration that offers a better user experience.
Lashings of leather, an abundance of soft-touch materials, plenty of space, clever ergonomics, all hallmarks of a luxury brand like Lexus. And they’re there in the ES300h Sports Luxury, making you feel every bit like you’re sitting in a car with a price tag close to $80,000.
But, those features are also conspicuous by their presence in the top-flight Toyota Camry.
This generation of Camry cast off a good deal of its dowdy image when it was released locally in late 2017. As well as its sleeker external design, this new-generation Camry received a much-needed interior makeover.
While its sculpted dash and centre console integration might not be to everyone’s taste, there is a pleasing aesthetic to the way everything works together. The touchscreen is nicely housed in the dash, and within easy reach even when on the move.
There are plenty of yielding surfaces that add a touch of premium. The seats are finished in leather, and perforated to allow for seat cooling.
The ES300h Sports Luxury is easily recognisable as the more premium of the pair, certainly from inside the cabin, where quality materials abound. Soft-touch surfaces are everywhere, and while the real bamboo accents polarise opinion, they do lend the cabin a pleasant ambience.
The Lexus scores seat heating in both the front and outboard seats on the second rows, where the Camry goes without this function, while the two front seats also offer ventilation – great on a hot summer’s day.
A moonroof is standard across both family haulers, lending a nice airy feel to their respective cabins.
The battle of the second rows is an easy win to the ES300h, both in terms of presentation and space. Thanks to its slightly larger dimensions over the Camry, including a slightly stretched wheelbase, there is an abundance of space in the Lexus’s back row, a comfortable surrounding even for long-haul trips.
The seatbacks recline electrically to offer even more comfort. Additionally, there are separate climate controls back there as well as USB points and a 12V plug for keeping devices topped up. Window screens adorn the side windows, while an electric rear window screen can be raised or lowered as desired to offer both privacy and protection from the sun.
That’s not to say the Camry suffers. It too offers decent room for rear seat occupants, but it’s in the second row where the Lexus’s premium-ness is amplified. There are air vents in the Camry’s second row, but no climate controls, while the seats themselves are nowhere near as plush or luxuriant. They do, however, fold down in 60:40 split fashion, something the Lexus doesn’t offer.
And that carries through to the boot space where the Camry outranks the Lexus by a good margin. Even with the second row in use by passengers, the Camry is rated at 524L, easily outflanking the ES300h’s 454L. And while Toyota doesn’t quote a capacity with the second row folded away, it’s an immediate win for the Camry. Both cars are equipped with a space-saver spare under the boot floor.
Overall, the Camry’s cabin presents well. With thoughtful design and a decent array of material, this top-spec hybrid Camry certainly looks the part. Comfortable and spacious, the Camry’s interior does a good job of rising above its past and the nameplate’s mass-market segment.
But, there’s no hiding the genuine luxury inside the ES300h Sports Luxury. From the use of materials, and the solid feel to the way everything is put together, the Lexus shines by almost every subjective measure against the Camry.
Under the bonnet is where the Lexus and Toyota can lay claim to being fraternal twins. Both are powered by the same 2.5-litre petrol/hybrid four-cylinder engine sending drive to the front wheels via a continuously variable transmission.
Outputs are rated equally, too, with 131kW at 5700rpm and 221Nm between 3600–5200rpm. Complementing the petrol engine is an 88kW/202Nm permanent magnet electric motor fed by a 204-cell nickel-metal hydride battery. When working in tandem, the petrol engine and electric motor combine for a total of 160kW.
Unsurprisingly, the drive experience is eerily similar. Both cars can run on pure-electric motivation at low city speeds, their respective makers claiming speeds up to 40km/h. The reality we found, however, is that the petrol engine will kick in usually at around the 33–35km/h mark. That’s still decent, and anyone who spends a lot of time crawling through peak-hour traffic will be grateful for the smooth and silent running as they edge inexorably towards their destination.
Around town, the combination of petrol and hybrid power works seamlessly, the switch between the two sources of energy hardly felt in the cabin. And with judicious throttle application, both the ES300h and Camry are capable of coasting at highway speeds for short bursts, helping not only with fuel consumption, but also with regenerating energy to the battery array.
