SINGAPORE – What does being able to fold an origami cat perfectly in less than 90 seconds have to do with building cars? Plenty, if you work for Lexus.
There are just 12 craftsmen qualified to hand-stitch the dashboard leather of the Lexus ES, and if you want to train to be one, you have to prove your dexterity by passing the origami test described above. And you have to do it one-handed. With your non-dominant hand.
That gives you some idea of the Lexus story. Every chapter is written with the sort of ruthless obsessiveness that would be terrifying in, say, a girlfriend’s father. It makes for great luxury cars, though. And apart from eagle-eyed perfectionism, Lexus seems to operate with a strong sense of independent thinking, too.
The new ES is a case in point. While the premium German brands have tried to broaden their market by churning out smaller and cheaper cars, the Lexus approach has been to build this, a bigger and, well, cheaper car. Just as we went to a print a base model ES 250 cost $238,000 with COE at early-bird pricing, or $5,000 less than a basic IS 250 — this means that the second-biggest Lexus saloon is priced at roughly the same level as the smallest one.
A 2.5-litre ES 250 kicks off the range and the petrol-electric ES 300h tops it off. There will be two trim levels of each, making it four models in total. Whichever one you choose, you’ll get plenty of real estate for the money. The measuring tape says it’s a bit longer than a Mercedes-Benz E-Class, but it’s on the inside where you’ll feel the most difference. Unlike the other Lexus saloons, the ES is front wheel-drive, so with no propshaft, diff or driveshafts taking up space in the back, and with an engine mounted east-west instead of north-south, there’s plenty of room left for the cabin.
Mind you, the mechanical basis for the Lexus is an already spacious car, in the form of the Toyota Camry, whose platform and engines it shares. Such has been the case with every Lexu ES, but this time a stretch to the wheelbase means that there’s more rear legroom than in a standard Mercedes S-Class, according to Lexus. Meanwhile, the rear armrest has buttons to operate the climate control and sound system, and engineers specifically wanted to create enough room back there for someone to read a newspaper or magazine comfortably (I highly recommend CarBuyer).
And here’s another obsessive fact to savour: the rear seats don’t recline because installing adjustable chairs in the back would have created a gap between the bodywork and the chairs themselves, introducing noise that would have necessitated heavy dampening materials. And that’s important because as far as I can remember, there’s never been a noisy Lexus ES.
Sure enough, that’s the first impression you receive when you clamber aboard. It may have a four-cylinder engine (the last ES model sold here had a silky 3.0-litre V6), but there’s an absence of noise from under the bonnet. Special low-friction coatings for the engine internals see to that, and what you mostly hear at idle is the quiet whirr of the air-con fans.
On the go the ES 250 is genuinely quiet, too, at least up to speeds that are still legal in Singapore. Careful aero work takes the credit for that here; the wing mirrors, for example, are spaced at the right distance from the main body to hush the flow of air over them. Even the electric bootlid has been designed accordingly. It’s apparently the quietest one in the world. Why that should matter, I don’t know, but you get the impression that with Lexus, everything matters.
How’s this for another example of that sort of thinking: while most cars use a pair of identical springs for the last and right suspension, the ES 250 has springs which are wound in opposite directions. This symmetry apparently helps with stability, which is another of the areas in which the new ES has had plenty of work done. The body has had a big increase in the number of welds, and high strength steel is used in several areas to add stiffness, so there’s a feeling of precision about the way it handles.
The steering is geared fairly quickly too so the ES 250 never feels cumbersome in spite of its size, and it’s reassuringly predictable about the way it tracks through corners even when you have the tyres squealing, but really, if you wanted something sporty you’d be thinking about an IS 250 instead. The emphasis here is much more on comfort, which is why the ES 250 tackles bumps the way a butler takes orders, with smooth, unruffled compliance.
The engine, too, has a quiet and unobtrusive demeanour, and does its best to disappear sonically when you’re in city traffic to convey the impression that you’re being wafted around on a cloud. It’s only when you work it hard that it pipes up with a gruff voice that’ll make you miss the creamy V6 of the old ES 300. At the top of the rev counter is where it also betrays a lack of vigour, though the acceleration from a standing start is lively enough.
Mostly, it’s easy to see the typical ES 250 living a life of relatively quiet servitude. It may have the sporty, muscular styling of the current Lexus lineup, but the new ES was designed as transportation for senior management, and it works well from either end of the cabin. It’s relaxing to drive, and even better to sit in.
The idea that it’s merely a tarted-up Camry is something people from rival car companies are bound to bring up, but to buy into that notion would be to shortchange yourself. The ES 250 looks and feels like a Lexus, and experiencing one does give you a sense of how relentless dedication to perfection can help to create a real luxury car. And if you don’t believe me, there are 12 leather craftsmen in Japan you can ask.
NEED TO KNOW
Engine 2,494cc, 16V, inline 4
Power 184bhp at 6,000rpm
Torque 235Nm at 4,100rpm
Gearbox Six-speed auto
Top Speed 207km/h
0-100kmh 9.8 seconds
Fuel efficiency 7.9L/100km
Price $238,000 with COE
Also Consider:Audi A6 2.0T, Mercedes-Benz E 200
Photos by Leow Ju-Len and Lexus Asia Pacific