What can I say about Lexus ES’ that hasn’t already been said countless times before, other than it’s a front-wheel drive, mid-size, premium-branded anomaly that’s managed to weather regular storms of negative driving dynamics criticism and come out shining as a top seller in its field?
Of course, there really isn’t much else directly in its field to compare it to other than Lincoln’s MKZ or the front-drive Acura RLX. Alternatively we could look down market into mainstream volume brands in order to face it off against its own platform-sharing Toyota Avalon or others like Buick’s LaCrosse, Chevrolet’s Impala, Chrysler’s 300, Dodge’s Charger, Ford’s Taurus, Hyundai’s Azera, Kia’s Cadenza, or Nissan’s Maxima.
The major differentiator in this class is this electrified 300h that brought Toyota’s storied Hybrid Synergy Drive to the mid-size luxury class in 2012 (a year after the MKZ Hybrid), but even this is now old news in the premium sector thanks to much more advanced plug-in hybrids from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and the like. And after all is said and done, most luxury buyers will look for their hybrid (or non-hybrid) fix in the SUV segment where Lexus’ own NX 300h utilizes the identical drivetrain in a more popular and more utile body style.
To get a clearer understanding of all this, let’s take a look at sales. Unfortunately Lexus doesn’t report hybrid numbers separately, other than the dedicated CT 200h, but lumps them in with their conventionally powered equivalents, so we’re left to guess that hybrids sell at similar percentages of total sales from model to model. Lexus sold 58,299 ES models in America last year, a far cry from the 82,867 purveyed in 2007 yet better than the 40,873 delivered in 2011. The NX hasn’t been around that long, but its sales have steadily grown from 43,764 in 2015 to 54,884 last year. What’s more, after three quarters of 2017 the NX has found 41,987 new owners, so it looks like it’s on schedule for another record year, whereas the ES’ has only managed to lure in 39,075 buyers, which could result in a new low. Then again, compared to the 20,944 MKZs sold over the same nine months, the ES is all roses.
As for which vehicle matters more in the market, the numbers speak for themselves. To be clear, these sales totals in no way reflect which model is better or worse, but rather have everything to do with a near universal shunning of four-door sedans and adoption of crossover SUVs, other than a few exceptions like BMW’s 3 Series and Mercedes’ C-, E- and S-Classes in the premium sector and Toyota’s Corolla, Honda’s Civic, and Hyundai’s Elantra among mainstream brands.
The sad reality is this 2017 ES is the best of its kind ever, and while halfway through the second year of its sixth-generation facelift, it’s still worthy of much higher sales than it’s getting, that is if anyone under 60 were interested. We’ll likely never know if its traditionally conservative clientele has been rubbed the wrong way by the model’s adoption of Lexus’ avant-garde styling or if its drop in popularity is just a sign of the times, but a quick rundown of those “competitors” mentioned earlier shows a similar downward trajectory for the Avalon, Azera, Cadenza, Impala, LaCrosse, and Taurus, plus the MKZ mentioned earlier, whereas the 300 is steady and the Charger and Maxima are actually gaining ground.
As far as mid-size front-wheel drive sedans go, I find the ES 300h attractive from front to back. Its spindle grille, Nike swoosh driving lights and chromed apostrophe-squiggle fog lamp bezels are big bonuses in my opinion, giving the car a more daring façade than its inner personality deserves, while its rear end design, with its subtle deck lid spoiler overtop gracefully understated LED taillights and lovely lower body diffuser/undertray, is as pretty as its backside has ever been.
Inside, the ES 300h combines high-grade furnishings with low-rung hard shell plastics, some top-tier switchgear with others pulled up from the Toyota parts bin, some old-school glossy albeit real woodgrain trim next to nice looking metallic surfaces, albeit often hollow and plasticky, and one decent electronic interface with another that simply shouldn’t show its face in the premium class, making my earlier comparison to the many mainstream volume-branded players quite fair. The ES raises its game over these in some respects, but falls below some in others.
Under the “What’s new for 2017” column, all ES 300h trims get standard rain-sensing wipers and Lexus’ Safety System, the latter package adding auto high beams, dynamic cruise control with emergency autonomous braking, lane departure warning, and lane keeping assist. You’ll need to spend more for blindspot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, but this is hardly uncommon in any class.
