Test Drives

Lexus ES 300h 2018 review: A sizeable difference

The seventh Lexus ES has several huge jobs on its hands — one of them is to tempt you from a BMW 5 Series or Mercedes E-Class. Can it?

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE — Here it is, the all-new Lexus ES, and it’s a car with huge shoes to fill, especially in Singapore. That’s because the current ES is the best selling Lexus model here.

The seventh-generation ES also has new worlds to conquer. It’s headed for markets where the ES has never been sold before, such as Western Europe and Japan. Lexus hasn’t said it explicitly, but this ES has to replace the slow-selling (but nice-to-drive, if you ask us) GS, as well.

No pressure, then. But is the new car up to all that? Read on…

Wah, this looks like the LS!
It does a bit, thanks to that enormous spindle grille and the long, almost coupe-like silhouette. That’s by design; the car’s chief engineer, Yasuhiro Sakakibara, told us he wanted to new car to make people go “Wow!”, and wanted something young people would talk excitedly about.

Check out the tasty new tail spoiler on the ES 300h hybrid model, too. It’s one of the things that helps cut the car’s wind resistance to an ultra low 0.26Cd, if you want to geek out on details.

The ES also has slim lamps in front and at the back, plus the crisp edges on the sides and way the rear end flares out makes the bodywork look very slinky — and in a way that’s very uncommon for a front-wheel drive car.

But slinky don’t mean small, honey.

How so?
The ES is significantly bigger than before. It’s longer by 66mm (part of which is from a 50mm stretch to the wheelbase), while the front and rear tracks are wider by 10mm and 38mm respectively. It’s actually a bit longer and wider now than the Mercedes E-Class, a key rival.

At the same time, the roof is 5mm lower and the bonnet sits 15mm lower, for the sake of a more sporty stance.

Ah, but lower roof equals less headroom, right?
Actually, no. There’s a small but noticeable increase in headroom in the back, and it just feels enormous in the cabin. The last ES was designed to give rear seat occupants enough space to read a newspaper, but this one is even more spacious.

In fact, it actually has slightly more rear legroom than the flagship LS. And if you usually use all three seats in the back, the ES is (sorry, Lexus) actually superior, with better accommodation for the person in the middle because there’s no hump in the seat or on the floor.

If you choose the Luxury models (priced above the Executive trim), you’ll also get rear seats that recline electrically by 8 degrees, and a console for controlling the climate and sound systems.

Sounds posh! It’s not wise to outshine the boss, though.
Maybe not, but the similarities with the LS don’t end there. The ES has the same steering wheel, for example, and the same 12.3-inch infotainment screen. Luxury models also come with the same ultra-wide head-up display system.

But the LS is still king in one way: It feels built to a higher standard. The last ES felt like ancient artisans slaved over the cabin, but some cheap-feeling plastics have crept into this one, though not anywhere you’d normally touch.

The most noticeable area is the console where the rear air-con vents are. There used to be a panel of polished wood there, but what you notice now are hard, shiny plastics. At least they’ve used the space for handy USB ports and a 12V outlet now.

What else is new inside?
Generally, the dashboard and controls have been tidied up, and there’s a larger touchpad (or Remote Touch Interface to use a Lexusism) to control the infotainment system, with newly-added force-feedback. Good news if wireless charging’s important to you, too: there’s a Qi pad for that.

And if you’ve sat in the LS or better yet, the spacecraft like LC, you’ll have noticed that the drive mode selector is now mounted high up on the instrument binnacle, like in those cars.

That tells you two things: there’s a harmonisation underway for the coming generation of Lexus cars, and that driving pleasure is now a priority (and a high one, at that) for the ES, just as it was for those the LS and LC.

Sure or not? The ES is about comfort. Always has been.
True, and sure enough chief engineer Sakakibara acknowledges that the car’s DNA was made up of comfy, quiet and roomy genes, not sporty ones. But there’s been a real effort to make this one a pleasure to drive. It’s a uniquely Japanese effort, too.

Unique in what way?
Lexus employs two takumi (or artisan) drivers. There are only two qualified takumi drivers in the world, and while they’re probably no slowpokes, they’re not there because of raw speed.

Instead, their job is likened to that of someone who can tune a musical instrument perfectly. Makes sense to us — Jimi Hendrix could play the hell out of a guitar but apparently he would routinely ask audience members to help him tune it. You don’t want someone like that to build you a Fender.

Definitely not a takumi driver

Anyway, Sakakibara says that Yoshiaki Ito, the chief takumi driver, gave him a long list of things to change, after driving an early prototype of the ES.

Such as?
Ito himself told us it wasn’t that long a list. He suggested changes to the front caster angle, made them raise some pick-up points, asked them to make the steering more direct, and other things that went over our heads. He wanted changes to the car’s dive and pitch behaviour, wanted it to roll into bends in a nice, settled way, that sort of thing.

