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Motors

Lexus’s slinky hybrid scores big in the executive car park

Wednesday, 17th April, 2019 4:11pm

The ES has been around for as long as Lexus has — the original model launched at the same time as the company’s better-known LS flagship in 1989. For Ireland, though, it’s all new.

Lexus has never sold the ES in any of its previous guises here, preferring to concentrate on the GS model instead.

Now, we loved the GS — it was sharp looking and supremely comfortable to drive, but it never sold especially well, mostly because it was quite pricey compared to its German rivals. Lexus always hit back that the GS was much-better equipped as standard, and came as a hybrid while the Germans concentrated on diesel, but without the right headline price, it struggled.

The ES changes all of that at a stroke. With an entry price tag of €49,950, it’s bang-on competitive with the likes of the BMW 5 Series and Audi A6, and with interest in hybrid power booming, the new ES300h should carve out a much bigger niche for itself in the Irish market.

Well, that’s assuming that buyers can be tempted away from rear-wheel drive. Unlike the GS, which sent all its power to the rear wheels, the ES is front-wheel drive, thanks to sharing a platform and engines with the new (also hybrid) Toyota Camry.

Rear-drive was once the entry price for being taken seriously against such rivals as the 5 Series and the Mercedes E-Class, but more recently Audi (with the A6) and Volvo (with the S90) have shown that you can create an entirely credible executive car with power going to the nose.

That power comes from an updated 2.5 litre petrol engine, running on the fuel-saving Atkinson combustion cycle, and the familiar Lexus combo of an electric motor, batteries, and a CVT (continuously variable transmission).

Let’s get the CVT thing out of the way first, shall we? CVTs have traditionally been a bit of a pain, allowing the engine to bellow at peak RPM when you ask for sharp acceleration, and generally removing any sense of enthusiasm from the driving process.

Well, Lexus really does seem to have fixed that now. Yes, there is still a bit of high-rev action when you press the go pedal, but a combination of excellent sound-deadening, more input from the electric motor, and some clever electronic trickery have made the process of driving a CVT far more pleasant. This is now a wonderfully refined and smooth powertrain.

Wonderfully economical, too. Lexus (and Toyota) have worked engineering marvels in the last few years, making their hybrids as frugal to drive on the open road as they are around town, and that really shows in the ES.

You should easily be able to beat the 50mpg mark in daily driving, which is competitive with diesel rivals, and that might even improve a bit if you’re doing most of your driving around town, where you can expect to be running on just the electric motor and the batteries for as much as half your journey.

Stretching those journeys out won’t be a chore, either, such are the comfort levels of the interior. Lexus has long been renowned for its cabins, and the ES doesn’t let the side down.

The small main instrument binnacle houses a set of moveable digital dials, and they look especially smart when you select Sport Plus mode, which activates a distinctive red-and-white background. The levels of material quality are simply off-the-scale good, and the comfort levels of the seats can only be described as sumptuous. This is a car you’ll hope for heavy traffic in, just so you can relax in the cabin for that little bit longer.

The only things that let the side down are the infotainment screen (which looks a little small in its standard eight-inch version, but a massive 12 inch version is an optional extra) and the laptop-style track pad for controlling that screen, which just never feels as natural nor intuitive as it should do.

The switch to front-wheel drive has allowed Lexus to lower the structure of the ES, creating a very sleek and low-slung profile. Not everyone’s a fan of the ‘big fang’ Lexus grille, but we like it just fine and the ES really is a very handsome car indeed.

Has the front-drive switch hurt the car dynamically, though? Well, yes and no. It’s not as sharp to drive as was the old GS, but in general this is still a very satisfying car to drive.

The steering hasn’t got much feel, but it’s well weighted while the balance of the chassis is entirely neutral, until a bit of understeer begins to creep in when you’re really pressing on. The ride quality could stand to be a bit smoother, especially around town, but our F-Sport spec model was on optional 19 inch wheels, so going for a smaller rim size could cure a lot of that.

The only other trip-wire for the ES could be the simple fact that it burns petrol. While diesel might be falling out of fashion, for business users it’s still the only fuel you can claim back the VAT on, so that might swing a few potential buyers away from the Lexus, which seems rather unfair.

Whatever your thoughts on diesel versus hybrid versus petrol power, this new ES is a truly impressive machine, with wonderful refinement and comfort. About time we got a chance to buy it, eh?

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