Serene as a summer's eve, filled with high-grade materials, and the epitome of safety and durability, Lexus ES series of entry-level executive sedans has been winning converts to the brand for three decades.
The reason is simple: value. Starting at $39,900, the ES enters the game a solid $5,000 or more below German competitors like the Mercedes-Benz E-Class and BMW 5-series, yet matches them in road manners and checks off all the boxes buyers in this niche expect: a plush and tranquil cabin, electronic sophistication, state-of-art safety, superior craftsmanship.
Plus, it's a Lexus. According to Consumer Reports, no other midsized luxury car matches it for reliability. To be fair, we think a couple of others are solid value propositions. The Genesis G80 and Lincoln MKZ both ride and drive remarkably well, though both fall a notch below the ES in fuel economy. The Genesis is more expensive than the ES, the MKZ less.
Drive and research this niche and one discovers the differences are minimal, but little things add up. Powered by a sleek 3.5-L V6, the ES 350 goes from 0-60 in 6.9 seconds (that's quick) and delivers an estimated 25 mpg. The Genesis takes 7.2 seconds and gets 20 mpg, the MKZ 7.4 seconds, and gets 23 mpg.
Hybrid clean, vigorous
For buyers concerned about fuel economy and marketing research indicates Lexus buyers most certainly are the ES 300h, for hybrid, is a head-turner. It's not as fast as the gas-powered version, taking 8.9 seconds to reach 60, which feels plenty quick, but averages around 43 mpg.
We drove a 300H and found it to be smooth, strong, and whisper-quiet, especially around town where a great deal of its work is done with electric power alone. When pushed, the 2.5L 4 is a little noisier than the V6, but the cabin is so well insulated from noise, vibration, and harshness that the engine is a minor distraction.
It was not distracting at all when we used the car's Android Audio to pump our favorite playlists through the upgraded Mark Levinson sound system. In our dotage, Child Bride and I find we prefer more complex music. Typical for Lexus, the system allows us to hear the full range symphonic interplay.
The radio matters? Yes, in this sense: As well as any luxury automaker, Lexus understands that a sense of quality proceeds from attending to all the senses. That is the heart of this car. From subtle contrast stitching to the feel of the roof liner, to the synthesized look of an asymmetric dash, the attention to detail is breathtaking, especially in a car costing less than $50,000.
That same effort is found under the hood and chassis. As with everything that comes from Toyota, systems are built to endure and to be easily serviced when the years and miles add up.
The seventh-generation ES, introduced last year, rides on the same GA-K chassis as the Camry and Avalon. It's a rigid front-wheel-drive chassis made from several grades of high-strength steel. It incorporates far more structural adhesives and robotic laser screw welds than the previous chassis. Further strengthening was applied to improve front-end stiffness including a strut tower brace, multiple reinforcement panels for the strut towers themselves, and new radiator support braces.
The suspension was reworked to improve the ride quality and straight-line stability. Dynamic control shocks react to road imperfections in milliseconds to keep the ride level.
The ES 300h hybrid drive system does a remarkable job eliminating the rubber-band feel of most hybrid systems, thanks to a control system that more closely matches engine speed with road speed to deliver a more linear feel to acceleration.
A smorgasbord of improvements was made as Lexus and Toyota continue to refine the technology that first hit the streets with the 1997 Prius.
The gas engine, which runs on 87 octane fuel, had cylinder bores narrowed and the stroke lengthened to reach an optimal (1:1.2) bore-to-stroke ratio. This improves the efficiency of fuel explosion and delivers more torque, that pleasant feeling we get when we mash down on the accelerator. Thus, with the identical displacement, Lexus wrung out 20 more hp and 12 more pound/feet of torque.
Advances in battery technology allowed Lexus to reduce the height of the nickel-metal hydride battery by nearly five inches. That let engineers move it from the trunk to under the rear seat, which increased trunk volume and an improved center of gravity and weight distribution.
"That sure is a nice-looking car," said the nice lady through her mask as she handed me two pizzas through a window.
In most situations, we do not assess exterior style since it's both obvious and subjective. In this case, though, the pizza lady got it right.
Flowing from the latest iteration of Lexus' signature grille and slit headlamps that are downright sexy, the ES has a dynamic yet fluid shape. A low hood line and acutely angled A- and C-pillars. Some advanced panel stamping gives it interesting and muscular looks at all four corners.
The car has an 0.26 drag coefficient, which is the slipperiest thing this side of a garter snake. That's another reason the ES has great fuel economy, the result of a complex logarithm whose single greatest variable is drag.
Not mass? No, an object in motion tends to stay in motion.
No car is perfect and there are a couple of nits we pick with the ES.
One is Lexus continues to use a center-mounted trackpad that is difficult to master and downright distracting while the car is in motion. Every Lexus reviewer brings up this point and we think it is fair. Usually, we don't critique switchgear, on the assumption that an owner will quickly become accustomed to it, but we spend a lot of time in Lexuses, and we still are not comfortable with it.
Another is that although Lexus offers a complete, and well-executed suite of driver-assist features, blind-spot monitoring is an option. It needs to be standard on this car, narrow side mirrors are attractive, but the blind spots are huge. Our tester came with the system, and twice it told me about cars in adjacent lanes that were otherwise invisible to me.
Finally, we noted that the beautifully sloping C-pillars impinge on the rear headroom. If you buy one of these and want to take another couple to dinner, it's gonna be boys up front, girls in the rear.
Bottom line: Best-in-Class goes to Lexus ES series.