The newest version of Lexus’ venerable ES model is the best one yet. Yes, what’s underneath is shared with a multitude of vehicles in the Toyota and Lexus family. But it’s good stuff that’s shared, and Lexus did a bang-up job making improvements to this generation.
The ES 300h starts at CDN $43,900. That’s the well-equipped base model, to which you can add up to $10,000 in option packages. I took delivery of the base model, which I quite liked as it was.
Under the Hood
This is the first hybrid ES we’ve seen here, and in my opinion, Toyota’s hybrid drivetrain is very well-suited to the ES.
Toyota’s now-familiar hybrid powerplant is made up of a 2.5-Liter 4-cylinder running on the lean but torque-poor Atkinson cycle and an electric motor and the requisite battery. They are a bit coy about output, but they allow that it makes 200 horsepower net. I’d prefer more information about torque, etc but that’s what I got.
This seemingly modest powertrain is pulling a 3660 pound sedan around town, which sounds like a recipe for sluggish performance. We’ll see about that. The power is routed through a CVT to the front wheels.
Fuel economy is the key here. The 300h is rated at an astounding 4.7 L/100 km (50 mpg!) in the city, 5.1 L/100 km (46 mpg) on the highway, and 4.8 L/100 km (49 mpg) for the combined cycle. Those are some crazy numbers, and as always, you’d have to be crazy yourself if you thought you’ll achieve them without coasting downhill with a tailwind. It’s all relative, of course, and I managed to average a very impressive 7.1 L/100 km (33 mpg) during essentially all city driving, in cold weather and snow, with no effort to conserve fuel.
You get a 65 Liter tank which would make for an excellent range in the city and on road trips.
I found the ES to look stretched out from previous generations (the wheelbase has, in fact, been extended), and I liked its sleeker, more muscular stance. Up front, you’ll find Lexus’ new corporate face, the spindle grille. Nice aggressive looking headlight pods house a hooked strip of LED running lights, and the foglights are beautifully integrated into the air dam.
I liked that there isn’t too much drama on the car’s sides, and I also liked the flanks that show up behind the rear doors, making up part of the trunk lid plane. I first saw these on this car’s big brother, the GS 350, and loved them there.
The roofline seems to be lower than before, and the rear sports fresh tail lamps that are sophisticated and complex, but integrate smoothly into the rear fascia.
The wheels are a surprisingly small (by today’s standards) 17″ diameter, yet it doesn’t look bad on this car. Yes, bigger rims will look hotter, but these are lovely and look just fine.
Overall, I found the new styling to be slipperier and it makes for the handsomest and least stodgy-looking ES yet.
As always, I was impressed with Lexus’ work on the interior. I find they’ve really been hitting them out of the park with recent models. The fit and finish in the ES are exemplary, and materials are wonderful. I did find more hard plastic than I expected, but they’ve went through great pains to make it beautifully textured, and you will find soft-touch materials wherever your hand might fall. You’ll also find nice stitching and contrasting trim. I enjoyed the sculpting of the dash, including the “eyebrow” look.
Everything is powered – door locks, windows, mirrors, a trunk release, the fuel door and the tilt/slide sunroof overhead. Entry is keyless, and the ignition is push-start.
The interior is roomy. Headroom is decent, and the cabin feels wide and spacious. The 10-way power adjustable seats with driver’s side memory are clad in NuLuxe, a rich-feeling faux leather, and are very comfortable. They’re heated and they actually offer a reasonable amount of bolstering for this class of car.
A nice large-diameter steering wheel (which is power adjustable) with a chunky rim has controls for audio, handsfree operation, phone and the driver information screen.
Behind it sit two large gauges, separated by a great driver information screen. The graphics and fonts are crisp and the information is kept simple and useable. It lets you toggle between instant, average and since-refueling fuel economy, outside temperature, elapsed driving time, tire pressures, energy flow (for the hybrid system), average speed and the fuel range. It also contains two trip meters and the standard odometer. No lack of information here.
In the middle of the upper dash sits a 7″ display screen. This is not Lexus’ biggest screen, and in this trim level (with no nav), it is controlled with a joysticky rotary knob ahead of the wrist rest. I’ve never been a huge fan of the more mouse-like Remote Touch Interface with the strange feedback, and I actually prefer this more elementary input device myself. The screen handles audio, temperature, settings and phone/bluetooth functions and does so very well. I liked the layout and the way this rotary joystick let me find my way through things, once I got used to it.
