Car reviews - Lexus - ES - 300h Sports Luxury
Strong value proposition, real-world hybrid efficiency, communicative chassis, comfortable ride, spacious second row, mostly premium cabin materials, high safety levels
Room for improvement
Best driven slowly, jerky regenerative braking when creeping, heavy steering, feels its size around corners, limited front headroom, awful touchpad input, polarising styling
Lexus’ ES300h Sports Luxury is out to prove it is more than a Toyota in a suit
14 Jan 2019
DESPITE the fact it now spans seven generations, the ES mid-size sedan has always been the odd one out in Lexus’ passenger-car line-up. Positioned as an alternative to its much smaller IS sibling that plays in the same segment and despite being similar in size to its GS big brother that competes in the class above, the ES rightly presents itself as a bit of a head-scratcher.
Front-wheel drive when none of its rivals in the premium segment are, the ES has long been an afterthought for most new-vehicle buyers, with its recent sales history adding weight to this statement. With the latest ES sharing its all-new platform with the Toyota Avalon, can it turn the tide and finally justify its existence? We test the ES300h Sports Luxury to find out.
Price and equipment
Priced from $74,888 before on-road costs, the ES300h Sports Luxury is $2978 dearer than before. However, buyers are compensated with a long list of standard equipment, including 18-inch alloy wheels wrapped in 235/45 tyres, a space-saver spare, adaptive LED headlights with dusk-sensing and cornering functionality, LED daytime running lights and tail-lights, rain-sensing windshield wipers, auto-folding side mirrors with heating, a power-operated sunroof, rear privacy glass, and a hands-free power-operated bootlid.
Furthermore, our test car is finished in Glacial Ecru metallic paintwork, which is a $1500 option. As such, the price as tested is $76,388.
Inside, a 12.3-inch infotainment system, satellite navigation with live traffic, DAB+ digital radio, Bluetooth connectivity, two USB ports, a 17-speaker Mark Levinson surround-sound system, a 7.0-inch multi-function display, a windshield-projected head-up display, wireless smartphone charging, keyless entry and start, three-zone climate control, 14-way power-adjustable heated and ventilated front seats with memory functionality, a heated steering wheel with a power-adjustable column, two-way power-adjustable outboard rear seats with heating, semi-aniline leather-accented upholstery, a power-operated rear sunshade, manual rear-side sunshades, LED ambient lighting, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror feature.
Big and comfortable are probably the two best words to describe the ES300h’s solid cabin, especially in Sports Luxury guise. Lexus has definitely stepped it up to make the model feel a little bit more special than the Avalon, with most materials exhibiting a higher quality.
In our test car, black semi-aniline leather-accented upholstery is teamed with Shimamoku Black wood trim to good effect, with the former applied to the seats, armrests, knee-rests and door inserts. Soft-touch plastics are used for the dashboard and upper door trims.
However, the quality of the cabin takes a hit with the cheap-feeling hard plastics found on the lower dashboard and door trims. Furthermore, most of the switchgear doesn’t feel as premium as this price point suggests, with it better suited to a fleet-friendly Toyota Camry.
What isn’t disappointing, though, is how relaxing the cabin feels. The front seats are big and plush, offering plenty of power adjustment, while the reclining second row features heaps of legroom behind our 184cm driving position. Headroom and shoulder-room are also strong.
However, we are glad we’re not any taller, because headroom in the front row is limited. Even with the pews in their lowest position, our head is millimetres away from the roofliner, which is puzzlingly cream in colour when the A-pillar trims are black. Why not be consistent?
Measuring in at 4975mm long, 1865mm wide and 1445mm high with a 2870mm wheelbase, the ES300h provides 454L of cargo capacity. The three-seat rear bench, like many traditional sedans, does not split fold, although a ski port does allow in-cabin access to the boot area.
Technology-wise, the ES300h caters with a windshield-projected head-up display and a 7.0-inch multi-function display that do the job. However, the 12.3-inch infotainment system remains a source of frustration, even with its new touchpad controller with haptic feedback.
This set-up’s tracking speed is far too quick, allowing the cursor to bounce around without control. In fact, this proves to be a serious driver distraction while on the move. The sheer amount of frustration caused makes you wonder why a touchscreen wasn’t offered instead.
Engine and transmission
As part of its parallel hybrid system, the ES300h pairs an 88kW/202Nm permanent magnet electric motor with a 2.5-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol engine that produces 131kW at 5700rpm and 221Nm of torque. While Lexus does not quote this set-up’s peak combined torque, its maximum system power is 160kW, which is a 9kW improvement.
An electronic continuously variable transmission (e-CVT) exclusively sends these outputs to the ES300h’s front wheels. Lexus claims the 1740kg Sports Luxury can sprint from standstill to 100km/h in 8.9 seconds while on the way to a top speed of 180km/h. These performance figures are okay, but it doesn’t ever want to be driven hard. In fact, it rewards the opposite.
