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.
Pricing: 2014 ES 300h
Base price: $44,100
Options: $9250 Technology Package
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $55,445
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 low 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. 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 hybrid gets blue-accented badging and a nice rear spoiler.
The wheels are a surprisingly small (by today’s standards) 17″ diameter, yet they look fine on this car. Yes, bigger rims will look hotter, but these are lovely. The tires are 215/55s.
Overall, I found the new styling to be slipperier and it makes for the most handsome ES yet. My review car’s Matador Red Mica colour looked a bit mature, but it was an absolutely stunning paint job, and simply glowed.
As always, Lexus’ work on the interior is excellent. The fit and finish in the ES are exemplary, and materials are wonderful. There are soft-touch materials wherever your hand might fall and even the hard plastics are beautifully textured. You’ll also find nice stitching, contrasting trim and lovely woodgrain pieces. I enjoyed the sculpting of the dash, including the “eyebrow” look. Entry is keyless, and the ignition is push-start.
The interior feels roomy. Headroom is decent and the cabin feels wide, airy and spacious. The 10-way power adjustable seats (with three memory setting for both front seats) are clad in “premium” leather, and are very comfortable. They’re heated and ventilated and they actually offer a reasonable amount of bolstering for this class of car. Of note, even on full strength, we did not sense any difference with the seat ventilation running – a shame, since it averaged about 27 degrees Celsius during my review week.
A nice large-diameter steering wheel (which is power adjustable and heated) with a chunky rim has controls for audio, handsfree operation, phone and the driver information screen. There are also controls for some of the driver tech. Behind it sit two large crystal-clear 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 an 8-inch display screen. It handles media, phone, navigation and some vehicle settings and unfortunately it’s controlled by Lexus’ mouse-like Remote Touch Interface. It’s one of my least favorite input devices and has never felt natural to me. In the end, once you get used to it, it does work and thankfully you don’t need to use it very often. An analog clock sits smack dab in the middle of the stack and is a classy touch.
The 15-speaker Mark Levinson audio system feeds off of any source you can think of, and it is simply a revelation. Without hesitation, I would say it is one of the best in the automotive world.
The center console starts with rotary seat heater/vent 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 and for a celebrity touch, a powered rear sunshade that you can silently raise or lower with a button.
A full suite of driver assistance technology can be found in this optioned-up model. Blind-spot monitoring, lane departure assist, dynamic radar cruise control (which works like a hot darn, by the way), front and rear parking sensors with audible and visual alerts, a rear-view camera, pre-collision system and rear cross traffic alert. That’s a lot of safety equipment, yet none of it felt intrusive during every-day driving, and perhaps that means more than the safety it affords the passengers. I’ve often felt ensconced by all these safety gadgets, yet was so distracted by the chimes and warnings and alerts that I felt better when some or all of them were turned off. Not so here.
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. The center seatback folds down to become an armrest with two cupholders in it. The side windows get sunshades – with little tiny ones for the smaller windows at the back of the door. Gimmicky but totally cool. Our kids loved them, by the way, which also means they didn’t stop playing with them.
All three of them 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 isn’t huge, but it’s certainly large enough to be useful at 342 litres. 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. For the ultimate in luxurious cargo access, the trunk has a power opening and closing feature. I’ll admit it is nice, but I felt like the laziest guy in the parking lot at the grocery store.
Under the Hood
Toyota’s familiar hybrid powerplant combines a 2.5-Liter 4-cylinder with an electric motor and the requisite battery. Lexus tells us that the combination makes 200 horsepower net and 156 lb.ft of torque. Modest numbers, it seems, to motivate a 3660 pound sedan around town – it sounds like a recipe for some sleepy 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 US mpg!) in the city, 5.1 L/100 km (46 US mpg) on the highway. Those are some very impressive numbers. I managed to squeeze a very impressive 6.4 L/100 km (37 US mpg) out of the ES, during essentially all city driving, a few short freeway trips and making no effort to conserve fuel.
The 300h gets a 65 Liter tank which would make for an excellent range in the city and on road trips.
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.
There is also a pure EV mode, allowing you to stick exclusively to electric power. Obviously this application is limited to low-speed driving and won’t last for long, but you can try to maximize your efficiency this way.
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 effective and easy enough to modulate.
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.
The feeling of quality is there throughout the entire vehicle. The switchgear and operation of lids and moveable panels throughout the vehicle are perfectly weighted and smooth.
An 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.
Yes, the bells and whistles in this full-load car are fun, but there’s plenty of great content in the “base” model, 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 chock-full of safety and luxury appointments – if you don’t mind spending the extra money on them. None of these make it a better car, but it will be more enjoyable and supposedly safe, 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. And the fuel economy speaks for itself – it’d be tough to find a vehicle this well appointed that can beat it.
Disclosure: Vehicle was provided by Lexus Canada.
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