Though it’s not the nicest one I’ve seen, the analog clock sitting smack dab in the middle of the stack is a classy touch.
The 8-speaker audio system feeds off of AM, FM, satellite, CD, auxiliary, USB and Bluetooth streaming sources. It sounds good, but not great, and certainly not nearly as good as the upgrade to the Mark Levinson system, which is (in my humble opinion) one of the best in the automobile world. The functions are handled by a very simple hard button layout in the middle of the dash, as well as the screen functions and the rotary knob.
Below that sits an automatic dual-zone climate control system.
The center console starts with rotary seat heater controls at the front and the drive mode selector behind that – I’ll talk about that in the Drive section. The gear selector on the left of the console offers an additional sport mode, as well as manual shifting mode – which is all an illusion since there are no gears in a CVT transmission.
There is a HomeLink garage door opener with three settings in the rearview mirror.
Back here, you’ll find three seats, three seatbelts and three headrests. The rear seats are extremely comfortable, and this would be a very nice place to spend some time if you were on a road trip. As is typical, the middle seat is narrow and a bit raised, and there’s a small tunnel in the center of the floor – so the middle seating position isn’t great for an adult.
I was shocked by the amount of legroom in the back – it’s cavernous. Headroom is also great.
There are adjustable air vents, and a 12V plug, as well as two seatback map pockets. Overhead, there are separate dome-mounted reading lights for rear passengers.
The center seatback folds down to become an armrest with two cupholders in it.
Our three kids fit comfortably back there, including a couple of their seats. The doors open nice and wide for easy access and there are two sets of LATCH anchors for seats.
You’ll find a nice glove compartment and door bins that are a bit useless because they’re tucked in under the armrests and difficult to access. There are two cupholders in the center console, both concealable by flip-away lids. The passenger’s sits far toward the front, the driver’s is tucked in quite a way back.
The armrest lid opens to reveal a spacious and deep storage bin, where you’ll also find auxiliary, USB and 12V plugs. There is a nice, carpeted change bin that pops out of the left underside of the dash.
The trunk is large. You do lose a bit of room due to the hybrid system, but the way it’s laid out is very usable. There are 4 heavy-duty tie-down hooks in there too.
Well, as it turns out, Lexus has done a fine job mating a relatively sedate powertrain with modest numbers to a big, heavy-ish sedan. What do I mean by “a fine job”? Just this – it’s a satisfying car to drive.
In everyday driving, the 300h never feels underpowered, and pulls away from a stop smartly. It’s happy to spool things up quickly, and the electric motor’s torque more than makes up for the lack of it from the engine. I never found myself wanting for more jam during my commute. Getting into and keeping up with traffic is a complete non-issue.
I actually didn’t mind the CVT in this car. I have a feeling I’m slowly getting conditioned to driving cars with CVTs because they’re so prevalent now, but I honestly do feel they’re getting better. The rubber-bandiness that plagued them for a long time seems to be getting better, and the way they’re programmed almost makes some of them (this one included) feel as though there are gear ratios. I know it’s all a trick, but all in all, it’s a decent transmission here. Smoothness is perfect.
The ES allows you to choose your driving mode. There’s Normal, the fuel-saving Eco (which retards the car’s responsiveness and fun factor) and finally Sport mode. Calling it Sport mode is a bit rich, but it does liven things up a tad. I’ve seen this on other Lexuses (or is it Lexii?) too. The main gauges are capped with a horizon – in Eco or Normal mode, it glows a healthy, fresh-looking blue – the more fuel efficient you drive, the fuller the blue sky gets. Step on it, and things get darker. Switch the car to Sport mode, and the eco/power gauge on the left (which lets you know how efficiently you’re driving, as well as when you’re charging the battery through regenerative means) switches to a tachometer. Hilariously, the horizon lighting switches from blue to red too, as if you’ve suddenly taken hold of a whole new car! Not really, but I’ll give them points for effort. This is a little less goofy in non-hybrid models, because Sport mode affects them a little more noticeably.
