2019 Lexus ES
ES (for Elegant Sedan) is a model designation that dates to 1989, when the ES250 arrived as a 1990 model in a supporting role for the original flagship Lexus LS400. Then, and through its first five generations, the Lexus ES was a version of the Toyota Camry, dressier but equally bland to drive. The direct Camry connection ended with the sixth-gen model, when the ES transferred to the underpinnings of the Toyota Avalon, a change that upgraded its luxury credentials but did little to add dash to its persona.
Now we have—or will have, come October—generation seven. It rides on a variation (GA-K) of the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA), which also supports the new Camry and Avalon. It’s 2.6 inches longer than the outgoing car and has a 2.0-inch-longer wheelbase; it’s also a smidge lower and 1.7 inches wider. The revised proportions radiate a sense of power and purpose, and the ES’s first ever sporty F Sport variant is available to deliver on the dynamic promise of the swoopy sheet metal.
The now familiar spindle grille is bigger, too. Whether this is a plus is up to you, although market research has obviously encouraged the design team to persist with this polarizing feature.
Citing a vast rope of structural adhesive and plenty of laser screw welding, the Lexus engineering team touts body-shell rigidity as one of several bragging points for this new model. The improvements add up to a modest 6 percent gain overall, although the engineers say this is a little misleading, in that the stiffening measures affect critical elements of the chassis—suspension pickup points, for example—more than others. It also adds up to a slight gain at the scales; how much will vary with equipment, but Lexus claims a general increase of 78 pounds for the ES350.
The slight rise in mass is more than offset by a substantial bump in output from the standard 3.5-liter V-6 that powers the ES350. Displacement is unchanged from the previous generation, but, now fed by a combined port and direct fuel-injection system, the aluminum-block six gains 34 horsepower and 19 lb-ft of torque for totals of 302 horsepower and 267 lb-ft. And it does so burning regular gasoline.
A new eight-speed automatic replaces the previous six-speed, and the net gain is more hustle when the light turns green—6.6 seconds to 60 mph, according to Lexus, or a half-second quicker than the company’s claim for the 2018 model. Judging by a day of driving rural byways south of Nashville, we have no reason to doubt this forecast. It’s likely to be proved conservative, considering that the previous model did it in 5.8 seconds in our testing, even though the responses of the paddle-shifted transmission are leisurely.
As with the previous generation, there’s also a gasoline-electric hybrid, dubbed ES300h. It uses a typical Toyota system composed of a new, narrower-bore and longer-stroke 176-hp 2.5-liter inline-four augmented by two electric motors for propulsion. The combined system output of 215 horsepower is a 15-hp improvement over the 2018 model. As in the past, Lexus favors a nickel-metal-hydride battery over lithium-ion, and the brand clearly believes the aim of a hybrid is improved fuel economy and not additional performance. A revised and more compact CVT, equipped with paddles to deliver programmed shift points, sends torque to the front wheels. Lexus says this combination should run from zero to 60 mph in the same time as the outgoing model (we measured 7.8 secondsfor that one). But Lexus’s fuel-economy estimates are impressive: 44 mpg city, 45 highway, and 44 combined, improvements of 4 mpg on the city and combined figures and a 6-mpg improvement on the highway, where few hybrids excel.
The F Sport’s steering is a particularly interesting element of the ES story. Like almost every new car, the rack-and-pinion system of the ES is electrically assisted, and in the redesign the motor moves from the steering column to the rack. Although a little more expensive to engineer and produce, this is an arrangement that usually delivers a more accurate system with a more pronounced sense of tactility. That’s definitely true of the F Sport, but not of the other versions—especially not the ES300h. Lexus engineers say they electronically tuned the system in non–F Sport models to reduce effort and feel, so as to be more appropriate for luxury customers.
Apparently, the perception that trickled down from market research is that buyers of luxury cars aren’t happy with sporty steering. We wonder if the clinics included owners of any European brands. Be that as it may, the F Sport is clearly an ES game-changer. The sporty spirit extends to the interior, which is as posh as the other members of the clan, with the addition of nicely bolstered front bucket seats—available in snappy red leather that is heated and ventilated—that would be right at home in an Audi.