And that’s part of the appeal of this closed hybrid system: the simple ease of use without the need to plug in and recharge the battery every night as you would with a plug-in hybrid. It’s fair to say this is why Toyota especially is selling as many hybrid variants across its entire range as it can bring into the country.
In terms of performance, it’s hard to split the pair. Neither are performance cars, nor do they pretend to be. But certainly, around town there is enough pep from the drivetrain to help propel the medium-to-large sedans with effortless ease. So, too, on the highway, where hitting cruising speed comes easily and, once there, easily maintained without over-stressing the drivetrain.
The continuously variable transmission works well in both cars, providing the right amount of power and torque surge as required by the situation. Neither displayed the drone-like characteristics sometimes associated with a CVT, with Toyota's e-CVT a little different in its implementation to a 'traditional' CVT, instead offering smooth and quiet transitions.
Both cars come equipped with paddle-shifters as well as selectable drive modes – Eco, Comfort and Sport – but we feel this is a little gimmicky in vehicles of this type. The default setting is Comfort, and leave it there is our suggestion.
Of course, the reason hybrids are becoming increasingly popular is for the low fuel-consumption figures they bring to the table, saving buyers money at the bowser. And here, both the Lexus and Camry shine.
Toyota claims the Camry SL hybrid will require 4.5L/100km of 95RON premium unleaded on the combined cycle. Our extensive testing over a week and covering the same road loops returned an indicated 5.2L/100km. That testing loop encompassed city driving in traffic, a free-flowing stint in the suburbs, an extended highway cruise, and a climb up – and subsequent return down – the Blue Mountains.
Interestingly, the Camry started the long and winding ascent up the Great Western Highway showing an indicated 5.6L/100km. By the time the summit had been reached that had climbed to 5.7L, not exactly an energy-sapping experience. The return trip saw that number drop to 5.4L/100km at the bottom of the Mountain, before dropping even further to 5.2L by the time the Camry was back in its regular city environs.
It was a similar tale of the tape with the Lexus ES300h. Lexus, for its part, claims a combined-cycle figure of 4.8L/100km. Why slightly higher than the Camry? That would account for the extra weight the Lexus is carrying, 1740kg against the Camry’s 1635kg kerb.
Covering the same test loop, the Lexus returned an indicated 5.5L/100km and it, like the Camry, offered similar numbers for ascending and descending, starting the climb up the Blue Mountains at 5.6L/100km, climbing to 5.9L at the top before dropping to 5.7 at the foot of the mountains and easing back into its regular 5.5L/100km.
Easy, then, to see the appeal of hybrid motivation.
On the road
The ES300h’s road manners are as you would expect of a luxury car asking close to $80K before on-roads – impeccable. There’s a suppleness to the way it sits on the road and handles most obstacles in its path. Whether the tiny expansion joints so common on our roadways, the pock-marked acne scars of badly maintained tarmac or the proliferation of speed humps designed to slow us down ever more frequently, the Lexus simply remains unflustered.
And it remains eerily quiet in the cabin, and not just because of the lack of engine noise at slow city speeds. Instead, Lexus has done a superb job of sound-deadening, and that translates to a serene cabin that feels every bit the premium dollar asked of its price tag. It feels, in a word, plush.
And while the Lexus does not purport to be anything other than it is, the near five-metre-long sedan is surprisingly adept at attacking some corners with a bit of gusto, remaining flat and composed. That’s partly down to the MacPherson struts up front and multi-link rear suspension underpinning the ES300h.
The Camry, too, remains adept at cornering, although while MacPherson struts do the work up front under the Toyota, it’s a double-wishbone set-up at the rear that simply doesn’t offer the same level of refinement as Lexus’s multi-link.
And that’s borne out on the road, with the Camry, while good, feeling just a little harsher than its premium cousin. That’s not to say the Camry’s ride is bad, far from it, but if we’re looking for differences, then it’s here under wheel where they are most pronounced.