The new features give the conventionally powered ES 350 a best-possible IIHS Top Safety Pick Plus rating when its optional twin projector Bi-LED headlamps are included (the ES 300h has yet to be fully tested, but is likely the same). It comes standard with LED low beams and less advanced high beams, which at least include the aforementioned automatic capability.
The rest of the $41,820 base model’s standard kit features items like LED DRLs, LED fog lamps, LED taillights, proximity access with pushbutton ignition, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, dual-zone auto climate control, an 8.0-inch infotainment touchscreen, a rearview camera with dynamic guidelines, eight-speaker audio with satellite and HD radio, NuLuxe breathable pleather upholstery, 10-way powered front seats, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a garage door opener, a powered moonroof, all the expected active and passive safety gear including airbags for both front occupants’ knees, rear seat side thorax airbags, and much more.
The standard 17-inch alloys look a bit small for such a large car, but 18s are available. What’s more, my tester included a Luxury Package with perforated leather upholstery, genuine hardwood trim, a powered tilt and telescoping steering column, driver’s memory, plus heatable and ventilated front seats; a Navigation package with voice activation, GPS route guidance and detailed mapping, Enform app suite and destination assist, a fuel guide, sports and stocks info, Gracenote, and Lexus’ older joystick-style infotainment controller; plus yet more features such as a heatable wood-trimmed steering wheel rim, front and rear parking sensors, semi-autonomous self parking, plus the blindspot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert noted earlier.
Additional options can include LED high beams, ambient LED interior lighting, power-extendable thigh support adjustment for the driver’s seat, front passenger seat memory, a 15-speaker Mark Levinson audio upgrade, an in-dash DVD player, retractable sunshades for the rear side windows, a powered rear sunshade, a powered trunk lid, and more.
That trunk is significantly reduced in volume over the conventionally powered ES, from 15.2 cubic feet in the latter to just 342 cubic feet, while there’s no rear seat pass-through as offered with competitors. This said it swallows up two golf bags, so it’s primary duty is well served. On the opposite end of the size spectrum the rear seating area is roomy and comfortable, an ES trait, but don’t expect to be treated to highfalutin convenience features like additional climate controls, heatable outboard seats, and the like. You’ll need to move “up” to one of the previously noted volume branded competitors for these, as no such rear passenger pampering is available in the ES 300h, just inherently good seat design and loads of legroom.
The front seats are roomy too, but the driver’s seat lumbar support only moves in and out, not up and down, so if it doesn’t fit the small of your back you’re out of luck. It rests a bit high for me, while the seat squab is a bit short too, this particularly odd being that I’m only five foot eight. For these reasons I was unable to get fully comfortable, but as just noted an extension for the lower cushion is available. Worse, the power tilt and telescoping steering doesn’t telescope far enough to reach my hands when the seat is in the ideal position for my legs and feet. Therefore when my hands were at the safest 9 and 3 o’clock position my arms were too extended, which is hardly ideal. This car obviously fits a lot of peoples’ body types, as its sales have always been quite strong, but for me it just doesn’t work at all.
My last point of irritation has to do with the sharp plastic edging on the left-side stalk, where you twist the headlights on and off. I’ve never noticed this before so it may be a new problem, but it feels like the plastic extrusion isn’t finished properly and therefore uncomfortably chafes on the fingers. Fortunately, when set to auto the stalk lines up perfectly with its other half, so it’s best left this way and forgotten.
While I’m not enamored with its ergonomics I really like the ES’ interior design, especially the way the high-quality contrast-stitched leatherette flows over the primary gauges and across the lower edge of the dash top, the unique pewter color of the metallic accents, all the rich woods throughout, and the pièce de résistance, a particularly nice looking analog clock (although I still think Lexus should do a cross-branding deal with Seiko for its dash clock, using something from the Conceptual and/or Premier lines for lower range models, one a little nicer from its Prospex, Presage or SAR series for mid-range models—a SARB065/SARY0075 “Cocktail Time” in the GS and SARB017 Alpinist in the GX would be ideal—plus maybe an Astron for the LS, LX and LC, with the option of a Grand Seiko in top trims).