Sounds complicated.
Maybe, but the end result was totally worth it. The ES turns smoothly and eagerly into bends now, and the body behaves impeccably as you thread the car from corner to corner.

For such a big thing the ES never feels clumsy, and it’s one of those cars that seems to shrink around you as you put it through its paces.

Ito also suggested they put the power steering motor on the rack itself instead of the steering column, which is apparently good for steering feel, and it’s a just as well they listened; the ES has a bit more feedback at the helm than a BMW 5 Series does, if you ask us.

Mind you, Ito says the engineers generally don’t say no to him. He has a black belt in karate.

Gnarly! But how does the ES go in a straight line?
Well, of the two that are headed for Singapore (the hybrid ES 300h and the 2.5-litre ES 250), the obvious winner is the more expensive one. The ES 300h has all the classic hybrid car characteristics of low-speed silence and ready torque, but the petrol-electric drivetrain is a clear step forward from the last one.

Efficient, yes. Exciting, no 

The acceleration is more direct and less rubber band-like, while the braking is smoother and now incorporates an auto glide system that uses artificial intelligence to judge the amount of regenerative braking needed for the hybrid battery.

The engine itself is all-new, and so is the motor system, which has a revised layout that generates less friction and makes the setup smaller. Another nice hack: the hybrid battery pack has been moved under the rear seats so it no longer eats up boot space, allowing both the ES 300h and ES 250 to have the same 473 litre capacity.

READ MORE: Which ES is coming to Singapore? And when? Click here to find out

How fast does it go?
Not very. If speed and excitement are your thing you’ll prefer a turbo engine, but the ES 300h can return a claimed 4.6L/100km. On our drive we did slightly better, recording 4.5L/100km by sticking to the speed limits (mostly). Is there a car this size that’s less thirsty for petrol?

Anyway, a better reason to buy a hybrid is for the added refinement. You do hear the petrol engine when you floor the accelerator, but otherwise you’ll mostly hear the excellent Mark Levinson sound system, though only if you sprang for the Luxury pack. In any case, noise cancellation is another area that Sakakibara was obsessive about.

Explain how.
The ES has strange wheels with a hollow channel that runs inside them; it allows air to move in a way that lets the tyres absorb sound. At the car’s launch they let us whack away with a hammer at some mounted tyres (with and without the special wheel) to hear the difference, and there’s a noticeable one.

The new car also has 96 percent of its floorpan covered in sound insulating material, up from 68 percent, and get this, the ES 300h and ES 250 even use different kinds of noise-absorbing mats. Why? Because hybrid and petrol drivetrains generate different kinds of noise.

And here’s something we didn’t know before: the last ES had an active engine mount, calibrated to respond to certain frequencies and cancel them out to reduce idle noise. The new one has two of them.

OK, now I get what you mean by “obsessive”! But does the ride quality match the acoustic quality?
If you mean does the new ES ride well, the answer is, “Yes, but…” The “but” comes from the fact that we drove cars with a special new shock absorber; it has a flexible blade inside that lets oil pass through during small, high-speed deflections, the kind the suspension experiences when you roll over a lumpy road.

That creates a “soft” damper, but lets you retain a firmer setting for better body control when the shock absorber moves more slowly, like when you’re cornering. But cars headed for Singapore won’t have this new damper, so we don’t know how they’ll ride. Still, there’s one reason to be hopeful.

What’s that?
Most of the car’s refinement and its newly sharpened handling are probably down to the body structure, which is significantly stiffer but also lighter than before. For that you can thank high-strength steel and new welding techniques, and a switch to aluminium for the bonnet and front fenders.

Good grief, this has been technical to read!
Sorry. But all this reflects a sense of change at Lexus. Their product presentations used to play up craftsmanship, but the ES launch felt like something aimed at petrolheads.

And Lexus people seem to have become a bit less apologetic about how the new ES is ostensibly aimed at the 5 Series and E-Class. So take all this tech talk as a sign that the ES has been tasked to make a serious attack on a serious market segment. The ES may have new territories to conquer, but it has new enemies to slay, too.

NEED TO KNOW Lexus ES 300h
Engine 2,487cc, in-line four
Engine power 178hp at 5,700rpm
Engine torque 221Nm at 3,600-5,200rpm
Motor power 120hp
Motor torque 202Nm
System power 218hp
Gearbox Continuously Variable Transmission
Top Speed 180 km/h (limited)
0-100km/h 8.9 seconds (estimated)
Fuel efficiency 4.6L/100km
CEVS Band To be announced
Price To be announced
Agent Borneo Motors
Available November


The ES 250 gets a new engine and new gearbox. Here’s how it goes

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.