In years gone by, the Lexus ES was arguably just a dressed-up Toyota Camry. Is the sixth-generation model more worthy of its prestige badge?
Base price: $108,995
Powertrain and performance: 3.5-litre petrol V6, 204kW/346Nm, 6-speed automatic, front-drive, Combined economy 9.5 litres per 100km, 0-100km/h 7.4 seconds.
Vital statistics: 4900mm long, 1450mm high, luggage capacity 490 litres, fuel tank 65 litres, 17-inch alloy wheels on 215/55 tyres.
We like: Equipment, quality, refinement, value for money.
We don’t like: Staid styling, underwhelming chassis, infuriating Remote Touch Interface.
How it rates: 8/10
WHAT DO I NEED TO KNOW? The Lexus ES is back. Not that it ever really went away in a global sense; but Toyota decided to produce the fifth-generation model in left-hand drive only, which meant it was discontinued in New Zealand. The company has done an about-face with the sixth-gen version and decided to go global again, so the ES has returned in two models: the 350 petrol-V6 tested here and, for the first time, as a 300h hybrid (with a 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine). We’ll drive the petrol-electric version at a later date. As ever, the ES is being marketed as a ‘gateway’ model for the Lexus brand and is based on a Toyota front-drive platform to save costs (the IS, GS and LS are all rear-drive): this time around the donor-car is the American-market Avalon, which is a mainstream model similar to our Camry/Aurion. Thus, the ES is about the same size as the current GS (longer overall, but on a slightly shorter wheelbase) yet costs exactly the same as the much smaller IS model-for-model.
WHAT’S IT LIKE TO DRIVE? The ES carries no pretension about being sporting. There’s a token Sport setting for the powertrain on the centre console, but no sign of the F Sport specification or sophisticated adaptive chassis hardware offered on other large Lexus models. Bearing this in mind, the ES stands out for its brisk performance (it’s actually 100kg lighter than a GS with the same engine) and extraordinary refinement: the powertrain is never intrusive and there’s remarkably little road or wind noise. It’s old-school luxury in that respect – from a time when prestige cars didn’t compromise on refinement for the pursuit of a sporty character. There’s an excellent ride from the soft suspension and tiny-looking 17-inch wheels as well. The ES revels in being sedate rather than sexy; it’s quite likeable for this singular focus on comfort and refinement. Things start to unravel when you do have occasion to press on a bit. You could argue there’s a bit too much performance for the chassis, which is all-too-ready to lapse into understeer in fast corners. The steering is remote and the soft suspension is easily unsettled through bumpy corners when the pace picks up. None of this is unexpected or indeed disappointing. The ES presents as a car with luxury aspirations from the outset. Nothing more is promised or delivered.
IS IT EASY TO LIVE WITH? The ES interior embraces the same styling themes and equipment levels as larger, more expensive Lexus models. There are only the merest hints that this is more of a budget model – a little more hard plastic lower down on the dashboard than you’d find in a GS, for example. But it’s stuff you have to look pretty closely for. Lexus also has a few brand idiosyncrasies, which the ES picks up. One is the so-called Remote Touch Interface, which is a small controller for the information screen that operates in a very unusual way. Move the joystick and the on-screen cursor does not move with you, it simply jumps to the next icon in that direction. It must have seemed like a good idea on paper but it’s actually imprecise and infuriating. I’ve driven at least 10 Lexus models with this feature in the last year and I’ve never got the hang of it. Shame, when the rest of the car exudes such an air of quality and attention to detail. Our test car was the Limited model, which means a comprehensive suite of safety and luxury features. It has the Lexus pre-crash safety system, blind-spot warning, parking radar with guidance lines and satellite navigation. It’s upholstered in high-quality leather, with 10-way power seat adjustment and memory, heating and ventilation for the front chairs, a rear-seat comfort package that includes heat seating, window shades and even volume control for the Mark Levinson audio system. One prerequisite of luxury is space. The ES has a lot of that as well, both front and rear.
SHOULD I BUY ONE? Bearing in mind that the ES350 starts at just $80,995, this car represents an incredible amount of refinement, comfort and equipment (depending on model of course) for the money. The ES is still a bit of an orphan in the Lexus sedan range, of course: unlike the IS, GS or LS, it’s not a bespoke model for the brand because it has that platform link back to the Toyota Avalon. But Lexus has done an impressive job of bringing the ES into line with the rest of the range in terms of styling (inside and out) and perceived quality. You could argue the ES350 is not a true Lexus, but it is a truly luxurious sedan.
EQUIPMENT CHECKLIST Air conditioning: Three-zone climate Audio: CD, iPod compatible Automatic lights/wipers: Yes/yes Blind spot warning: Yes Bluetooth: Yes Cruise control: Yes adaptive Driver footrest: Yes Gas discharge headlights: Yes Head-up display: No Heated/ventilated seats: Yes/yes (rear heated only) Keyless entry/start: Yes/Yes Lane guidance: No Leather upholstery: Yes Parking radar: Yes with camera Power boot or tailgate: Yes Power seat adjustment/memory: Yes/Yes Rear ventilation outlets: Yes Remote audio controls: Yes Satellite navigation: Yes Seat height adjustment: Yes Self-parking technology: No Split/folding rear seats: 60/40 Steering reach adjustment: Yes Stop-start: No Trip computer: Yes
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