The once-subdued ES hybrid sedan now earns major style points.
With the barrage of sports sedans currently on sale today wearing extra M and AMG badges, it’s easy to be overcome by performance. So when the opportunity comes along to drive a buttery-smooth pure luxury sedan that stands in contrast to the others, you appreciate every minute of it. And as old-school luxury sedans go, the increasingly modern 2019 Lexus ES 300h is a cushy alternative to Germany’s hardcore sport sedans.
Lexus' Upgraded ES:
Over the course of the six-hour road trip from Motor1.com’s Miami, Florida office to the Lexus Performance Driving School at Daytona International Speedway, the hybrid-powered ES proved a comfortable, enjoyable companion with a pleasantly smooth powertrain. Its sporty new look, meanwhile, is effectively a reset on the ES’ boring reputation.
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My ES 300h Luxury rang in at $45,200, including destination and options. The middle-tier Luxury trim starts, though, at $43,965, a $2,655 premium over the ES 300h’s $41,310 base price.
Opting for the Luxury trim brings perforated leather-trimmed seats with heating and ventilation functions up front, real wood trim, rain-sensing wipers, and a rear spoiler. Big ticket items like navigation, a Mark Levinson sound system, and extra safety goodies are packaged options that weren’t included on my test car. Navigation will set you back $1,820, while the better sound system adds $1,000 on top of the cost of the nav system. Meanwhile, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, parking assist sensors, and pedestrian detection are available as part of a $1,900 package.
The ES 300h’s, closest competitor is the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid, and its starting price of $35,995 undercuts the Lexus by more than $5,000. The loaded MKZ Black Label model, however, starts at $47,990, although it’s worth noting the Lincoln comes with an impressive array of customer service options for that price.
The 2019 model is arguably the best-looking ES ever built (although aside from the second-gen, the bar wasn’t especially high). Prior models wore plain, inoffensive bodywork and were devoid of any exterior drama. Even the last-generation car managed to be mundane, despite adopting the brand’s less-than-subtle “spindle” front grille design.
The new ES rides on the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) that underpins other Toyota products such as the Avalon, Camry, and RAV4. The new platform stretches and widens the car compared to last year’s model, and although the ES wears a disproportionately large grille up front, it seems to match the rest of the body’s lines, which are sharp and give the ES a very sleek profile. Lexus’ familial grille will remain a point of contention, but the 2019 ES marks the first time I am on board with its look.
The cabin adopts Lexus’ latest design language, inspired in large part by its halo model, the LF A, and its current grand tourer, the LC. There’s a large infotainment display atop an attractive center stack, along with attractive, interesting shapes. Nothing is terribly exciting, but the cabin also doesn’t feel like it’s trying as hard as the exterior. Soft leather covers the door panels and center console, (the main touchpoints), while sections of glossy wood run elegantly along the dash. It’s all very pleasant, especially with the hybrid model’s exclusive wood option, although our tester doesn’t carry the attractive banded wood. Some of the other small touches work (the LC-inspired aluminum door handles) while others don’t (the drive mode stalks that jut out of the instrument cluster’s cowl). Overall, though, the ES 300h gained a point for its cabin.
Interior quality and ride comfort are among the ES 300h’s strongest selling points. The center stack features a simplistic button layout, with easy-to-use climate control switches and a large volume knob. While the buttons in the center stack work well, the infotainment screen is much less friendly. More on that in a bit.
Lexus wins major points in the seat category, too. The ES’s seats, especially the front row, are remarkably plush. Heated and cooled in our Luxury trim, they were perhaps the most enjoyable part of my mini-road trip.
Though the ES’s cabin won’t win any design awards innovation, the interior is among the most comfortable in the segment. It feels roomy, giving up to five occupants reasonable space to ride comfortably. Rear seat occupants get 39.2 inches of legroom, while front seat passengers get 42.4. Only the largest occupants will complain about the ES’s seating, although, as in most sedans, the rear seat’s center position is rather cramped. The good news is that 37 inches of headroom means just about everyone has space in that department.
Noise, vibration, and harshness levels are excellent in the ES. While the engine is buzzy under hard throttle, in daily cruising it’s largely unobtrusive. There’s also a minimal amount of wind or tire noise at speed, too, which aids the ES’ road-tripping ability.
The ES features a massive 12.3-inch display placed high and proudly in the middle of the dash. The screen’s size is impressive, as are its graphics, but the touchpad controller used to navigate the system is an ergonomic travesty. Moving between icons on the wide, 12.3-inch display’s main menu becomes borderline dangerous at times, as the driver must alter their focus from the road to the dashboard-mounted screen to make sure they select the correct on-screen function.
It’s not a new gripe, but it remains a worthy one – a BMW iDrive-style wheel is the best way to navigate a non-touchscreen display. When you’re not busy cursing at the touchpad, you’ll be thanking Lexus for the inclusion of Apple CarPlay, which is especially valuable if, like my tester, the navigation package ($1,820) isn’t installed
Complementing the main screen is a digital gauge cluster that uses a setup evolutionary of the cluster used in the nearly decade-old Lexus LFA supercar. A digital rev counter sits directly ahead of the driver, flanked by two displays on either side, showing vehicle data, audio information, or navigation directions.
The ES 300h’s gasoline-electric hybrid powertrain is a polished piece. An electric motor works with a planetary gearset to expertly dole out power between the powertrain’s 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and an additional electric drive motor. With peak output of 215 horsepower (15 more than last year), the ES 300h gets off the line at a rather reserved pace. There’s enough twist from the electric motor that the ES 300h can briefly drive on electricity alone at speeds up to 35 mph (provided you’re delicate with the accelerator pedal).
Performance, however, is not a word best associated with the ES 300h. Even with its slight horsepower bump from the previous generation, the car is far from quick. It is adequate, though, especially compared to its luxury hybrid competitors like the MKZ Hybrid. Just don’t let the ES’s sleek, new look con you into thinking it's a drag-strip demon or a winding-road weapon for that matter. The steering is light and cushy, which is appropriate for the class, but ends up being a contributing factor to the ES’s overall lackluster handling.
At highway speeds, the ES is at its best. Comfortable and quiet, it soaks up each bump in the road without protest. My advice is to leave the car in Comfort mode, let the hybrid powertrain work its magic, and just cruise.
Lexus includes a number of safety features as standard with the ES. The Lexus Safety System 2.0 includes pre-collision warning, lane-centering assist, lane-departure warning with steering assist, adaptive cruise control, and automatic high beams. Autonomous emergency braking comes standard.
While that’s a well-rounded set of standard features, Lexus still makes you pay for some additional safety kit. Blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and parking assist sensors are lumped into an option package that costs $1,065. At that price, it seems well worth checking the option box. If you’d like to add a 360-degree camera system, the package price jumps to $1,900.
Though it won’t return Prius-like fuel efficiency, the ES 300h returns an EPA-rated 43 miles per gallon city, 46 highway, and 44 combined. Lincoln falls short of this mark with the MKZ Hybrid, which earns 42 mpg in the city and 39 on the highway. That said, the mechanically similar Avalon Hybrid is on the ES 300h’s heels and manages 43 mpg city, 44 highway, and 44 combined.