Test Drives

Lexus ES 300h review: Mercury rising

The new Lexus ES cuts a regal presence on the road. That’s entirely keeping with the ES 300h’s character

SINGAPORE — If the LS is the king of Lexus, then surely the ES is the queen?

One size down from the majestic flagship, the ES has actually been there since the start of the brand, and what’s more, has brought her kingdom riches.

It’s traditionally the brand’s best-seller here, and has always been its strongest performing four-door car in terms of global sales. Buyers have snapped up than 2.2-million of them so far.

This new model has big shoes to fill, then, but as Lexus pushes it into new territories such as Europe and Japan, it also steps into new territory. It has to succeed in places where such cars as the BMW 5 Series and Mercedes E-Class hold sway.

That might give you some idea of the basic challenge of creating this seventh-generation ES: how to do something new and exciting enough to woo people from the German standard, but do it without alienating all those people who liked what they saw in the ES to begin with.

For chief engineer Yasuhiro Sakakibara, the answer was pretty clear: sharpen the ES’s traditional strengths (spaciousness, comfort, silence) and, in his words, get it to “spark joy” in its buyers’ daily lives.

Four versions of the car are on sale here — two variants each of the ES 250 2.5-litre petrol and the ES 300h petrol-electric hybrid — and the one that best captures the essence of the car is probably this one, the ES 300h Luxury. At S$238,800 with Certificate Of Entitlement (COE), it’s the priciest of the bunch, but it comes with the most kit.

Outside, the Luxury models are distinguishable from the cheaper Executive cars by their triple-L design LED headlamps, and the easy way to spot a hybrid from an ES250 is to look for the wing on the bootlid.

Even the most basic ES 250 Executive model is pretty luxe, however. It has a 10-way power adjustable driver’s seat, a rear view camera, keyless entry and engine starting, a wireless smartphone charging pad, and 10 airbags.

It has a steering wheel borrowed from the LS, as well as the driving mode selector system (for tuning the car’s responsiveness and handling) from the LC, the radical-looking luxury coupe of the family.

The other versions add chauffeur-spec stuff: pull-up window shades, secondary climate and sound system controls in the back, and buttons to move the front passenger seat.

The Luxury model is a bit of an audiophile’s delight, with a 17-speaker sound system tuned by Mark Levinson (the hi-fi company, not the person).

It even has wheels designed to cut noise. Where it trumps a rival BMW or Mercedes is with a rear seat that can recline by eight degrees, which you can’t have in a 5 Series or E-Class.

If your remuneration package includes a driver, the ES 300h is practically a no-brainer.

If it doesn’t, you can console yourself with the fact that the ES is nice car to drive, much more so if it’s hybrid powered. The 2.5-litre that drives the ES 250 is probably the car’s weakest point. It’s a non-turbo, so to get going properly you have to rev it hard, which introduces all sorts of unwanted noises into the cabin.

Conversely, the ES 300h’s petrol-electric setup delivers the kind of refinement you want at this level. It has more ready torque (battery power is good for that sort of thing), and nothing is quieter than a hybrid car at low speed or a red light.

Incidentally, it’s more efficient than an army of ants, too. Driving without much care (and without using the fuel-saving Eco mode much) delivered 5.0L/100km after three days, not far off the official claim of 4.6L/100km, and better than you can manage with a small hatchback. That’s not remarkable because it will save you thousands at the fuel pump, but because it shows that the hybrid technology is as advanced as Lexus says.

But if there’s an area where the ES has made a noticeable step forward, it’s in the way it feels around corners. It’s nicely balanced (meaning it doesn’t feel nose-heavy as you push it into a bend) and the steering feels connected and precise. If anything, the steering is surprisingly heavy, and the suspension far firmer than you’d have expected of an ES.

The payoff in terms of body control has been worth it, though, and the big Lexus is the sort of car you not only wouldn’t mind driving through a series of curves, but would have fun doing it in.

It is a big Lexus, too. It’s 66mm longer than the previous model (itself not tiny), and the size means it cuts a dramatic and regal presence on the road. But it manages to avoid looking bulky, which is probably down to the styling. The styling borrows heavily from the striking looks of the LS, with a wild and intricate grille design, slim headlamps and a flowing body. Next to this, the German brigade look staid.

The looks alone should draw people into the showroom, after which it will be up to the car itself to win them to the Lexus fold. It should do well (indeed, early sales numbers indicate it has been doing well), which makes perfect sense. Everyone loves a queen, but more so a queen who turns heads.

Lexus ES 300h

Engine 2,487cc, inline 4
Power 178hp at 5700rpm
Torque 221Nm at 3600-5200rpm
Gearbox Continuously Variable Transmission
Electric Motor 120hp/202Nm
Battery NiMh
System Power 218hp
System Torque Not stated
0-100km/h 8.9 seconds
Top Speed 180km/h
Fuel Efficiency 4.6 L/100km
VES Band / CO2 B / 104g/km
Agent Borneo Motors
Price $238,800 with COE
Availability Now

about the author

Leow Ju-Len
Leow Ju-Len is a lot older than he behaves. He's been writing about cars for 23 years. Someday he might do it coherently. Ju-Len believes in world peace and V8s, but not necessarily in that order.