If only the infotainment system was a user-friendlier touchscreen like the Avalon’s. As it is, the joystick controller mentioned a moment ago is an unnecessary challenge to deal with, despite the input buttons that were added to each side for its second-gen redesign. The newer touchpad is an improvement, and the more common rotating dial selectors used by competitors better yet, but most of us are most familiar with touchscreens from smartphone use, so why reinvent the proverbial wheel when brands like Volvo are winning tech awards by simply stuffing a big tablet into their dashboard?
Lexus does use a rotating dial for its drive mode selector, a left twist resulting in Eco mode, a flick to the right initiating Sport mode, and a push bringing it back to default Normal mode. There’s also a button for turning off traction control, but other than when trying to get unstuck from a snowbank I don’t recommend you play around with this. It’s not like it’s going to give you a performance advantage with a front-wheel drivetrain like the ES 300h. Instead, Eco mode will be most peoples’ choice with this hybrid, the EV mode button right alongside a much more intriguing prospect.
Then again, like with all Toyota/Lexus hybrid drivetrains EV mode has more of a placebo effect than anything usable. It can provide momentary all-electric propulsion in extremely slow conditions like stop and go rush hour traffic or dawdling through a parking lot, but as soon as the car nears 12 mph the engine whirs into action and so much for emissions-free driving. And that’s if EV mode comes on at all, with most of my attempts resulting in a message saying it’s not available. Nevertheless, the ES 300h is a very efficient luxury car with an EPA estimate of 40 mpg in the city, 39 on the highway and 40 combined, not bad when put up against the hardly thirsty gasoline-only ES 350 that manages 21 mpg city, 30 highway and 24 combined.
Most won’t experience much of a performance drawback either. I say most because the majority of hybrid owners don’t run their cars ragged (although their teenaged key-borrowers might). Rather, they should be quite happy with the combined 200-horsepower available from the 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder and electric motor duo, this being one of Lexus’ more docile pairings that’s made more so by the efficient continuously variable transmission driving the front wheels. The battery pack is an old-school nickel metal hydride (NiMH) unit, not noted for its cradle-to-grave environmental cleanliness. Nickel cobalt manganese lithium-ion (NCM) batteries are better, and iron phosphate lithium-ion (LFP) better yet, but due to cost, size and safety issues (Toyota feels they’re less stable than NiMH batteries despite others using them for nearly a decade) the Japanese automaker hasn’t embraced Li-ion battery tech yet.
Environmental issues aside, the ES 300h is a seriously smooth operator. From its easy-going powertrain to its ultra-comfortable suspension, this is a car that provides ample comfort to all occupants. It’s serenely quiet too, which could almost cause a person to not even bother putting it through its performance paces. That would be a mistake, because its prowess through corners will likely surprise, albeit while managing corners fairly well this is no sport sedan. For this reason Lexus doesn’t waste funds on steering wheel paddle shifters, but rather gives you a regular shift lever for manual mode if you choose to use it. I find the CVT best left to its own devices. Keep in mind the internal combustion portion of its electrified powertrain can get a bit buzzy at full throttle, so I recommend maintaining low revs and just enjoying its mellow, relaxed demeanor.
While it’s easy to see I’m not in love with the ES 300h or its ES 350 partner, I can understand why someone who fits into its driver’s seat might appreciate it more. Few cars deliver as much prestige, luxury and comfort for $42k, while I reiterate its exterior and interior styling is very attractive and fuel economy excellent for the class. If I were considering something in this category I’d also want to drive the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid, or possibly an HEV from some of the lesser brands noted before. Some even include plug-in capability, which when combined with a top trim line can make for a much more efficient yet hardly less luxurious experience.
Lexus should be commended for its overall brand reliability, however, having tied with Porsche in the most recent J.D. Power and Associates 2017 Vehicle Dependability Study, in which the ES was the highest-ranked “Compact Car”, albeit why it was classified as such is anyone’s guess. Additionally, in Vincentric’s Best Value in America Awards cost of ownership analysis the ES 300h was singled out in the “Luxury Hybrid” class, so like I said a moment ago, if it fits your body type and lifestyle, the Lexus ES 300h is a good bet.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press Copyright: American Auto Press Inc.