Just like the parallel hybrid systems before it, the ES300h’s set-up is almost flawless, proving to be delightfully smooth as it transitions to and from its different power sources. Instant torque is felt off the line as the single electric motor leads the charge, both figuratively and literally. Engage the accelerator a little too firmly, though, and the engine will soon kick in.
The ES300h is one of those vehicles that changes you as driver. While we would usually be more spirited in our style, it instead slows us down as we unknowingly commit to being as environmentally friendly as possible. Straight-line bursts are rarely called upon, by no fault of the seamless e-CVT, as you endeavour to reach the same speeds at a much slower pace.
You’re probably asking yourself why any of this matters, and it’s pretty simple: be gentle and you can use the electric motor most of the time. With the ES300h, nearly everything is leisurely. Its three driving modes – Eco, Comfort and Sport – allow powertrain settings to be adjusted while on the move, but rarely would you consider changing from the default mode.
A 6.5Ah nickel-metal hydride battery stores the self-charging ES300h’s electricity, which is recuperated via regenerative braking, but more on that later. This set-up helps the ES300h claim a very low 4.6 litres per 100 kilometres on the combined fuel-consumption cycle test, while its carbon dioxide emissions were also strong in testing, at 104 grams per kilometre.
So, how does the ES300h stack up in the real world? Really well, actually. In our week with it, we are averaging 5.3L/100km over 350km of driving that’s been mainly skewed towards urban commutes over highway runs. This is an outstanding result and a tribute to the effect of the electric motor in low-speed traffic. Given increasing petrol prices, this is a big, big win.
Ride and handling
The ES300h offers a very comfortable ride, thanks to its independent suspension set-up that consists of MacPherson-strut front and multi-link rear axles with shock absorbers. Potholes and speed bumps are dealt with aplomb, while uneven and unsealed roads are also not a concern. It just feels soft but not out of control, remaining composed as it rebounds quickly.
Meanwhile, the ES300h’s power steering is electric, proving to relatively direct and quick, although it is touch on the heavier side – and not in a sporty way. Extra effort is required to manoeuvre the vehicle in low-speed environments, such as carparks. The heft is appreciated at higher speeds, where stability is enhanced, but it just isn’t an enjoyable overall steer.
Conversely, the chassis is bang-on, underpinned by Toyota’s impressive TNGA-K platform, with the driver knowing exactly what the front wheels are up at any given time. The ES300h is so locked down that bodyroll is negligible during hard cornering. As good as it is, though, it can’t hide its dimensions and weight, with understeer proving to be a constant threat.
As mentioned, the ES300h uses regenerative braking to charge its battery. Unlike some rival systems, this one is mostly imperceptible. However, it is prone to being jerky when creeping in traffic or carparks. In these scenarios, the brake pedal performs unnaturally. Performance from the disc brakes (305x28mm ventilated front, 281x12mm solid rear) is otherwise fine.
Safety and servicing
The Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) awarded the entire ES300h range a five-star safety rating in October 2018. It scored 91, 86 and 90 per cent in the adult, child and pedestrian protection categories. Safety assist testing returned a result of 76 per cent.
Advanced driver-assist systems in the ES300h Sports Luxury generously extend to autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, lane-keep and steering assist, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, adaptive cruise control with stop and go functionality, surround-view cameras, front and rear parking sensors, high-beam assist, traffic sign recognition, tyre pressure monitoring and hill-start assist.
Other standard safety equipment includes 10 airbags, anti-lock brakes (ABS), electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist, and the usual electronic stability and traction control systems.
As with all Lexus models, the ES300h comes with a four-year/100,000km warranty and four years or roadside assistance. Service intervals are every 12 months or 15,000km, whichever comes first.
If the sportiness afforded by a rear-wheel-drive model isn’t desired by you, the ES300h is a solid alternative to its rivals in the premium mid-size and large segments, especially when in Sports Luxury form. In fact, its value proposition is so strong, it’s almost a no-brainer for us.
It certainly doesn’t soar to the same dynamic heights that some of its competitors do – and Lexus’ design language is not to everyone’s taste, even if this is its most conservative model – but the ES300h definitely has a charm to it, particularly thanks to its real-world efficiency.
However, this is a vehicle that will change you as a driver, whether you like it or not. Some will be okay with this, while others won’t. If we’re to be frank, the ES300h is safe but boring option. Well, boring until its intuitive touchpad controller ‘entertains’ you for hours on end…
Audi A4 2.0 TFSI quattro Sport sedan (from $70,300 before on-road costs)
With its ride and handling beautifully balanced, the 2.0 TFSI quattro Sport also delivers a cracking engine with a high-quality interior, but its transmission can be annoying at times.
BMW 330e sedan (from $70,900 before on-road costs)
A true competitor for the ES300h, the 330e impresses with its plug-in hybrid powertrain and unaffected dynamics, but the lack of widespread charging infrastructure remains a turn-off.
Mercedes-Benz C300 sedan (from $71,400 before on-road costs)
Setting the class benchmark for luxury, the C300 wows with its slick digitalisation and sharp turn-in, but its transmission calibration is frustration and styling is still far too anonymous.
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