In short, the Camry’s ride is good, the Lexus’s great.
Inside the cabin, the Camry offers a similar level of serenity, although its noise-deadening isn’t at the same level as the ES300h’s. But, again, don’t be put off because the Camry still manages to remain quiet inside, just not as quiet.
Toyota covers the Camry with its standard five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty. That trumps Lexus’s four-year/100,000km offer by a long way. Keep your servicing on time to logbook standards and Toyota adds an extra two years of engine and driveline coverage, and up to five years of hybrid battery coverage (applied with an annual battery health check).
The fraternal twins share 15,000km/12-month service intervals, with Toyota asking $200 each for the first five years of scheduled servicing.
Lexus doesn’t let owners off so lightly, the first three scheduled trips to the workshop costing $595 a pop under Lexus's capped-price guarantee. But, there are some perks, Lexus alone in offering a concierge service, where it will pick up your car for its visit to the workshop and leave you with a loan car.
Lexus is alone in offering roadside assistance for the warranty period, but Toyota will spring for towing and hire car costs where applicable.
This is a tricky decision. On paper, there’s little to differentiate this pair, both offering very similar levels of equipment and technology in a package underpinned by the same platform and drivetrain.
If fuel economy is your primary motivation, then the Camry uses a smidgeon less than its slightly heavier Lexus counterpart. But we’re talking fractions of a litre over a distance of 100km, so it's negligible.
You could make a case that the Lexus’s slightly better ride characteristics give it the edge over the Toyota, but the differences aren’t so pronounced.
And what price do you place on luxury? How do you even measure luxury? Yes, the Lexus’s execution is a cut above that of the Camry, certainly inside the cabin where everything from the material used to the comfort of the individual seats and the level of appointments mark it out as a luxury car. Again, the Camry isn’t bad inside, in fact it’s very good, but the Lexus is undeniably luxury writ in large letters on the side of a mountain.
As co-tester Trent Nikolic pointed out in his summation, the reality is a Lexus buyer is unlikely to ever be convinced to step into a Toyota, while someone on a Camry budget, even a top-spec Camry like this one, is unlikely to want to spend around $34,000 more for a Lexus.
So what would we do? The sensible option is the Camry, and then maybe use the savings to buy a fun car, and to keep it in the family, a Toyota 86 GT.
But, if you must have that almost intangible feeling of luxury and refinement, then the Lexus ES300h Sports Luxury delivers on the promise shown in its name.
This comparison was a really interesting one to be part of. Primarily, because both vehicles are so competent in the way they translate their hybrid drivetrains to real-world efficiency. Sedans of this size that are as frugal as these two are undoubtedly the way of the future. It was also interesting, though, because it ultimately comes down to a badge showdown – with money the main generator of which way you lean.
The Lexus is better (or perhaps more proficient) in key areas like ride comfort and cabin insulation. It should be, though, given the disparity in price. So, on one hand, we can argue that the Toyota is more affordable – read, better value for money – but on the other hand, we can argue that the Lexus raises the bar along with its raised price. Therefore, justifying that higher price tag.
Rob's point about opting for the Toyota and parking an 86 in the garage next to it with the change is a good one. It makes more sense than you might think on face value, and gets you a second run-around into the bargain. Plus, the Camry is so good you're not missing out on enough to feel like you're, well, missing out. Smart buyers take note. Your weekend track car is sorted. It's a tempting theory.
Truth be told, you probably won't ever coax a Lexus buyer back into a Toyota badge anyway, and in that sense, the Lexus does everything expected of it, with comfort, class, quality and refinement. Whether you choose Camry or ES, you'll be a satisfied owner.
One thing is for sure, though – Toyota well and truly has the jump on the market with clever (what we call closed loop) hybrid technology. The execution of the drivetrain, the way in which electric and internal combustion engines work together, the link between engine and gearbox, and the way it's all laid out, are second to none.
Cars will get more efficient as we move to full electric, but right now, for the majority of Australians, hybrids make the most sense. And Toyota/Lexus hybrids are the best of the bunch.