The brakes are typical hybrid – spongy because they are helping you regenerate power during braking. They’re good brakes though, and once you adjust to the sponginess, you learn that they’re very effective and easy to modulate.
I was a bit surprised a few times when the gas engine started after having turned itself off at a light or in a parking lot. A couple of times it felt rougher than it should. I’m not sure why, because normally the engine restart is just a little shy of imperceptible. A strange anomaly, but one I couldn’t help but notice. Typically though, things are very smooth and almost transparent.
The ES’ ride is simply fantastic. It soaks up the big and the small bumps like a champion and never got upset at anything our terrible roads threw at it, including icy ruts, windrows, you name it. I was very impressed. Handling is decent. I would say it’s very competent – if you HAVE to make a quick move, the car will grip the road impressively, but it prefers straight lines. There’s some body roll, and you can feel the weight, but this car never feels as though you’ve pushed it too far and I would say that it stays quite flat considering the class of vehicle. You’re not buying an ES to win a track day so this doesn’t come as a surprise.
Visibility out of this car is very good in every direction.
One final thing that I have to comment on regarding the ES’ drive is the traction control. If you read my review on the Toyota Corolla, you’ll know I complained bitterly about it there and how intrusive it was. The exact opposite here. I spent much of my review time on icy and snowy streets, and I was highly impressed with the traction and stability controls here. Coupled with winter tires, it was a very pleasant experience. Somehow, it always managed to find ample traction and rarely did I see the traction control light flashing – more importantly, I never felt it intrude on my driving where it would cut the throttle, etc. Very well done!
The feeling of quality is there throughout the entire vehicle. The switchgear and operation of lids and moveable panels throughout the vehicle is perfectly weighted and smooth.
Another example I found was the power windows. They open and close in complete silence and slow down for the last inch of travel so they don’t thunk into the stops. Little things like that make a difference when you add them all up.
Although it would be nice to explore a full loaded review vehicle with all the bells and whistles, you can obviously see that this “base” ES comes well-equipped and it was illuminating to spend quite a long time with it. I learned that I would be very happy with this trim level, and adding thousands on isn’t necessary to get a loaded-up feeling vehicle. Yes, the toys and gadgets are fun, but there’s plenty of great content here, and you start with a highly liveable vehicle in the base trim level. What I’m saying is you don’t have to spend more than the base model costs to get a great car.
I give the ES 300h a very solid 7 out of 10. As great as this car is, and as well as it does almost everything, I did find myself searching for some soul while driving it. I wanted to latch onto something as a driving enthusiast, but other than saying it does things well, I can’t say I was ever entertained while driving this vehicle, and that is something that matters to me.
To be clear, I don’t believe that matters to most of the buyers who are picking one up. The ES is a perennial best-seller, and there are plenty of folks who WANT the car that does everything well, will offer outstanding reliability and resale value, and who care little about being more involved in the driving experience.
The ES gives the buyer a solid set of standard features. It’s full of safety and luxury appointments, and if you have the money to spend, you can add to that. You can add leather, wood, navigation, etc. None of these make it a better car, but it will be more enjoyable, albeit significantly more expensive.
WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) was very high for the ES. My wife loved the smooth ride, the quietness about everything it does and she mentioned that everything felt very well put together. She also liked the looks of it, saying that it was styled for going shopping. She’ll never change.
I enjoyed commuting with this car, and even though I had limited freeway time with it, it would very easily be a fantastic road trip vehicle for 4 adults. It offers plenty of trunk space, it offers a ton of comfort, and it handles itself with a deserved sense of confidence.
As much as I enjoyed this car, and as much as I loved getting relatively great mileage, I couldn’t help but remember something during my time with the 300h. What kept rearing its head in my memory was the non-hybrid ES 350 that I reviewed at Test Fest just a few short weeks ago. If you’re shopping in this class, definitely don’t discount the ES 350. It’s more powerful and more nimble, and can save you some money.
I’m not sure how long it would take you to recoup the extra hybrid expense in saved fuel bills, but that’s not the point here. The hybrid drivetrain is lovely around town, and makes for a good driving experience. You’re rewarded at the pump, and you can feel good about saving our planet. Even if you’re really not.
Disclosure: Vehicle was provided by Lexus Canada.
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